“I peed? In the bed?”
I guess this is what filmmaking becoming easier and cheaper does for all holding the dream and passion to create. It goes back to Kevin Smith‘s Clerks proving that the depiction of the comic and mundane of slacker culture could speak to a new generation feeling the exact same angst. We’ve always had films standing as a testament to an age of rebellion, maturity, and empathetic understanding—The Breakfast Club is probably the most famous—so it’s easy to see why today’s filmmakers yearn to match its universal appeal and success like Smith before them. But while the past few years contains a slew of films trying to tap into that contemporary existentialism with quirky hipsters, geeks, and goths, the occasional laugh can’t hide the fact they’re simply trying too hard.
Abram Makowka‘s feature-length debut Tug is no exception. Centering on a character we assume is the writer/director’s stand-in due to being nameless throughout (Sam Huntington), we watch as the fickle nature of relationships evolves into emotional highway robbery without brakes. Awaiting word from a big shot Hollywood agent about a script he wrote where the lead role receives words of wisdom from his gut via a talking belly button, Huntington attempts to right the sinking ship he calls life. Best friend and roommate Carl (Maulik Pancholy) grows tried of the rampant immaturity; Judd (Zachary Knighton) starts showing how selfishly one-sided his companionship has become; ex Kim (Haylie Duff) has turned stalker; and girlfriend Ariel (Sarah Drew) treads water hoping the man she knows exists might still one day rise to the surface.
In the matter of a couple weeks, however, such hope appears destined to fail. Bitter from the push and pull of old and new love, a time for compromise and secondary options begins to rear its head. No longer able to sit back and wait for a future that may be nothing but a pipe dream, the need to settle down into the struggles of adulthood freaks him out. This is his quarter-life crisis as relationships sever, multiply into a cancer, and rarely build into anything resembling healthy. Huntington takes everyone for granted, hating life to the point he practically loses Ariel daily and resigns himself to slumming it at the local hardware store for cash. Kim becomes the last connection to the fantasy he once strived towards and Ariel a casualty of the defeatist attitude presently in control.
The themes Makowka utilizes are relevant and accessible to anyone in his/her twenties still searching for answers. There may just be way too much going on to make any of it resonate above convenient contrivance. It’s cool to include the sage parent (Yeardley Smith‘s Mom) and the obnoxious neighbor drunkenly hurting his feelings with perceptive snooping (Wendi McLendon-Covey), but are they necessary? Roommate Carl already does the job of responsible elder statesman as he tries to build a fledgling barbershop business in their garage and Huntington is embarrassed enough by everyone around him to need one more character letting him know he’s sort of pathetic. So much of what happens is little more than comic relief that the poignant moments they evolve into at the climax are almost impossible to take seriously.
This is disappointing because the final fifteen minutes or so when our lead finally stops feeling sorry and actually speaks his mind proves a rousing bit of cathartic rebirth. Conversely, gimmicks like the talking belly button and its script looming in the background infusing themselves into the film are hamfisted attempts to bring things full circle that don’t add anything. The film is at its best when its characters are authentically engaged in real world situations like a friend crashing his buddy’s car and not actively working toward fixing it or a boy and a girl laughing and smiling as they rent a tuxedo for a wedding while mocking the very act of doing so. Everything’s about the joke until the final revelatory outburst of confidence and honesty that only makes us wish the rest possessed sharper teeth.
Tug therefore fails to stand apart from the indie pack besides having a cast of recognizable television faces. Makowka has crafted a couple sweetly misguided characters for these actors to portray but the story they inhabit unfortunately never reaches their expectations. Pancholy is great in his usual snarky, holier than thou approach; Knighton is a hoot as the gang’s screw-up who can’t get through a sentence without using “trip” as a verb at least once; and Drew is adorable as the girl who thankfully stops letting others walk all over her by the end. As for Huntington, his is an effective job holding things together despite languishing in redundant territory more than once along the way. It was fun seeing each away from TV land for once and hopefully this project can help break them free again soon.