The poster for The Mend declares it “A Stressed Out Comedy,” and if you’re talking about the experience of watching it, then that’s about right. Writer/director John Magary’s debut feature film boasts some lived-in performances and dynamic camera work, but overall this overlong study of angry men sitting on couches is a bit of a chore to sit through.
Josh Lucas plays Mat, a late-30s barfly, scenester, and misanthrope who keeps his leather jacket on indoors. There was a time, around 2006’s Glory Road, when Lucas was poised to become one of the biggest under-40 leading men in Hollywood. That’s not what happened for whatever reason, and there is something fascinating about him reinventing himself as a believably scuzzy, chewed up New York nightlife lifer. Something unseemly happens if you allow yourself to become a permanent denizen of dive bars, staying out till 5 AM one too many times, and Mat just oozes this unseemliness, right down to the wild, matted hair and a desperate, crazed look in his eyes.
Lucas has created a highly watchable character, and I would’ve rather watched a movie about Mat living this destructive, edgy nightlife as he navigates that alternately delightful and treacherous terrain. Instead, the movie takes place mostly in the Harlem apartment of Mat’s younger brother, Alan (Stephen Plunkett). He isn’t all that much more together than Mat, though he is much less outwardly abrasive.
As the film opens, Mat has been kicked out of his girlfriend’s apartment, where he had been crashing for a while. Mat ends up at Alan’s apartment later that night, and we are introduced to Alan and his long-term, live-in girlfriend, Farrah (Mickey Sumner). Sumner, a standout from 2013’s Frances Ha, is arguably the single best actor to raise the bar in the subgenre of semi-adults bumming around New York. She is great here, but she disappears for an enormous stretch of the movie.
Our introduction to Alan and Farrah’s relationship is a very long conversation about the ethics and aesthetics of ejaculating on your partner’s face. Alan is somehow hurt that Farrah doesn’t quite care for it. After this fight, Farrah’s dance troupe hangs out for a cast party in the couple’s gigantic apartment. There are a lot of dynamic, inventive uses of the camera, capturing the free-flowing party in all its glory. Adopting a kind of drunken energy, it feels like this scene is why the movie was made and almost justifies the rest of it.
Mat shows up uninvited to this party, because he has nowhere else to go, and the next morning Alan and Farrah have to catch an early flight to Canada (they’re going hiking and Alan plans to pop Farrah the question). Things go awry and Alan shortly thereafter shuffles back to his apartment, defeated and alone, to find Mat squatting there. (While he and Farrah had been away, Mat took over the apartment and invited his girlfriend, Andrea, played by Lucy Owens, to join him. She brought along her son, too.) Mat and Alan spend the rest of the movie hanging out in and around the apartment, while Andrea and the kid drift in and out.
The Mend uses the setting of New York in a slightly effective way, mainly in the aforementioned house party for young creatives. Other than that, there isn’t much of a sense of place established, and you don’t feel like you have spent two hours hanging out in Harlem after watching it. The recent Fort Tilden really brought Brooklyn alive on screen, and this feels like a missed opportunity to do that with Harlem. Instead, you feel like you’ve watched two aging brothers complain about not being able to find power cords for their laptops and whatever else. It could’ve been set anywhere.
It’s a familiar gripe when scenes go on too long and seemingly don’t stop. That is not the problem here—in this film, the scenes somehow, oddly, seem to never start. We are always being thrown into moments seemingly in medias res, hardly knowing who the new characters are, why they’re doing what they’re doing. This generates spontaneity, energy, and authenticity, but mostly it’s disorienting.
The Mend is certainly a promising first film. There are some smartly sarcastic, world-weary lines of dialogue that flit between the brothers, and Lucas displays an interesting new side as a performer. But the good moments pass too quickly, and viewers may struggle to stay engaged.