Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Climb is the prickly, ambitious, gut-busting American comedy of the year

Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino in The Climb
Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino in The Climb
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Note: The writer of this review watched The Climb on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.

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On a scenic drag of French asphalt, American friends Kyle (Kyle Marvin) and Mike (Michael Angelo Covino) pant through a bike ride that’s just hit its toughest stretch. Kyle is getting married to the love of his life. Mike is his best man. The two have known each other since childhood, and their banter is easy and jovial. Or it is right up until the moment that Mike offhandedly drops a bombshell: He’s sleeping with the bride-to-be—and has been, on and off, since Kyle met her. “If I catch you, I’m going to kill you,” Kyle blurts out. Mike’s response: “Yeah, that’s why I waited for the hill.”

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To the pantheon of extended, elaborately choreographed shots, one can now add this uproarious set piece, the nine-minute opening sequence of The Climb. The film captures Mike’s confession and its immediate fallout in a single, winding take; what we’re watching is a friendship implode in real time. It’s the rare, special instance where keeping the camera rolling truly benefits the material: Like Kyle and Mike, we’re trapped within a gauntlet of discomfort, un-spared by the artificial deliverance of a cut. Plus, it’s just funnier, watching the actors navigate an emotional minefield while literally navigating the twists and turns and traffic of a long road, delivering lines through gasps for air.

The scene could operate perfectly well as a self-contained short—and indeed, that’s how it began. Marvin and Covino are real-life buddies and also the filmmakers; the latter directed The Climb from a script they wrote together. They’ve expanded their one-shot, stand-alone version of the story into a full feature by asking where these characters might go, and how their lives might change, after that fateful ride. And in doing so, the two have made an ambitious, mordant, and often startlingly funny comedy about the uphill attempt to mend a friendship after one party shatters it with a betrayal.

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The Climb unfolds as a series of cleanly delineated, exquisitely awkward vignettes: little inspired sitcom episodes, each blipping the audience forward through time, with changes in the characters’ appearance marking its passage. (At one point, they seem to swap body types, Mike picking up the extra weight Kyle has shed.) The narrative’s zigzagging course can be as unpredictable as life’s; this is a movie that opens with the implied calling off of a wedding and then flashes forward immediately to a funeral. The film’s anchor is the messy relationship at its center, and the sharply defined personalities. Marvin plays Kyle as a pushover mensch—a true golden retriever of a man, so forgiving and loyal and amiable that everyone in his life walks all over him. Mike, by contrast, is a distinct species of asshole: Covino, who has a bit of the look and testiness of a young Oscar Isaac, conveys the internal wrestling match of a selfish person trying to rebuild himself into something better with faulty tools.

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The film’s comic sensibility is singular, maybe new even. It’s nuanced and broad, grounded in emotional reality but still amenable to flights of musical fancy and bursts of sudden slapstick violence. (Mike, damaging in multiple respects, wrecks not just homes but also their tables and dishware; he has a rather symmetrical habit, too, of getting his ass kicked by strangers.) Covino stages several of the film’s discrete scenarios the same way he does the opening one: via long and unbroken shots, including a Christmas sequence that captures multiple conversations with a Steadicam prowling around the perimeter of the house like Michael Myers. Some of these choices feel more motivated than others—this is the kind of calling-card debut that occasionally betrays, through its bravura flourishes, a director with something to prove. At the same time, so much American comedy is so indifferently directed that it’s mostly just refreshing to encounter one that makes the camera a co-conspirator in its screwball fun, punching up the dialogue scenes and prolonging tension.

The Climb
The Climb
Image: Sony Pictures Classics
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As the years elapse, the two men pass in and out of each other’s lives. The survival of their bond becomes entwined, eventually, with Kyle’s reconnection with his high school sweetheart, Marissa, played by Glow’s Gayle Rankin. Mike, like everyone in Kyle’s family, thinks she’s a bad fit for his friend, and that becomes the fuel of his misguided crusade for redemption—a kind of suicide mission of romantic sabotage, hapless but wholly sincere. Is it possible to do something wrong for the right reason? The Climb doesn’t take a side in this love triangle of sorts—in part because Rankin, in a superbly acerbic performance, makes Marissa too amusing in her candor and sympathetic in her exasperation to earn our disdain. Whether she’s right for Kyle remains an open question, straight through a bittersweet final stretch that subverts any expectations about where these flawed people might land.

Anyway, the bigger mystery might be whether Mike is right for Kyle. Can he change? Can anyone? The Climb never denies that their friendship is dysfunctional and perhaps irreparably toxic: a collision of the unstoppable force of Mike’s pathological destructiveness and the unmovable object that is Kyle’s incapacity to walk away. Yet the film also believes in the genuine love the two men have for each other, to the point where it flirts with concluding that someone can be a lousy friend and still a person you want in your life. There are no sentimental easy answers or shortcuts to uplift in this unusually prickly buddy comedy. Like Kyle and Mike, it just keeps pedaling forward, in the hope that some kind of clarity might materialize at the top of the hill.

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