Most Likely to Murder is a modest, low-budget comedy premiering at a festival that’s also host to spectacles like Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One and star-powered “indies” with ultra-high concepts, from John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place to Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. In that sense, it’s a refreshing change of pace, a chance to enjoy some low-stakes laughs with reliably funny people like Adam Pally and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom. It’s a bummer, then, that Most Likely to Murder feels more like a missed opportunity than anything, its appealing concept serving up some surface-level laughs and little else.
Pally plays Billy, a 33-year-old loser who, once upon a time, was the coolest guy in high school. He returns to his Midwestern hometown after slumming it as a grunt in Las Vegas clubs, only to discover that his teenage stock has plummeted and old flame Kara (Bloom) is currently dating Lowell (Vincent Kartheiser), the weirdo he used to torment in high school. When Lowell’s mother dies, Billy, driven by the slightest bit of evidence, recruits his dim pal Duane (co-writer Doug Mand) to help prove that Lowell might be the man responsible. And though Lowell, the town pharmacist, is now beloved by the community, his defensive, unstable behavior around Billy shows that he definitely has something to hide.
And that might be Most Likely to Murder’s fundamental flaw. Billy’s accusations are too plausible for his crusade to resonate as an outpouring of his own insecurities, thus giving his crude, detestable character, one who’s already predisposed to baselessly attack Lowell, a bit too much credit. There’s catharsis to be found in the story of a man-child retreating to cruel adolescent comforts in an effort to feel relevant again — the first season of Eastbound and Down is one example — but Billy is perhaps too reliable a narrator. He’s not, like Young Adult’s Mavis, pathetic enough to root for, nor is he, like Kenny Powers, cruel enough to compel; Billy’s just a run-of-the-mill dick, and that’s just not a good look for your protagonist.
It doesn’t help that Mand and director/co-writer Dan Gregor aren’t telling a very effective murder mystery. Billy’s slump toward the truth hits familiar beats, and the twist, though tenderly executed, isn’t all that hard to figure out. What’s far more interesting are the interactions that illustrate just how stunted Billy is, such as a football game with old friends who are all settling into their adult lives. Later, the weight of the intervening years crashes down on Billy after an interaction with Duane’s younger sister; the realization that you’ve gone from cool to creepy is one that every adult male is probably afraid to they admit they’ve had, and it’s affecting to see it unfold onscreen.
It’s there that Pally really comes to life, too. There’s a lethargy to his performance in the early going, but the closer Billy creeps to self-actualization the more Pally’s investment shines through. Elsewhere, Kartheiser cuts a surprisingly imposing figure as the staid, tightly wound Lowell, while Bloom, unfortunately, flounders on the sidelines in an underwritten role. Cameos from the likes of Billy Eichner, Hasan Minhaj, Tami Sagher, and John Lutz round out the cast, which should set the hearts of comedy nerds aflutter.
But despite all that comedic talent, Most Likely to Murder just isn’t very funny. Gregor and Mand are both sitcom veterans who are currently working with Bloom on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and you can feel the strain of them trying to operate in 90 minutes as opposed to 30. There’s quirky, inspired bits — a throwaway sequence in which a character is forced to eat dinner in the car because his wife can’t stand the smell, for example, is hilarious — but there’s a blue, tossed-off quality to much of it, as well as an over-reliance on references (ugh, the Ace Ventura quotes). Gregor’s direction is similarly sloppy, with an uneven tone, odd pacing, and, at times, poor lighting hindering the narrative.
Sometimes, Most Likely to Murder’s rough edges give it the kind of scrappy feel that evokes the low-budget, straight-to-video flicks of the ’90s. That’s nice for nostalgia’s sake, but like most of those movies, Most Likely to Murder is most likely to be forgotten.
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