Literally, Right Before Aaron

Why do we watch movies? For newer works, we go to see the newest effort from a favorite actor, writer, director or cinematographer, or we feel the story is something we can relate to, or because it comes recommended from friends or critics or has received a lot of awards buzz. Maybe we’ve not heard of the filmmaker, but a distributor who has acquired a reputation for giving chances to edgy and interesting work is releasing it. So while Screen Media isn’t quite at the level of a 1990’s Miramax, a 2000’s THINKfilm or a 2010’s A24 in terms of prestige, they have slowly been moving away from their former bread and butter of Z-level dreck like “Croczilla” and “Paranormal Whacktivity” and giving theatrical life to curious works from directors like Tobe Hooper and Paul Bettany. And while I have never heard of writer/director Ryan Eggold, he was able to nab an embarrassment of riches when it came to casting his feature debut, including Cobie Smulders, John Cho, Peter Gallagher, Ryan Hansen, Charlyne Yi, Briga Heelan, Luis Guzman, Dana Delany and Lea Thompson. Which is why I was interested in checking out “Literally, Right Before Aaron.” That’s one hell of an eclectic cast.

But… and yes, of course there is a “but”… it doesn’t really matter how good your supporting cast is when the screenplay they are working with doesn’t really work on any level, and when that cast is supporting an actor like Justin Long, who is really only effective in small doses in other movies that don’t rely on him to drive the narrative. Don’t believe me? Look at the data for filmography. The vast majority of his starring roles have ratings under 50%, while the vast majority of his best-rated movies (“Galaxy Quest,” “Dodgeball,” “Anchorman,” “Idiocracy,” “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and “Youth in Revolt”) are the ones that is a barely in. (And the few “Fresh” movies he is a major star in, such as “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Drag Me to Hell,” are ones where his character is not the main focus.) In our film here, he stars as Adam, who in the very first scene of the film finds himself emotionally sucker-punched when his ex-girlfriend Allison (Ms. Smulders) calls to let him know that, after breaking up recently after nearly a decade of dating, she is getting married to her new boyfriend and inviting him to the wedding, which is literally happening the following week. So despite his being in the middle of an editing assignment as his job, Adam decides to head from his life and job in Los Angeles to go back to his hometown of San Francisco in a desperate attempt to woo her back. As you can imagine, things do not go anything like how Adam would hope.

Now, I can’t blame a schlub like Justin Long for wanting to woo back a woman like Cobie Smulders. She’s funny, she can kick your ass, and she’s an exquisite beauty. She’s got a look, perfected from her near-decade on “How I Met Your Mother,” that conveys a certain kindhearted charm to the object of her on-screen paramour that can melt the hardest heart. Most of her characters in romantic comedies are kind people who don’t really want to hurt anyone. And yet, one can’t help but wish, as “Aaron” slogs through its overlong 105 minutes of running time, that the woman who resembles Robin Scherbatsky would disappear for a moment and woman who resembles Maria Hill was briefly unleashed to put this worthless worm out of his pitiful existence. First, Adam ruins a dinner that honors the happy couple, then he ruins a friendly game of tennis that Allison sets up between her previous paramour and her new fiancé Aaron (Ryan Hansen), then ruins the wedding. By the time Adam gets hit by a car running away from Aaron and Allison after the last straw, you’re sitting there going “About flipping tim… oh, wait, he’s back up. Damnit!”

Longtime readers of FilmJerk know that I have one basic rule about characters: if you can’t make your lead character likeable, at least make them interesting. Adam is about as likeable as toe fungus, and as interesting as watching toe fungus grow. But only so much can be blamed on the actor playing the role. The actor can only work with the work he’s given, and Mr. Eggold the writer hasn’t given Mr. Long (or any of the other actors) much of anything to work with. One can imagine the direction was along the lines of:

“Hey, Justin, remember how doofy your character in ‘Dodgeball’ was? Be like that guy, if he never ended up with Amber. She finally realized you are out of her league and dumped you after eight years, and you’re furious on the inside, but you don’t know how to externalize it in a constructive manner except for very small bursts of childlike anger. And now she’s marrying the next guy after little more than a year. Slow burn!”

Actually, I think I put more into coming up with that bit, in three minutes, than Mr. Eggold put in to all of the characterizations combined. There’s more emotional resonance in the middle eight bars of a Death Cab for Cutie song than there is in this movie. I care more about a dog wanting his Beggin’ Strips in a thirty second commercial than I care about anything that happens to anyone in this movie. But I asked to watch this movie, and damnit, I was going to finish it!

The cynical critic in me would wonder what Mr. Eggold had on the people he was able to coerce in to appear in his film, but the former assistant director in me knows that very few filmmakers set out to purposely make a bad film. Maybe Ms. Smulders wanted to make a movie in San Francisco so she could look for a summer home for herself and her family. Maybe Mr. Hansen really liked Mr. Eggold during their time working on “Veronica Mars” and he just wanted to help his buddy get his first film made. Maybe Peter Gallagher, who is one of the film’s few bright spots as Adam’s hilariously inept nature television show host boss, has a few days off between shooting episodes of “Frankie and Grace” and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and had his eye on a new set of King Pro Irons golf clubs to help his long game. It really doesn’t matter. Hopefully, those who worked on the film enjoyed their time on set, working with each other. Hopefully, the wrap party was a lot of fun, a lot of booze was consumed and some Cuban cigars smoked in celebration.

And somewhere, down the line, some young would-be filmmaker will stumble on to this film on Netflix, see how something like this could get financed, and will become inspired to make their own movie for all the wrong reasons. Because it’s probable there is more to learn from a spectacular failure than there is from an enormous success. There may never be another movie quite like “Moonlight” for a while to come, but there will be a hundred more like “Aaron” coming down the pike, made primarily to fill a content pipeline in exchange for some filthy lucre. And if this film can get made, surely they can hustle their butt off to get their film made.

Find the inspiration where you can, young wannabe filmmaker.

Rating: D+