Film Review: Bernard and HueyTwo old friends prowl for new dates in a dark comedy based on a rediscovered Jules Feiffer script.
Bernard and Huey just dropped by, and you may have to get out that Hazmat suit. Because the toxic masculinity is strong with these two.
Bernard is the kind of guy who’s closing in on 50, but still dresses like a 24-year-old barista. He’s obsessed with younger women and remains so terrified of commitment he still hasn’t furnished his apartment. His pal Huey is rude, bald, fat and likes to rate the women he sleeps with. He always manages to find someone to sleep with, too, possibly because he asks every woman he meets.
So, now’s your chance. Run.
If you stick around for Bernard and Huey, though, the movie starring these two winners, you will learn a bit more about them—little of it good but most of it honest. It’s a film which understands who these men are, and even accepts them, with all their ugly frailties. Whether you’ll come around to its charitable point of view is another question.
The darkness of the comedy isn’t surprising, as the characters spring from a series of classic Jules Feiffer cartoons for the Village Voice—and the movie comes from a script Feiffer wrote decades ago, then put away. And while the screenplay is lighter than the one he wrote for Mike Nichols’ brilliant Carnal Knowledge, the subject is very much the same—the long-term friendship of two men on the make, and the story of the women they’ve unmade along the way.
Although there are constant flashbacks to the duo’s young single days in the ’80s, the film focuses on today, with both friends—out of touch for years—reconnecting. Now, though, their roles seem to have changed. Nerdy Bernard has a duplex, a job in publishing and a relatively steady girlfriend. Cocky Huey is “on the lam,” and alienated from virtually everyone. But as he wheedles his way back into Bernard’s life, the old—and completely lopsided—power dynamics re-emerge.
Feiffer was always a thoughtful writer, and at its best, his screenplay zeroes in on the complicated question of charisma. What is it that Huey has? Besides, perhaps, raw stamina? (One satisfied hookup confides he can “go for hours.”) Why does he inspire all this undeserved hero worship? Bernard confesses he broke up with the one true love of his life in hopes of impressing him. Even Huey’s older brother looked up to him.
Significantly, Huey was oblivious to all of it.
It’s an occasionally arresting portrait of male insecurities (and the bravado and braggadocio used to cover them up), but Feiffer falters when it comes to painting portraits of the women here, none of whom seem to have any life outside of these men. Even when we cut away from Bernard and Huey to give a female co-star a closeup, the subject remains the same. It’s like the old joke about bad first dates—“But enough about me. What do you think about me?”
And director Dan Mirvish can’t seem to find a way to flesh this all out, emotionally or visually. The film was shot inexpensively—Kickstarter played a role in the funding process—and the constraints show. There are only a few locations, and once we go inside, the cinematography gets cramped. The flashbacks to the protagonists’ ’80s heydays have no sense of period and the few attempts to break up pages of dialogue with some action—chiefly, sped-up footage of New York City—add nothing.
David Koechner and Jim Rash play Huey and Bernard, respectively, and it’s a good opportunity for both. Koechner mostly gets supporting parts as blowhards in movies like Anchorman; Rash, a sometime writer who won an Oscar for The Descendants, is usually stuck in the background, too. But frankly, neither man is particularly attractive or even vaguely charming, and it’s difficult to understand how they manage to keep steadily mating. (Jack Nicholson was a creep in Carnal Knowledge, too, but at least he was still Jack Nicholson.)
The dialogue itself is sharp and occasionally witty, albeit in a bleak sort of way—again, not surprising for Feiffer. Yet while it never demands we have sympathy for these two, even the acceptance the film asks for seems like a bit much. Huey is indeed “a pig,” (as his own daughter, played by Mae Whitman, declares at the start). And Bernard’s self-pitying complaints that women always fall for “bad boys” is just another kind of misogyny, assuming women want to be mistreated. If these guys are catches, please, throw them back.
“I can’t decide which one of you is more narcissistic,” one exasperated woman tells the two friends. Neither can we. But we are sure of this—they deserve each other.
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