Ensemble casts can either be an asset or a hindrance. Dramas tend to make better use of the bountiful cast, utilizing actors for one or two killer scenes; but comedies tend to fail in that regard, never knowing when to let a character fade to the background or disappear altogether. Two buzzy Tribeca Film Festival comedies exemplify this misuse—or, really, overuse—of the ensemble cast. Both Just Before I Go and Goodbye to All That don’t know when to cut out the extraneous characters and focus on the main ones.
Just Before I Go opens with Ted Morgan (Sean William Scott, playing the straight man for once) floating to the bottom of a lake. He’s committing suicide in his favorite place, the beautiful lake in his hometown where he spent most of his time with his father (before his death when Ted was in the seventh grade). We learn this through hurried, voiceover exposition, which goes on far too long, describing Ted’s entire life from seventh grade to 22 years later—three weeks before he’s drowning in the lake. This entire prologue is enough to tell you just how poorly written this film will be.
Ted comes back to his hometown for the first time since he fled to LA right out of school. He’s come back to confront the people who hurt him (read: “ruined his life”) in junior high—a crotchety teacher, the school bully—before killing himself. After his wife of three year’s left him for a more passionate man, Ted has realized he has nothing to live for. His cathartic bucket list becomes more complex when concerned Greta (Olivia Thirlby, the only bright ray of sunshine in this film) documents Ted’s final weeks for a new media version of a suicide note.
From there, the film begins to drown in its vast number of secondary and tertiary—and even quaternary—characters. Ted stays in the guest bedroom of his brother’s (Garret Dillahunt, still in character as Burt Chance) house, quickly getting sucked into Lucky’s marital problems with his wife (a very sad-looking Kate Walsh) and his closeted gay son (Kyle Gallner). Ted also gets mixed up in the lives of old junior high figures—the former bully turned loving father and the nice girl turned overweight mother of five. (And that’s only half the cast.) Packed with so many characters, it becomes impossible to develop them beyond their static, one-note selves.
It is immediately evident how little director Courteney Cox (helming her first feature film) and TV screenwriter Dave Flebotte stray from sitcom humor. Crude sex jokes become the most tasteful in the laundry list of moments mocking women, race, homosexuality, mental illness, and obesity. (Everyone in this diverse cast of characters becomes the butt of one of Lucky’s jokes in film.) Yet all this lowbrow humor is still not as egregious as the life lessons that every single character learns by the final ten minutes of the film, which are more clichéd than an episode of Glee.
Goodbye to All That suffers from a similar ailment. Otto Wall (Paul Schneider, holding the film together as the charming, klutzy lead) is at a loss when his wife Annie (Melanie Lynskey) divorces him out of nowhere. To cope with his new singlehood, Otto uses Facebook, OkCupid, and church to pick up women. But what he soon discovers is that these women just want to hook up (and in very bizarre ways), not giving a thought to a real relationship.
The parade of women would be one thing, but every single one of his hookups continues to pop up in his life—and at the worst possible times, no less. It makes for a roulette wheel of storytelling that never gives a moment to fully ground poor Otto who didn’t even sign up for the ride. What’s more, the story gives very little character motivation for Otto and Annie (who, it’s implied, divorced him because he was a klutz or too boring—or both?), making it unsurprising when the film ends with nothing much having happened.
As in Just Before I Go, Goodbye to All That gives too much time to all the secondary and tertiary characters, letting them insert their own various forms of comedic acting into the film, disrupting it’s overall tone and pace. Such vast differences between Anna Camp’s riotous Debbie Spangler and Heather Lawless’ somber Lara leave you wondering what exactly writer/director Angus MacLachlan would like you to take away from the film.
Neither film manages to find a comfortable balance between the characters and the story. They shift tones so frequently you never feel you’re on solid ground. And they attempt to appeal too much to the lowest common denominator that they fail to fully engage most. It’s disappointing to see so much great talent get lost in rocky scripts and direction.