'On the Count of Three' Review: Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Abbott Balance Dark Comedy and Suicidal Depression [Sundance 2021]

There’s a moment in Jerrod Carmichael‘s directorial debut On the Count of Three where the comedian’s character Val delivers a line that feels like it could have easily been part of one of his stand-up acts. As he ponders why suicide is looked down upon by so many people, Val says, “When you’re a kid they tell you the worst thing in life is to be a quitter. Why? Quitting’s amazing. It just means you get to stop doing something you hate.” But in this movie, that line is much more than a quip. It’s the blunt, perturbing backbone of this dark buddy comedy where two best friends form a suicide pact to kill each other by the end of the day.

On the Count of Three follows longtime best friends Val (Jerrod Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott). Each of them is fed up with life. Kevin just tried to kill himself a few days ago and is currently being monitored in a mental hospital. Val has been paralyzed by the fear of proposing to his girlfriend, and simply can’t deal with the the mediocrity of a life spent working at a feed and seed store. So Val quits his job after inexplicably being offered a promotion in a very Office Space-fashion, and he breaks Kevin out of the mental hospital with a clear plan: they’re going to put each other out of their misery by shooting each other.

When the movie opens, we meet them about to do the deed next to a strip club. But what starts as a suicide pact turns into a series of misadventures as they literally live out the age-old question of what would you do if you only had one day left to live. But Kevin and Val aren’t looking to spend their day living it up by doing all the fun things they’ve never done. Instead, they each realize that they have unfinished business to rectify in order to properly leave this mortal coil.

All of this might sound bleak and depressing, and it undoubtedly is, but Carmichael and Abbott have such a spark between them as performers that they’re able to effortlessly channel some truly hilarious comedy into the proceedings. Obviously a comedian like Carmichael knows how to be funny, and it’s that part of his background that also gives him the ability to make some of the more on-the-nose bits of dialogue to come off as earnest, even if they’re not subtle. There’s a delicate balance between the raw, introspective emotion Carmichael confronts and the funny moments he shares with Abbott.

Meanwhile, Christopher Abbott continues to astound with his versatility. He goes from being on the edge of insanity to rocking out to Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” as an embarrassing way of dealing with his suicidal depression. Carmichael’s reaction to this is also one of the funniest moments in the movie. But Abbott also impresses with masterful comedic timing that pops up even during genuinely tense moments. Abbott also teeters between emotional instability and hilarious incredulity on a dime, going from a spontaneous convenience store hold-up (which he instigated) to immediately questioning why we’re allowed to ever have guns.

Also adding to the proceedings, albeit in brief appearances, are Tiffany Haddish and JB Smoove. They each play against their usual comedic type and instead dig this movie more firmly into drama. Haddish plays Val’s girlfriend who just learned that she’s pregnant with his kid, and Smoove plays his estranged father. It should come as no surprise that Carmichael pulled these kind of performances from fellow comedians, presumably knowing there’s usually a certain element of pain that lingers behind the laughter that comedians seek out from the stage.

On the Count of Three may hit some familiar indie beats with regards to depression, arrested development, and characters realizing that they’re the only ones standing in the way of their happiness. But it also approaches more complex emotional issues, especially with Kevin coming to terms with some lifelong trauma that comes from a childhood spent in therapy where he was both sexually abused but also given the one piece of valuable advice that otherwise might have helped him deal with his depression in a different way. But this certainly isn’t one of those movies where everyone comes out unscathed when all is said and done.

Making this movie all the more compelling is the style with which it unfolds. Carmichael brings an energy to the camera that feels like a more subdued version of a Safdie Brothers film (which still makes for quite a frenzy), and that’s bolstered by the script written by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch. While these misadventures could have easily resulted in a more chaotic sort of indie that loses focus, they’ve kept the attention squarely on the characters and each part of this wild day serves their arc in some kind of meaningful way. Somehow, this movie makes light out of total darkness without losing any of the heaviness that comes with it. If Carmichael can do something so bold in his directorial debut, I’m very much looking forward to what he does next.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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