Film Review: Uncle Nick

Set on Christmas Eve, 'Uncle Nick' is a dark family drama with heavy-handed thematic connections and crudeness to spare, which despite itself manages to be vivid and memorable.
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Uncle Nick is an excessively coarse, totally unfunny (though it dubs itself a comedy), and thematically overstated Christmas movie. Nonetheless, it’s not devoid of interest and reveals a spark of originality that is rare in the plethora of slick, high-budget, star-studded films timed with the holiday season (read: Love the Coopers). In the end, Uncle Nick, marking director Chris Kasick’s feature debut, is haunting despite its serious flaws.

As the title makes clear, this one is about an uncle, though there’s nothing avuncular about Nick (Brian Posehn), a bitter, beer-bellied, foul mouthed/minded, gross and gratuitously lewd figure of a man who accepts a Christmas Eve invitation from his ne’er-do-well, sleazy younger brother Cody (Beau Ballinger) and his newly acquired family that includes an older, well-heeled cougar wife, Sophie (Paget Brewster), her oversexed—way oversexed—teenage daughter, Valerie (Melia Renee), and her nerdy, computer-geek son, Marcus (Jacob Houston). The party also hosts Nick and Cody’s crass sister Michelle (Missi Pyle) and her husband Kevin (Scott Adsit), a benign bore who makes his living conducting dull-as-dishwater podcasts that he talks about as frequently as possible.

Predictably, the Yuletide meal degenerates quickly and ultimately spirals out of control as Nick, fueled by rage and alcohol, bullies his brother and attempts to seduce his step-niece. (These trysts are joyless and vulgar.) Meanwhile, old and not-so-old family secrets erupt. But in this universe—and it’s a refreshing antidote to what’s become the received wisdom—airing long-buried resentments does not clear the air, but stinks it up, and no one feels better for getting it off his/her chest.

Set on the outskirts of Cleveland, the film is a memory play—Uncle Nick’s memory—and he narrates his own story. He has taken over his late dad’s landscaping business out of a sense of obligation to his father’s memory; his mother, now in a nursing home and afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, and Cody, whom he supported through a failed college career. For all his hard work, he lives alone in a squalid one-room apartment overflowing with junk. He almost had a girlfriend—and was on the cusp of falling in love with her, or so he believes in retrospect—when she died in his bed and he discovered her befouled corpse the next morning. His closest confidant is his Latino employee (Joe Nunez), whom he falsely believes is his buddy and manages to alienate thanks to his ill-founded presumptions.

Kasick and screenwriter Mike Demski have created a clearly delineated, quirky blue-collar subculture not usually seen onscreen, and Posehn is wholly credible as a sorry character whose future will probably be as bleak as his past. However, they are less successful with the film’s structure.

Throughout, Uncle Nick compares his life in general and the disastrous family gathering in particular to the now-infamous 1974 baseball game between the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers that devolved into a headline-making brawl among players and hundreds of viewers in the stand, some of whom poured onto the field, including a bare-breasted woman running across the diamond and a naked man streaking in her wake.  The ten-cent beers that were sold to anyone and everyone that night played a major part in the chaos that ensued, not unlike the uncontrolled drinking at the Christmas repast. As Uncle Nick equates the escalating family strife to the 1974 game (scenes of the latter are interspersed throughout), chapter headings flash across the screen—e.g., “Inning Seven: Game Slipping Away,” “Inning Eight: Out of Control,” “Inning Nine: Bases Loaded,” etc., etc—to indicate what will follow in the next scene as the family moves towards implosion.

The comparison is strained and the narrative’s punch line—why that particular game was significant to Uncle Nick—just doesn’t work. Nonetheless, some of the film’s imagery is powerful and the story lingers after the final credits have faded to black.

A quibble: Cody likens Sophie’s home to the imagined coupling (though it’s stated in far cruder terms) of Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware. Sophie proudly points to her Crate & Barrel dishes. No way. The old-fashioned and oppressive furniture, furnishings and housewares featured on this set never saw the inside of one of the aforementioned trendy stores.

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