Here's a film that has no distribution, and so far, that seems to have generated very little press buzz at the festival, but if the right company steps in, "Barry Munday" feels like a "Juno"-sized hit just waiting to happen, a crowd-pleaser with a big heart, sincere and silly and featuring a career-changing performance from Patrick Wilson. I have a feeling I have not heard the last of "Barry Munday."
There are few experiences that compare to walking into a festival film with no knowledge of what you're about to see, then reeling out the other end feeling like you've got a secret you want to share with everyone. "Barry Munday" is based on a novel called Life Is A Strange Place by Frank Turner Hollon, and it's got a denseness of character that makes it feel like a book. That's one of the things that helps when adapting from a novel... you get so much to draw from, and adaptation is a reductive process, gradually carving away all the things you don't want to get to the particular thing you do. The shift in title, from a general description of theme to a specific character's name, signals the intent of writer/director Chris D'Arienzo quite clearly. This is a man on a journey towards some sort of place in the world, and in playing the role, Patrick Wilson does more onscreen in this one film to convince me of his genuine gift as a performer than he's been allowed to do in his last five movies combined. Which is not to say I've thought he was a bad actor before this... it's just that you don't often find a role like Barry Munday.
At the start of the film, Barry is sort of a meathead goofball, rolling through life on the surface only, scoring just enough with chicks to feel normal, working a job that pays him just enough to be satisfied, and hanging out with friends who never challenge him at all. It's a perfect life for someone who wants to die alone and leave no trace of having ever existed. There's a horrible incident in a movie theater involving a trumpet and Mae Whitman that leaves Barry in a hospital, both of his testicles removed as a result. And in trying to pick up and move on with his life, Barry begins a transformation into a worthwhile person, the cartoon of the first part of the film falling away to reveal someone of substance.
Losing both of your testicles should be enough drama for any one movie, but shortly after that happens, Barry is contacted by a lawyer representing Ginger Farley (Judy Greer), who claims that Barry is the father of her unborn child. He doesn't remember her at all, even after meeting her again, and the question of his paternity is one that lingers throughout the film. No matter. Barry decides to be involved, offering Ginger financial support and also asking to play a role in the pregnancy. In doing so, he becomes a part of Ginger's life, and that means also getting to know her family, and that gives D'Arienzo a chance to etch even more eccentrics, with Cybill Shephard, Malcom McDowell, and Chloe Sevigny all doing solid supporting work that can be both broad and hilarious at times and nuanced and real at others.
That tightrope walk is what makes "Barry Munday" such a pleasure. D'Arienzo has a real command of tone here, and he's able to paint some outrageous characters, but always make them feel genuine underneath their outlandish surface. Wilson's comic performance reveals a knack for physical comedy I've never seen from him before. Even the way Barry walks speaks volumes about who he is both before and after his accident. His best friend and bar buddy Donald (Shea Whigham) is outrageously drawn, and I love how we always seem to cut away to him in the midst of the strangest activities, like an air guitar championship, and how casually even the weirdest beats in the film are presented. Billy Dee Williams charms in a small role as Barry's boss, Malcolm McDowell's giant lumpy weird head is used to magnificent effect as he glowers at Barry when Ginger brings him home to meet her family, and even Chloe Sevigny seems light and charming here. Jean Smart plays Barry's mom, and she offers up the most grounded performance in the film, a lifetime of bad experience making her cautious in the advice she offers Barry. When she finally lets loose some parental pride, it's affecting precisely because Smart makes it feel earned. She loves Barry, but until the events of this film, it's clear she's never really been proud of him, and it's a release for both of them.
Judy Greer has been almost criminally underutilized by Hollywood, precisely because she's not conventionally attractive. Make no mistake... Judy Greer is a beautiful woman, but unconventional, and the way she plays Ginger, she doesn't set up the typical "take her glasses off and suddenly she's beautiful" lead in a romantic comedy. Ginger's got some serious issues, and her relationship with Barry is a tentative one, the steps along the way adding up to a love that feels earned, not simply the result of screenwriting formula. That's hard to pull off, and it's just one of the many ways that "Barry Munday" delivers. Photographed in a bright, clean, pop cartoon palette, featuring a great song score, and briskly paced with both the laughs and the tears, "Barry Munday" is a treat for audiences, and for some lucky distributor, it's going to be a slam-dunk of a pick-up.
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