Film Review: Douchebag

A Sundance favorite that falls somewhere between the mature polish of <i>Sideways </i>and the mumblecore scruffiness of Mark and Jay Duplass&#8217; slyly insightful <i>The Puffy Chair</i>, this indie comedy-drama revolves around an impromptu road trip tha

Scruffy, self-righteous vegetarian/green activist/low-carbon-footprint proselytizer Sam Nussbaum (co-writer Andrew Dickler, a film editor making his acting debut) is getting married to the level-headed, sweet-natured Steph (Marguerite Moreau), who’s puzzled by the conspicuous absence from the guest list of his younger brother, artist Tom (Ben York Jones). They had a bitter falling out years ago, Sam says; the trigger was a dog named Angela, but they were never close and neither has tried to mend the rift.

Steph, who believes strongly in the importance of family, secretly persuades the reluctant Tom to attend and drives him down to the Los Angeles house she and Sam share a few days before the wedding.

Sam needles Tom from the moment he arrives, mocking him for taking financial help from their parents so he can continue making “doodles” rather than support himself like a grownup. The fact that Tom has snagged his first gallery show prompts nothing but a snide remark about “bigger doodles.”

Stressed by both last-minute wedding preparations and the palpable antagonism between the brothers, Steph encourages Tom to go along with Sam’s offbeat brainstorm that Tom should track down his fifth-grade sweetheart, Mary Barger, and invite her to the wedding as his date. There are three Mary Bargers living between L.A. and Palm Springs, and Sam insists that the only right way to find out which is Tom’s childhood flame is to visit each one—you can’t just tackle something this important over the phone, he insists in a tone that brooks no discussion.

What Sam swears will be a daylong trip—overnight at the most—stretches to several days, and though the word “douchebag” is never uttered, it’s immediately clear which of the brothers to whom it refers. By the time they get around to discussing the reason they haven’t seen each other in two years, the suspicions of viewers with working bull detectors will have been thoroughly vindicated.

The vulgar but attention-getting title of director/co-writer Drake Doremus’ second feature—which could just as well have been called “Asshole,” “Dickhead,” “Scumbag” or a host of other familiar epithets—might limit the commercial prospects of a more mainstream movie, but the minimalist Douchebag was clearly destined from the start to play art houses and independent venues, where its small virtues will doubtless find a sympathetic audience. Foremost among those virtues is a trio of excellent performances: The aptly named Dickler has the showiest part and plays it for all it’s worth—you start wanting to slap him silly about ten minutes in—but Moreau and Jones (whose prior credits amount to some shorts and a little-seen feature, Dormeus’ 2009 debut Spooner) bring considerable depth and subtlety to the quietly beleaguered Steph and introspective, deeply wounded Tom.

That said, the story is too slight even for so short a movie, and the spectacle of Sam’s escalating bad behavior is neither sufficiently interesting nor nuanced to justify the tentatively redemptive payoff. He’s a spectacular jerk and his antics are occasionally darkly funny, but the smug, volatile immaturity that underlies Sam’s bullying hypocrisy lacks both resonance and internal logic. Older viewers can easily recall waves of inarticulate emotion like those that buffet The Puffy Chair’s young adults, while twenty-somethings can see how people just like them evolved into the middle-aged malcontents of Sideways. Douchebag plays squarely to an arrested-development demographic mired in its own navel-gazing.