Much of "Bart Got a Room" is going to feel a bit old hat for some, but you know what? Sometimes it's a good old hat, the kind that you just want to keep around despite knowing exactly where it has been. There is much familiarity in the setup of Brian Hecker's debut feature: poor kid can't get a date to the prom, his parents are divorced, and he has a best friend that thinks it would be funny if they went together. Reading this, at first you would probably think the movie doesn't have much to offer, and would rather spend your money on seeing whatever Kate Hudson or Renee Zellweger are up to this weekend at the box office.
Slowly but surely, this indie gem has something great up its sleeve: the characters develop into three dimensions, the comic devices take us into new, interesting territory and there's an ending that cries so far from what we are led to expect. Not only that, the movie has its references to Blake Edwards and (naturally) Woody Allen, but this is a springboard for a series of funny and crazy events.
Plus it's one of those indie pictures that have some great talent in front of the camera. William H. Macy, Cheryl Hines, Jennifer Tilly and a promising newcomer named Steven J. Kaplan who will no doubt become a star.
The title character is not named Bart (more on that later) but rather Danny (Steven J. Kaplan) who is nice enough, smart enough and -- from a heterosexual writer's perspective, for what it's worth -- good looking enough, but poor Danny just can't get a date to the prom. His friend Camille (Alia Shawkat) wants to go as friendly company and to have a friend to spend time with, but Danny has his eyes on a few other potentials, including a strawberry blonde who he chauffeurs every now and then.
To make matters worse, Danny's dealing with the divorce of his parents Ernie (William H. Macy) and Beth (Cheryl Hines) who both try to stay in Danny's life. It probably also doesn't help matters that they are living in Hollywood, Florida. If any of you saw Larry Clark's film "Bully", also set in the same town, you might remember that in this Hollywood, dreams go to die. Or to get replaced by a plastic flamingo sitting next to your swimming pool full of stray golf balls.
At a scant 78 minutes, "Bart Got a Room" is funnier, has a great sense of place and time and is more honest than most of the comedy films with ten times the budget. It wears its charm on its sleeve and isn't afraid to make us laugh at moments that are refreshingly honest as well as way out there. In one bizarre sequence that just barely gets away with it, Ernie tests the noise level of his new apartment just in case Danny wants to bring his date "home". An old lady in the apartment building appears in the corner of the frame as Ernie tests the volume "From one to ten", but the old lady isn't the joke. The joke is that Ernie sure loves his son no matter what.
Consider even a later scene with Ernie, who is so bent on getting Danny a date for the prom that he ditches a date (with a character played by the gorgeous Jennifer Tilly...she's nearing 50, people!), runs halfway across Hollywood and winds up picking an older and slightly oversized prostitute for Danny to take to the big dance. You may not know what you're doing Ernie, but at least your heart is in the right place.
I mention Ernie so much because, ladies and germs, William H. Macy needs no introduction. You already know him, love him and admire his craft as an actor, and I loved his wacky jew-fro, childlike demeanor in his eyes and yet he has a real soft spot for his ex, despite their separation. Macy is matched well by Steven J. Kaplan, simply terrific as the conflicted son. He was carefully selected by Brian Hecker for his natural talent, of course, but when I met Brian at a screening at the Victoria Film Festival screening, there was a divine visual similarity.
Sure, "Bart Got a Room" is a great comedy, it's funny with big laughs, but as I wrote about before, things don't exactly happen in the way we think they're going to and it is wonderful, just wonderful on how it does things in an honest manner. The film is not about whether Danny and his best friend get together romantically - nor Danny's parents for that matter -- and I really admired how the film side stepped what could have been a romantic cliché and ends on a note of surprising hope for all four of the leads. The end credits roll, and their life continues for the better. And so does ours as we leave the theater.
Note: And that Bart, by the way? He's an illusion, a character we don't see through the whole film, and when we finally do, it's a whammy. And stay for those credits.