People are talking about how the superhero movie cycle is burning itself out through overuse, as the same formula keeps getting repeated with different-colored capes. We’ll see what happens, but there’s another format out there getting at least as much play.
I refer to the improv-based comedy film, for which we need only a slim premise, a loose atmosphere, and a cast peopled with alumni of sketch groups such as the Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade. The style is dominant in big movies, Sundance-scaled films, and small screens.
And it has a key distinction the superhero genre can’t claim: These projects have rewarded a series of women in big roles, from Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy to the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler axis of power.
“Slow Learners” is another one of these, and it has the conventions of the genre: eccentric conversational tangents, inspired riffing, and a performing style that goes for the zany topper instead of character consistency.
Although it is difficult to believe that the people on screen would actually do the things they do, the movie is undeniably funny, not least for the way it unleashes two reliable actors — veterans of improvisational stagework — who are clearly ready for the next step.
Sarah Burns (“Enlightened”) and Adam Pally (“The Mindy Project”) play Anne and Jeff, platonic best friends whose dull romantic lives need spicing up. They’re tired of being overlooked and celibate, so a new wildness is in order — not with each other, but with the cool people they’ve been missing. This leads to a few funny scenes, and eventually to an ending that is, of course, easy to predict.
Strung along this thin clothesline of plot we get a series of comedy set-ups: Jeff being brutally assessed by a first date who would prefer to go home rather than eat her meal; Anne’s planned seduction of Jeff’s pal Max (the admirably straight-faced Reid Scott) being interrupted by his ex; Anne putting on a Southern accent and disastrously retreating to the bathroom after going to the apartment of a hook-up.
In all these bits — well, most of them — Burns and Pally weave truly daffy comedy business, aided by a strong surrounding cast (Catherine Reitman and Mary Grill are especially sharp). He underplays and she overplays, but this works for their dynamic together.
If you don’t like Burns and Pally, the movie’s dead — that’s the price for foregrounding personality over story.
“Slow Learners” (three stars)
Another paper-thin, improvisational comedy, but this one’s got some inspired moments from two comedians ready for the next level: Sarah Burns and Adam Pally. They play best platonic buds who liven up their dull existences by making their dating lives much wilder.
Rating: Not rated; probably R for language, subject matter
Showing: Sundance Cinemas