Hollywood is struggling this year, to say the least, but no one can claim there aren’t great movies coming out. Video-on-demand platforms (iTunes, Amazon Prime Video and cable systems) and streaming services (Netflix, Hulu and an ever-expanding roster of competitors) have debuted a wealth of worthy titles in recent months, and October brings three new comedies as lovely as anything that would open in theaters around this time of the year. Hit play from your couch on “Shithouse,” “The Forty-Year-Old Version” and “Kajillionaire.” Here’s more on each.
The romantic comedy is only dead if you don’t know where to look. In theory, this sad-boy rendition sounds ill-fated. A mopey college freshman starts to find his mojo after a girl takes an interest in him? Hm. But “Shithouse” transcends every assumption I had. Its protagonist, Alex (Cooper Raiff), is something of a rarity: a straight guy who is in touch with his emotions and unashamed at their display yet uninterested in wielding them as a sympathy card. Simply put, he’s homesick, struggling to adjust to university culture while everyone around him seems to have friends and a social calendar. He is nothing if not sympathetic and hopelessly charming. When we first see Alex, his stuffed wolf is giving him advice, via droll subtitles, on how to bond with his party-animal roommate (Logan Miller).
When unsavory circumstances force him to sleep in the lounge of his dorm building for a night, his devil-may-care RA (Dylan Gelula, a beguiling new talent who shined in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Support the Girls”) strikes up a conversation. She is the first real connection he has made since leaving home, and the two of them soon find themselves strolling around campus, joining a casual softball game, burying a dead turtle and talking about life. Most of the movie unfolds across 48 hours, but its tempo is too patient to feel like a whirlwind. In essence, “Shithouse” is a sweet, amusing snapshot of a kid who mistakes his emotions for naïveté when in reality they reflect maturity.
I’ve buried the lede somewhat, partly because I am stunned that Raiff, who is only 23, wrote and directed this film with such a sharp eye for the intricacies of conversation. (Plus he had the audacity to name his debut movie “Shithouse.”) It’s not that he’s doing anything brand new here — you’ll catch shades of “Before Sunrise” and the short-lived TV gem “Undeclared” — but Raiff writes dialogue that is blissfully imperfect: jumbly and full of stops and starts, the way a lonely, introspective young adult might actually talk. (Highlight: an unexpected exchange about “13 Going on 30” in which Alex exclaims, “You’re talking about Jennifer Garner right now! She was awesome in that movie.”) Alex is a nice guy without becoming one of those too-good-to-be-true fictional paragons, and Raiff has a natural gift for accentuating the character’s uneasiness. Even with a coda that’s tidy and rushed, “Shithouse” is lovely.
“Shithouse” is now available on video on demand.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version”
So you landed some kind of “30 under 30” honor, heralded for your skills and your youth. But then another decade passes, and no one is paying attention to those skills anymore. What next?
That is, more or less, the story of Radha Blank, a New York City actor and playwright who worked like hell to mount the dozen productions she wrote while enrolled in the Public Theater’s prestigious workshop for budding dramatists. Her career wasn’t taking off, maybe because, as a Black woman, she refused to script the so-called poverty porn that white gatekeepers are willing to greenlight. But now Blank is getting her second act — her revenge, even. She wrote, directed and stars in “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” a semi-autobiographical account of her experiences.
Shot on black-and-white 35-millimeter film with a tenderness that resembles Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” and Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” the whip-smart comedy finds Blank portra a version of herself. Radha (the character) is still toiling away at her stagecraft, teaching high school theater to pay the rent and enduring inane feedback from a producer (Reed Birney) about how her Harlem-set play can more directly address racial gentrification. An expert wordsmith, Radha starts channeling her foibles through rap lyrics. She’s pretty good at it. Linking up with a smooth beat master (Oswin Benjamin) who encourages her to lay down tracks, Radha might start a second chapter as a hip-hop queen. (Emphasis on “might.”)
“The Forty-Year-Old Version,” the title of which is an obvious spin on Judd Apatow’s 2005 megahit “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” is enough to make anyone wonder why so few in Hollywood or the New York theater ecosystem noticed Blank before now. She has an expressive face and a knack for comic timing that reveals deeper, subtler feelings. The film also displays a warmth that, like the plays Radha wants to write, don’t hew to cliched ideas about how someone who looks like Blank should express herself. The grayscale cinematography can be a tad muddy at times, but the story Blank is telling is so winsome, it doesn’t matter.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is now streaming on Netflix.
Miranda July is an acquired taste. Her brand of whimsy is, to say the least, not for everyone. But if naysayers return to her movies a second time, adjusted to her peculiar wavelength, I think they’ll discover that July’s flights of fancy are more grounded than they might seem. “Kajillionaire,” her third feature, is certainly her most accessible work yet, a hilarious and humane portrait of three Los Angeles grifters who have an unusual way of approaching the world.
A deep-voiced Evan Rachel Wood plays Old Dolio — and just wait until you find out why that’s her name. Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger are her parents, weirdos who execute low-rent scams as both income and lifestyle. They’ll rob P.O. boxes, trade gift certificates for cash and trick a dying man into writing them a check, but they won’t teach Old Dolio anything about functional society. When the trio attempt a sham involving airport luggage, they recruit a perpetually cheerful “Ocean’s 11” enthusiast (MVP Gina Rodriguez, a hoot) whose arrival shows Old Dolio just how abnormal her existence has been.
“Kajillionaire” is about many things: flouting the norms of capitalism, surviving without parental affection, failing to understand yourself because you don’t have a sense of how humans behave. July packs on the quirk, only to dissolve it in the movie’s back half for something incredibly meaningful but no less strange. Her previous films, 2005’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” and 2011’s “The Future,” were more fantastical in nature, but all three contain a simmering rage that’s softened by their utter hilarity. Operating with a bigger budget and bigger stars, “Kajillionaire” is July at her most earthbound, even if that earth involves eccentrics you’d otherwise dread spending time with.
“Kajilionaire” is now available on video on demand. Read our interview with July here.