' ' Cinema Romantico: International Falls

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

International Falls

“International Falls” opens with Ruthie (Jessie Sherman), manning the front desk of a motel in the eponymous Minnesota border town, gifting her co-worker Dee (Rachael Harris) one of those How to Perform Stand-Up Comedy books. It’s a little on the nose in conveying Dee’s dream, but there is nevertheless something about how Harris plays the moment that still makes it work, this kind of veiled annoyance portraying this as not the first time someone has bought her such a book. In a town as small as International Falls, your private dream can’t help but become public, though what Dee needs is not assistance off the bookstore clearing rack but lived-in experiences this moment at the front desk does not seem to suggest is possible. Then Tim Fletcher (Rob Huebel), a road comic performing at the local comedy club, walks through the doors and everything changes.

The emergent irony is that Dee and Tim share an arc, she’s just at the beginning of it and he’s at the end. She has come to realize her doofy husband Gary (Matthew Glave), skewing a little close to Gopher State stereotype, is cheating on her and that she wants to stop watching standup comics perform and perform herself. Tim, meanwhile, is going through a divorce, losing custody of his son and seeing the flame of standup comedy extinguish right before his eyes. In another movie called “International Falls”, the town itself would become the catalyst for change, reconfiguring Tim’s worldview, making Dee realize what she has. But director Amber McGinnis’s movie, based off a script by Thomas Ward which is on his own play, sees things with more grim clarity, including the town, mocking that simpleminded idea by having Tim wryly deem International Falls “a charming little Christmas town”, like it’s the Bizarro World version of a Hallmark Christmas movie. True, McGinnis is a little too reliant on characters literally saying “It’s cold” rather than imbuing the film with that sense of an overpowering chill, but she also presents the place matter-of-factly and without the kind of kitchen sink lyricism of too many American indies. 

So, if the town isn’t the catalyst, what is? It’s Dee, mentally acting out against Gary, going back to Tim’s room after he bombs his first stand-up set and, ah, pleasuring him, even though this scene is decidedly short on pleasure. Filmed in that harsh kind of motel light, it’s mechanical, weird, pitiful. But it’s also the movie actively rejecting any kind of staid romance for these characters while also showing them laid bare, willing to confess anything now that they’ve gotten that out of the way. Indeed, Tim, despite his defeatist, self-deprecating attitude, perfectly embodied by Huebel and his patented, perfect Eeyore voice, becomes an unlikely mentor to Dee, in comedy, yes, but also life. When Gary calls the motel looking for his wife, Tim takes the phone and lets Gary have it, the best scene in the movie, evoking this strange but wonderful let’s-lay-all-our-cards-on-the-table honesty. It also goes to show what must have made Tim a decent road comic at some point in the past, his ability to fight back.

Standup comedy, however, strangely gets the shrift. Though it is ostensibly of overriding importance, it also winds up on the backburner. Ward’s play apparently blended Tim and Dee’s conversations with Tim’s standup act, sounding reminiscent of the early episodes of “Seinfeld”, demonstrating how life affects comedy and vice-versa. Though that happens here occasionally, and only early in the film, the device never really works, hampered by the fact that Tim has essentially given up, which rather than unleashing sorrowful, enlightening truth in his comedy merely comes across aggressively unfunny. At the same time, though, it underlines his ostensible dime store truth that comedy is something akin to just being you, telling your truth, like it’s something that Tim lost along the way and Dee is now gaining in his presence, finally honing in on truths that no How to Write Stand-Up Comedy book could ever explain. She finally takes the stage near movie’s end, where Harris finds just the right balance of awkward and funny, as someone’s first ever standup set probably would, finding her way by getting personal. It’s not Tig Notaro’s I Have Cancer set, but what is?

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