Weddings, funerals, Thanksgiving and the rest: These are the occasions that typically bring us together, which must be why The Climb — Michael Angelo Covino’s bristling new comedy — uses them to wedge two men apart. Take the title at face value: Uphill battles are the spine and central pleasure of this movie. The Climb stars Covino as Mike, a man intent on perpetuating his own emotional self-destruction, and Kyle Marvin as Kyle, the wet noodle unlucky enough to be Mike’s best friend. This is not an odd couple. For reasons obvious and inarguable, but also baffling and mysterious, these men seem to need and depend on each other.
Which isn’t to say that they’re good for each other. Covino and Marvin — real-life friends, who in addition to being its co-stars are the film’s co-writers — have made a movie about the magnetic repulsions of a tragically funny male friendship, a graceless yet enduring tie between two guys whose own worst enemies are themselves. It’s an up-down, push-pull kind of movie. It’s also a thwarted love story. If only these men had a healthier love language than, say, sleeping with the other man’s fiancé; if only either man had any measure of self-love. Then again, if that were the case, we wouldn’t have this movie.
Which would mean that we wouldn’t get to feel as uncomfortable, anxious, amused, and confounded as The Climb, in its finest moments, manages to make us feel all at once. Cringe comedy’s premise is that old wisdom about train wrecks and why we can’t help but stop and stare despite ourselves, and Covino and Marvin’s movie is a convincing case in point. Again, take the title at face value. Because that’s how it starts: with a steep bike ride through a mountainous French countryside on one man’s wedding eve — a bit of insurance, as it turns out, for when the bomb drops, and the less fit of the two, the one receiving the news, is downhill and lagging behind with no chance of catching up. Poor sap. The bomb in question is that bit of aforementioned news about the fiancé. And when the guy sleeping around with your fiancé — who knows all about that “hip thing” she does — is your best man? That’s infidelity on two impossible fronts.
Luckily (?), this point turns out to be moot, as betrayals go, because it was destined to be a short marriage: The somehow still-eventual wife will be dead by the next scene. And these two hopeless men will be pushed back into each other’s orbit again… and again when another marriage looms on the horizon, and yet again when that marriage — and the tenuously reconciled friendship — are put to the test. Clearly, this friendship is rotten at the core. But one of the great accomplishments of The Climb is that it has a merry time with the men’s miseries without obscuring the odd pains and failures sustaining it all.
The movie is unexpectedly broad and stylish, with self-aware musical interludes and a cast that grows unexpectedly large (including a great turn from the sharp and enthrallingly unpredictable Gayle Rankin, who plays Marissa, the second fiancé). The script pivots on big events, family affairs like holidays, and leaps forward through this friendship by focusing on the things that might force them into a room together. It’s all pretty conspicuous — the style most of all. Starting with the very first scene of that uphill climb in France, Covino largely tells this story through long, single takes in which the camera at times seems to have a mind of its own, wending through every scene in long streams of displeasure, betrayal, and discontent.
It’s showy, sure, and effortful at times, but there’s opportune comedy here, and the filmmakers know it. These men are lost, but the camera isn’t. Those long takes make you feel trapped: slowed-down and hindered by scenes which, for their abundance of neuroses and emotional sleights, you’ll want to escape. Well, you can’t. The best scenes here (the opening number; a pair of holiday scenes at the center) are lessons in making an audience wait for the other shoe to drop. Rarely have I so badly craved a punchline, a cut, a flash-forward — anything. Instead, you get something closer to an overwhelming pile-on, a growing heap of bad decisions and letdown that make you want to scream at the screen, horror movie-style.
It all has a hilarious way of rendering these men into the story’s heroes and victims in equal measure. They’re the movie’s focus, on one hand. And yet they somehow feel cosmically unimportant. Tractors and a union dispute disrupt their funeral. One man saves the other’s life, and it still doesn’t save the friendship. The movie sometimes feels a little caught up in its own virtuosity. But the actors, Covino and Marvin — a sentient grenade and spineless but loving worm, respectively — keep it lively and make it meaningful. If the movie succeeds in surpassing the exercise it easily could have been, it’s because of them.