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Crimes Against Humanity
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by Jay Seaver

"Making mountains out of molehills for amoral merriment."
4 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 16: Even by black comedy standards, "Crimes Against Humanity" is kind of on the mean side. That's no knock; mean can work, especially in a movie like this that is more about tying jokes together than building to one thing - especially if it's got some pretty good jokes.

A lot of the rancor comes from Lewis Henry (Mike Lopez), whom we first meet passively-aggressively reminding his girlfriend Brownie (Lyra Hill) that he's off to work and maybe she should work on that. Said job is as an assistant to the dean at a local university, where he's having a grand time acting as a liaison to a private eye (Adam Paul) investigating something untoward in the ethnomusicology department. While he's doing that, Brownie has her first bit of just terrible luck, and while there may seem to be a silver lining in how it connects her with similarly-troubled Rory (Ted Temper), things are going to get much worse for her.

How bad? Well, that would be spoiling things, but make no mistake, writer/director Jerzy Rose has a cruel streak, and some of the indignities he and co-writer Halle Butler visit upon the cast are the actual literal epitomes of random ill fortune. They're still funny, though, in part because every character has had some trait or another exaggerated to the point where it is kind of annoying. Sure, it's kind of being a jerk for Lewis, but Brownie's tendency toward helplessness does make a dent in how sweet she can be. Even the straight men whose job it is to kind of talk sense to the lunatics around them push it too far, so it's kind of fun to see them take a literal or figurative beating, even if it is comically out of proportion.

Besides, there's a bit of truth to how overwrought these characters are. The title is not a direct reference to the old saw about how the rivalries and grudges in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so very small, but it comes from the same place. It's comedy based on pettiness, which gives the audience a chance to laugh at just about everyone in the movie, but also gives them enough potential affection for these people that there is still some hope that somebody will learn a valuable lesson by the end. They are, after all, just weak rather than monsters.

Even with that, it would be easy for any character to drift toward the audience's bad side if the cast weren't hitting their targets. They're big targets, so the actors thankfully don't have to hit them with surgical precision, which means that Mike Lopez can get a good laugh even if he misses the exact form of jackassery that Lewis would be displaying one or twice. He does find the right one a lot more often, especially when paired with Adebukola Bodunrin, playing a somewhat simple-minded but likable assistant to Adam Paul's P.I. But for as much as Lopez is the one who gets the most screen time, Lyra Hill's Brownie is the heart of the movie, going from a comedic punching bag to someone whose genuine confusion over the insanity of her life can have an effect on the audience without upending the general feeling of anarchy too much.

The movie, after all, would collapse in retrospect if things got too touchy-feely. Instead, Rose does a great job of making funny mountains out of molehills, keeping things brisk and punchy enough that we never get truly disgusted enough to stop laughing.

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originally posted: 04/13/14 16:03:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Slamdance Film Festival For more in the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2014 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Jerzy Rose

Written by
  Halle Butler
  Jerzy Rose

  Mike Lopez
  Lyra Hill
  Ted Tremper
  Adebukola Bodunrin
  Adam Paul
  Salome Chasnoff

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