Neighborhood Food Drive

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/26/17 12:43:33

"Right impulses, tricky to get done."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 19: "Neighborhood Food Drive" spends a lot of time taking aim at fairly easy targets, but they’re deserving targets and director Jerzy Rose scores some direct hits. It makes for a comedy that is not quite so delightfully vicious as Roses’s previous film ("Crimes Against Humanity"), but which is certainly able to score some points with those who enjoy watching clueless people get themselves into trouble.

There are two pairs of such people here. Madeline Bruhnhauer (Lyra Hill) and Naomi Florida (Bruce Bundy) have recently opened a new restaurant, “Ciao”, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park area, and even if business were great, they’d still be getting reviews that point out that their fancified and expensive “comfort food” offerings don’t exactly match the character of the neighborhood. How to give back? A food drive! They bring on college undergraduate Bianca Pentecost (Ruby McCollister) as an unpaid intern to coordinate it, possibly unaware that she’s the girlfriend of their waiter Steven Hughes (Marcos Barnes), and that the pair is doing a weird sort of counseling thing with one of their professors (Ted Tremper).

A funny bit early on has somebody with experience in running food drives laying out exactly why this sort of event is a bad idea in practical terms, a fine deadpan gag in and of itself but one that becomes the setup for something surreal as this has the potential to haunt the characters. Presuming, of course, that they can feel haunted - the characters are almost all fairly self-centered and a little too self-aware, from the way Bianca and Steven are analyzing their relationship minutely when they should be winging it to how Maddie’s attempts to calm the high-strung Naomi are fairly practiced and clinical. Those two will even repeat the film’s title like a mantra at times, something that comes off as half what these guys would do and half Rose and co-writers Halle Butler & Mike Lopez being quite aware of their film’s artificiality.

Of course, just because Rose is playing the movie that way doesn’t mean that’s necessarily the way the cast should go, as much as there’s a certain detachment in the characters’ make-up, the actors have to find something sincere - and they do, mostly. Bruce Bundy and Lyra Hill, for example, work together very well because they aren’t just playing the woman who has exaggerated freak-outs and the one who reassures her, but because there are moments when one can see how Naomi might occasionally be the check on Maddie blithely moving forward, even if it doesn’t happen that often here because it wouldn’t be as funny. In the other pairing, Marcos Barnes is mostly a capable straight man not terribly invested in any of what’s going on, but Ruby McCollister makes Bianca the Sprite served alongside a meal that has pretensions of sophistication, bouncing energetically through scenes in a way that gets the audience behind her, moving fast enough and not stumbling so that she seems bright until she does something dumb. McCollister makes those dumb moves seem far more inexperience than inability, and that’s how the audience cares about someone who is as much of a trainwreck as the rest of the crew.

Rose harnesses that energy (whichever character it’s coming from at the moment) and makes sure to play it off someone who seems a lot more reasonable at the time, and he’s impressively able to do so while only creating a few dead spots, despite seldom undermining the feel of the film by quite turning the pace up to “snappy”. The mannered delivery is, admittedly, something that can be a bit much by the end of the film, as can the disdain that the film and filmmakers often seem to have for their characters. Fortunately, when he’s mean, it’s focused rather than general misanthropy, with gluttony being the main sin punished, with arrogance seeming like a sort of gluttony where praise is concerned.

Indeed, "Neighborhood Food Drive" is at its best when it hits gluttony hard, far more wobbly when it goes for general absurdity - though, in retrospect, it’s the sort of comedy that digests better than it tastes, as the sense of things being thin comes to be a reflection of the characters rather than the overall quality. Even when it’s not hitting the exact right note, it’s funny more often than not, especially if you like your comedy a bit on the mean side.

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