'Middle Man' film review: Wickedly funny, dark fable of fame & murder

'Middle Man' film review: Wickedly funny, dark fable of fame & murder

 "Middle Man" world premieres at the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival. ( Photo courtesy of SIFF, used with permission.)

"Middle Man" world premieres at the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of SIFF, used with permission.)

The sharply written dark comedy "Middle Man" (which screened during the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival) finds serious laughs in the bleak and blood-soaked journey of an absolutely unfunny "comedian."

In short: After his mother dies, middle-aged accountant Lenny Freeman (Jim O'Heir, "Parks and Recreation") abruptly quits his job to pursue his life long dream: becoming a stand-up comedian. But when Lenny picks up a charming (but murderous) drifter, Lenny is pulled into a murder spree -- that surprisingly improves his comedy. Also stars Andrew J. West ("The Walking Dead"), Anne Dudek ("Mad Men") and Josh McDermitt. (Watch the trailer)

Great pitch black comedy finds laughs without delivering a single punchline - the humor springs from the least likely, character-based moments. This film finds a humorous angle on what amounts to a hapless dreamer's involvement in a serial killing spree. And writer-director Ned Crowley mines comedy gems from what is essentially a dismal, bloody story of unrealized hopes and murder. Crowley's sharply-written screenplay vividly fleshes out each character - whether its polite dreamer Lenny, charming killer Hitch (West) or the elementally sweet small-town waitress Grail (Dudek). Crowley fills his middle-of-nowhere small town with vibrant characters to tell his devilish, noir-comedy.

Crowley masterfully creates the backdrop, but the key ingredient is Lenny Freeman. O'Heir delivers a character who is woefully unprepared for anything he encounters on this journey - everything from simple comedy to women to murder. He is filled with the baseless notion that he is funny when he is anything but. His stand-up material, modeled after Burns and Allen, was outdated by the '80s. Watching Lenny slowly unravel is much of the fun of "Middle Man." But even as the story takes Lenny down an increasingly horrible path, it's important to note that he stays on that bloody path -- even when he has every reason and opportunity to just walk away.

Much like Lenny's own journey, even this movie has every opportunity to make safe, convention story choices for Lenny, Hitch and Grail -- but "Middle Man" thankfully resists the pull to tell a "safe" story. This is an uncompromisingly dark film. It doesn't make "dark" plot turns just to be dark/sinister - Lenny's pursuit of fame is the film's ultimate motivator. Even as the bodies continue to pile up, Lenny elects to make increasingly unwise choices. This character-driven story keeps "Middle Man" grounded in its titular character - which in turn allows the film to descend into some truly bleak territory. Such commitment to tone and character allows "Middle Man" imparts originality to Lenny's story.

Final verdict: "Middle Man" is a sharply written, wickedly funny and surprising dark comedic thriller set in a wonderfully desolate town and filled with great, fleshed-out characters.

Score: 4/5

"Middle Man" screened during the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival. This film has a running time of 101 minutes and is not yet rated.

 
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