“You are a baby man.” Less an insult than an observation, these words spoken to Lousy Carter (David Krumholtz) by his ex Candela (Olivia Thirlby) roughly function as both synopsis and thesis for Bob Byington’s latest feature. In fact, they’re fairly reflective of the director’s project writ large, with most of his mumblecore-adjacent films comprising a post-Confederacy of Dunces survey of bumbling but literate men firmly in an arrested development of some sort. This time around, Byington makes a study of Lousy, a tenured professor who was hired a decade ago on the strength of an animated short film but who now teaches a single graduate-level course on The Great Gatsby. The joke of building an academic career around such a mainstream work isn’t commented on, but the brevity of the text is — Kaminsky (Martin Starr), Lousy’s best friend and a professor of Russian literature, asks why he doesn’t simply teach an STD pamphlet instead. Byington takes this familiar setup of the bungling, selfish doofus a step further by having Lousy immediately find out that he has only six months to live, and the remainder of the film observes the fallout — or lack thereof — that the specter of death has on this doomed man.
The answer, executed in deadpan fashion, is not much. Which is for the best, as it’s far more enjoyable to pay witness to the dry absurdity of Lousy Carter’s writing than it would have been to follow any edifying course for Lousy; in fact, this confrontation with his own impermanence doesn’t seem to have much of an effect at all. That doesn’t mean Byington doesn’t have anything up his sleeve, as he ultimately offers a wry subversion of how such narratives typically resolve, but that too is executed with a hilarious shrug. The director is given a massive assist in all this courtesy of Krumholtz, whose lovable schlub schtick proves the necessary balance for a character this self-absorbed; and given the character’s particular texture and arc, it’s easy to imagine someone like Jason Schwartzman (previous Byington collaborator) in the role. Indeed, the film does feel like a less acidic riff on something like Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, but Krumholtz grounds the entire project by keeping his dickhead an entirely affable presence. Unlike Schwartzman’s Philip in the latter film, Lousy takes a similar view of himself as those around him — he’s driven less by narcissism than a slothful regard for the notion of self-improvement.
This is all reflective of a particular filmic personality found in Lousy Carter, one that is consistent across the board and aided by its supporting cast. Starr, executing his usual mode of monotone condescension, is an excellent screen partner for Krumholtz — in no way a criticism; there’s always been a thread of sitcom running through Byington’s films, and the pairing of Lousy and Kaminsky is among the best in this regard — while Luxy Banner outright steals the show as Gail, an acerbic grad student Lousy ropes in to help with his latest short film (an adaptation of a minor Nabokov work). Her bafflement at nearly every interaction with Lousy offers a fantastic social mirror for the unsettled professor to engage with, and much of the film’s low-key humor is mined from his tottering while under her sardonic gaze.
Byington’s aforementioned subversion of template arrives in the film’s final few minutes, and while it goes a long way to wrap things up with an appropriate wink, it doesn’t entirely undo the sense that we’ve seen this film before, and plenty. But overfamiliarity notwithstanding, Byington makes the right decisions at nearly every juncture, the writing and performers dialed into the same cockeyed frequency, whether we’re talking illicit affairs, intentions of murder, embittered eulogies, or merely the fittingly lazy antagonism the prickly professor injects into nearly every interaction. There are more things in this world than The Great Gatsby, and there are more man-babies than Ignatius J. Reilly. Sometimes being Lousy is enough.
Published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2023 — Dispatch 2.