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Dave Made a Maze
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by Jay Seaver

"Well, can't use 'cardboard' as a negative here, can I?"
5 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 19: I'm a tiny bit worried that "Dave Made a Maze" will come across as saying that some people just shouldn't try to make art when I inevitably revisit it, as that theme is certainly there to an extent even if the experience of watching the movie tends to focus on just the opposite: It's joyously creative in the moment, with hilariously low-fi wonders around every corner, so it certainly should be received as a wonderfully absurd adventure.

It's off-kilter from the start, when Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) gets home from a trip to see that her boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) has built a labyrinth out of cardboard boxes in their living room, and seems to have gotten himself lost inside - but don't make a new entrance with box-cutters, because he worked so hard, and do not come in after him. She calls their friend Gordon (Adam Busch) for help, and he calls everyone else they know, because, come on, this is hilarious. So soon it's like a party, and Annie decides to go in after him, followed by Gordon, super-close couple Greg (Timothy Norwind) & Brynn (Stephanie Allynne), highly-enthusiastic Jane (Kirsten Vangsness), older burnout Leonard (Scott Krinsky), documentary filmmaker Harry (James Urbaniak), his crew, a couple of Flemish tourists… They all fit, without even stooping over, because it's much bigger on the inside than the outside.

They may not all get out, because it is filled with deadly traps.

And a minotaur.

Mostly, though, it's wall-to-wall cardboard wonders which one could see as a spectacular rebuke to movies that spend millions upon millions of dollars on incredibly elaborate worlds that elicit no wonder or excitement. Filmmaker Bill Watterson and his art department (led by Trisha Gum, John Sumner, and Jeff White) are having none of that; while they may be making their sets and props out of the most basic material they can find, there's a sense of delight and discovery with each new room, with each shot a model of clarity while the detail work speaks to Dave's obsession in creating it without being visually overwhelming - it will look good on big and small screens. And, just when one might feel that they've gotten used to the madness, Watterson and the crew will pull out something new and delightfully absurd, getting a big laugh even if it is sort of violent.

That would be enough reason to watch, even for folks who talk a good game about visuals not mattering without a good script - it's only 80 minutes long and has a new treat every five, which would seem worth the time and a couple buck - but the good news is that, while this thing may not necessarily be deep, Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears come at the whole film with the same care and affection as the props and sets. Watterson is good at holding a deadpan reaction shot for just the right length of time and letting that rhythm allow the viewer to get comfortable until a sudden surprise. They know a story like this needs a core, and they're clever enough to build what the characters must do around that need without making that self-referentiality into a sort of detached irony: A late sequence built around this works emotionally as well on top of advancing the plot and serving as meta-commentary, and the madness of Dave's creation is contrasted by Harry's often-soulless filmmaking. Even the general theme of Dave's desire to create something winds up being richer than it looks, flexible enough to be about general frustration with being uninspired or finding one's niche.

And while Nick Thune does a fine job of pulling those emotions from Dave without sacrificing comedy for authenticity, the best part of his performance is how it meshes with Meera Rohit Kumbhani as Annie. Kumbhani could have just made her the capable, sardonic heroine without many being disappointed but in a way, that's the easy thing, and doesn't give the audience as much as the wonder and delight she'll often show as the group makes their way through the labyrinth. There's a bit of pride in her expression in those moments, and she never lets the audience forget that Annie cares greatly about Dave, whether in her mounting discomfort at how the party is about making fun of him or how her freakouts always pull back from anger. Most adventure comedies like this will include a perfunctory love story; this one's has a lot more offhand showing than telling.

They're also surrounded by a lot of folks who may be playing simple characters but execute their jokes perfectly. James Urbaniak is probably the most familiar face and plays the dry, tunnel-visioned Harry with comic precision, varying his Joe-Friday delivery just enough to make what is often the same joke kill each time. Adam Busch gets the sarcastic gags, Scott Krinsky gets the weird takes, and the rest are similarly on their game. They play off each other as well with great comic timing, even amid the more physical comedy.

So, why don't you just forget that alternate take on its themes up there? Even if you can twist it to seem otherwise, "Dave Made a Maze" is a funny, delightful burst of creativity, delivering on its goofy promise without pause.

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originally posted: 05/05/17 00:44:26
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