Production Title: Lumpy
Had Best Man Down been made in a different decade or with a different budget, then Lumpy -- the bighearted buffoon (embodied by Tyler Labine) who drops dead on a cactus at a destination wedding after hitting the open bar too hard -- might've been played by John Candy, Chris Farley or Zach Galifianakis.
And when it comes to this well-intentioned but ultimately uneven feature debut from writer/director Ted Koland, that's precisely the problem as -- even at his most obnoxious in the film's first major sequence -- Lumpy is the most interesting character onscreen by far and he's killed off in a matter of minutes as the title warns.
Arguably Koland understood this fact much better than anyone -- going so far as to name the first draft of the film Lumpy. Yet the resulting Best Man Down only comes alive in the moments that Lumpy is as well, as our dully underwritten newlyweds Scott and Kristin (Justin Long and Jess Weixler) dutifully abandon plans for a honeymoon in Cabo to give Scott's childhood friend a proper burial back home in Minneapolis.
Spending their vacation money (which incidentally was given to Scott in a Lumpy loan) to send his body home from Phoenix, the two return early as well, going on a search for the past in the process. Learning the hard way that there's a difference between a best friend and an oldest friend, Scott and Kristin endeavor to sort out the fact from fiction to uncover the truth about Lumpy.
In doing so, they are quick to discover that in this day of technology replacing face-to-face communication combined with the natural tendency to drift in adulthood as we go to college, start careers and make new families of our own, they may not have known Lumpy as well as they thought.
Unfortunately, from their petty fights and underdeveloped personalities -- particularly in the case of Weixler who tries to make the most of what little she has to work with in a stereotypical anxious bride role Scott and Kristin never manage to reach us as anything beyond an audience surrogate.
Frequently, the two seem to exist in a different movie altogether, as evidenced in a few darkly comedic gags involving an old boss of Lumpy's who was fond of computer porn to Kristin inexplicably sneaking a peek of Lumpy in the body bag.
At their best, the newlyweds serve as a connective thread to link us to the life Lumpy left behind -- literally it seems, in the form of his friendship with Ramsey (Addison Timlin), a wise-beyond-her-years fifteen-year-old living a hard life in Northern Minnesota who became something of a kid sister, best friend and kindred spirit to the deceased.
And once we begin to learn more about Ramsey's plight with a bad home life and her relationship with Lumpy in a series of flashbacks, much needed life is breathed back into the picture and the pace is picked up considerably.
It becomes fairly obvious around this point how much stronger Koland's script would've been if the newlyweds would've been -- if not completely exorcised -- then demoted to supporting characters to tell the story of Ramsey and Lumpy in a straightforward narrative as when Lumpy and Ramsey are together onscreen, we glimpse something close to magic.
Reminiscent of Lost in Translation and Beautiful Girls -- once again with the heart of a John Hughes era John Candy beating through -- those moments are far too brief but make us wonder about what might’ve been.
Fortunately settling into a Ramsey-dominant narrative within the last act that elevates Best Man Down from awkward to heartbreakingly tender, managing to inspire a few tears during Ramsey's moving eulogy, Koland's film definitely improves as it continues.
To this end, it owes a great deal to its superb cast, most notably Timlin whose quiet power recalls early Kristin Stewart and Natalie Portman as well as a startling, against-type turn by a nearly unrecognizable Frances O'Connor as Ramsey's struggling single mother.
Initially drawn to the film for its geography, as a Minnesota native who now resides in Phoenix, Best Man Down doesn't disappoint. It serves as a strong Minnesota showcase from the gorgeous shots of downtown at night (lensed by Disturbia and Adam cinematographer Seamus Tierney) that paint my hometown like a winter wonderland to the use of local talent from Minneapolis's noteworthy theater scene that has "more theater seats per capita than any other city in the U.S. outside of New York City."
Though its flawed in structure and dominates the script with the wrong two characters for a bulk of Best Man Down's roughly ninety-minute running time, much like Lumpy, you can tell that the film's heart is always in the right place, making me excited for what's to come next for Koland.
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