The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival.
In the 1990s, the term “indie comedy” described a mode of production. Unlike bigger-budget Hollywood productions, the indie comedy was more humble. The stars were smaller, the shooting schedules tighter. This level of filmmaking was perfect for up-and-coming directors like David O. Russell, Richard Linklater, and Wes Anderson to cut their teeth and carve out a recognizable style. Like the New Hollywood did in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, this Indie movement birthed some of our most important contemporary directors.
In the mid-2000s, something changed. The “indie comedy” no longer pertained to budget or production limitations; instead, it described a new, specific genre. Irreverent humor, quirky music, and episodic narratives were present in the majority of comedic Sundance darlings. While decent films, Little Miss Sunshine and Juno speak more to a hipster-friendly “house style” than to directorial voice.
With Fits and Starts, short filmmaker and screenwriter Laura Terruso makes her directorial debut and hits all the notes of a paint-by-numbers modern indie comedy. The film tells the story of David (Wyatt Cenac), a writer struggling to climb out from beneath his successful wife’s shadow. Also a writer, Jennifer (Greta Lee) goes by the pen name J.M. Lee and dazzles the New York elite at book readings and writer’s retreats. During a rural trip to a swanky shindig, David loses his wife in the wilds of Connecticut and must suffer the smug intellectualism of the New England artistic intelligentsia. He’s left to contend with Hare Krishnas painting explicit cartoons, a sexually explorative literary agent, and a foul-mouthed opera singer, among others.
For the most part, the film plays out like a collection of comic vignettes with little narrative connection. For the first half of Fits and Starts, David and Jennifer struggle to find a bottle of wine. The first store is closed, and they soon realize that alcohol isn’t sold on Sundays in Connecticut. These mundane obstacles are charming, but do nothing to drive the film forward. Between these realizations, the two engage in amusing, expository conversations about their relationship. Likewise, in the latter half of the film, David is worried about his missing wife, but takes the time to awkwardly meet the other partygoers. The film has an intermittent pacing, oscillating between plot and comedy.
Strangely, more than halfway through the film, Terruso begins to employ the flashback in an attempt to flesh out David and Jennifer. These scenes offer welcome information, such as how the couple met and their happier moments at home, but this narrative device comes out of nowhere, too late in the film, and disjoints the narrative even further. Fits and Starts sometimes seems unable to handle character, story, and motivation at the same time.
Terruso’s history with short-form filmmaking is obvious in the flow of the film, but her experience with shorts becomes an asset in singular beats, and she is able to find some truly funny moments. David’s dealings with a snooty writer, Daniel (Louis Cancelmi), make for a perfectly timed slice of weirdness. Pretending to be interested, Daniel asks David the requisite socially acceptable questions. What does he write? What genre? David is barely given time to answer, and Daniel charges along with his queries. The scene is musical in its cadence and is, like many other snippets in the film, charmingly effective.
If only Terruso would cut these scenes a little bit shorter. At one point, when David and Jennifer are caught having sex by the side of the road, the two police officers (Larry Murphy and Sam Seder) wonder if perhaps the couple wants them to watch. What begins as a hilarious moment of discomfort is soon bled dry for every possible laugh. The film even returns to these police officers two more times and attempts to play the joke again. Some scenes in the film feel like little more than fluff to help the film reach the proper run time.
Terruso repeatedly situates David as a passive character in a neverending series of bits. Walking through the party, David will run into another strange artist and allow this new character to perform their monologue of awkwardness. David will roll his eyes, eat a cracker, or drink an expensive glass of wine in an attempt to swallow his pride or simply stop himself from laughing. Cenac is a solid casting choice for David, but his dry demeanor and deliberate lack of affect robs the film of energy. Cenac’s delivery works well in his stand-up sets, but here it further alienates us from David, a character in supposed creative and marital crisis.
With Fits and Starts, Terruso shows her talents on a moment-to-moment basis. Her ability to craft ridiculous members of the creative bourgeoisie is fresh, and her artistic voice is evident at times. But as a whole, the film will most likely be lost in the mix of so many other indie comedies.