Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This month: The A.V. Club atones for its sins of omission, recommending the best movies of the year that we didn’t review.
Many is the film review that expresses a wish to set aside the blandly likable lead character of some studio romantic comedy in favor of the supporting players, be it the “edgy best friend” role, the sharp-tongued comic relief, or other smaller parts where the characters haven’t had any and all rough edges sanded off. These are the roles for character actors, and there are any number of excellent performers among this crowd who have made a living consistently standing out in films that sideline their live-wire electricity. (We recently did an entire inventory of some of today’s best.) Gravy feels like a feature-length retort to the idea that eccentric personalities should live in the margins of movies, rather than seizing the frame and forcing it to attention.
Directed and co-written by Psych star James Roday, the film details the events at a Mexican cantina one Halloween night, as closing time abruptly turns into a hostage situation when three costumed antagonists seal off the exits and tie up the staff. Their intention, they proudly announce, is to kill and eat each employee, one by one—an All Hallow’s Eve tradition they’ve been practicing for years. Soon, they’ve pressed the proud chef into service as the preparer of these grisly dishes, and embarked on a series of zero-sum games to determine the order of their still-breathing courses. As the various prisoners try to use their wits to survive long enough to escape the evening without being consumed, the night begins to veer off script, both for the cannibalistic criminals and those they’ve sworn are destined to be food.
The main course for the audience, however, is the treat of seeing a bunch of oft-underused character actors sink their teeth into a funny script. The roster is packed deep with talent, some of whom have had starring roles before (Bunheads’ Sutton Foster plays the “last night on the job” bartender, Gabourey Sidibe is a pissed-off security guard), but mostly stacked with superlative scene-stealers, chief among them Jimmi Simpson and Michael Weston, both of whom wield understated, quick-witted snark like it was a Ginsu knife. Their criminal bromance is abetted by British oddball Lily Cole, playing the most unhinged of the trio. The heightened reality of the scenario and the characters populating it make the movie feel like nothing so much as a 21st century version of old-school screwball farce—darker and savvier, but no less attuned to the absurdist comic sensibility of that genre’s best offerings.
There’s plenty to critique here, as far as the technical aspects of the film. Roday’s direction is more competent than inspired, with the lighting and staging sometimes suggesting a basic-cable sitcom. Also, his script can be overly talky, a common enough problem with first time writer-directors who just can’t bear to part with their favorite zingers, pacing be damned. But these problems are almost incidental to the fun of the film, which starts off in the red and never decelerates, tossing out witty monologues and black-humor set pieces with refreshing abandon. When a bunny-costume-clad Sarah Silverman is the most grounded part of your movie, you know you’re in no danger of being too predictable.
Availability: Gravy is out now on Blu-ray and DVD from Scream Factory, and can be rented or purchased from most major download and streaming sites.