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Mr. Roosevelt
First run Theater cinema

Mr. Roosevelt is the début feature from comic actor Noël Wells (best known for the Netflix series Master of None and her brief stint on Saturday Night Live in the 2013-14 season). Wells plays Emily, a twentysomething wannabe comedian from Texas pursuing an unfocused, unsuccessful career in LA.  When her ex-boyfriend Eric calls to inform her that the cat she left behind—the titular Mr. Roosevelt—is dying, Emily rushes back to Austin.  Once there, she must deal with the feelings that surface when staying in her former home with the ex she maybe shouldn’t have dumped and his new high-powered girlfriend, Celeste—who seems to embody the soulless gentrification rapidly taking over the funky, creative city Emily still identifies with. The premise will ring alarm bells for those who blanch at the idea of seeing yet another overwrought, quasi-rom-com written by a comedian as a vehicle for his or her stage persona. While this tradition dates back to the 1970s films of Woody Allen, contemporary comics like Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk With Me), Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), and Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) have fashioned a new, yet already cliché-ridden, template.  These pictures, which typically start out self-deprecating and end up self-congratulatory, are often riddled with pretension, underdeveloped social commentary, and off-putting anxiety in their need to score laughs at all costs. While Wells’ movie contains most of the tropes of the established formula, she’s able to transcend them to create a well-grounded, relatable, and winning comedy.

The writer/director/star pulls off this impressive feat by keeping things simple and telling a straightforward story. She charms us from the outset and allows small but keen insights to emerge organically. The effervescent Wells seems to have nothing to prove about herself as a comic, filmmaker, or person, and therefore her movie is light without being lightweight.  Her character Emily doesn’t come off as an extension of a stage act—hurling one-liners, addressing the camera as if it were a live crowd, or explaining the point of her observations with copious voiceovers—but as an approachable, not-quite-fully formed adult. She has elements of the manic-pixie and the slacker womanchild we’ve come to know from twenty-five years of indie cinema, but the film’s relaxed pace enables us to get to know Emily and identify with her predicaments. Similarly, the supporting players start out seeming like two-dimensional stock characters but quickly begin to reveal deeper layers as the picture progresses. 

Wells occasionally lets the viewer’s perspective drift into Emily’s mind to experience what she’s thinking, but for the most part we simply observe her navigating the awkward situations in which she places herself, and we identify with her because most of us have been in similar circumstances. One of the best laughs comes from a silent shot of Emily awkwardly riding a bike uphill—a humbling ordeal all occasional cyclists can relate to. 

The supporting cast is populated with strong performers who each seem to be there because they are good choices for their roles rather than for their celebrity cachet. (The only cameos in this movie are locations that Austinites will appreciate.) Nick Thune is solid as Eric, Britt Lower brings many shades to the potentially flat antagonist role of Celeste, Daniella Pineda is electrifying as a waitress who rescues Emily from embarrassment and becomes her new buddy, and Andre Hyland is memorable as a stoner doing his best to keep Austin weird.

Mr. Roosevelt has an appealing old-fashioned quality, too, in that it makes no attempt to be edgy or to push the comedic envelope.  Wells and cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen shoot on 16mm film, which furthers the old-school vibe. In this case, the choice of format has less effect on the movie’s visual look than on its editorial flow. The scenes feel naturally conceived and executed. The jokes and physical gags arise organically out of the situations. The trend in modern comedies, as typified by director/producers like Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, and Adam McCay, is to go for big laughs as often as possible, even if those laughs don’t serve the narrative. Tight, well-structured stories are lacking in far too many current comedies, which often play like collections of comic actors improvising around shaggy scripts, photographed generically with constantly rolling multiple cameras, and the best takes later slammed together in an editing room. A tangible aspect of desperation seems to drive these movies, as if the filmmakers fear audiences will abandon them if more than two minutes go by without a laugh. In contrast, Wells’ easygoing, confident narrative never feels subservient to her jokes, and therefore the laughs in Mr. Roosevelt are eminently satisfying. We don’t leave the theater thinking about one or two standout sequences but rather with an overall feeling of gratification.

Twitter Capsule:
Scores big laughs with seemingly little effort. Light without ever feeling lightweight.

Directed by Noël Wells
Produced by Michael B. Clark, Chris Ohlson, and Alex Turtletaub

Written by Noël Wells

With: Noël Wells, Nick Thune, Britt Lower, Daniella Pineda, and Andre Hyland

Cinematography: Dagmar Weaver-Madsen
Editing: Terel Gibson
Music: Ryan Miller

Runtime: 90 min
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1