97% of everything I saw at this year's Atlanta Film Festival turned out to be, in varying degrees, immensely enjoyable (and I should point out: I only saw a fraction of their many offerings). But the one unrelentingly bad choice I made was walking into Bruce Morgan's execrable comedy Chez Upshaw. It was an ugly time at the movies, and it left me wondering why something of this low quality was programmed.
Maybe it was because of the presence of its two stars, Kevin Pollak and Illeana Douglas. And I have to admit, though I always largely find Pollack annoying as an actor (he's a much better comedian and podcaster), I said to myself "I love, love, love Illeana Douglas, and so I'm going to see this." And based on her performance alone, which is the film's one bright spot, I can see why the film was included. But nothing else in the movie works, sadly.
Pollak and Douglas play Heaton and Rita Upshaw, the bickering owners of a failing California bed-and-breakfast who stumble upon a desperate and questionable solution to their financial woes. Nearing foreclosure, they take in a final client (played sweetly by George Coe--a notable character actor who many might not know was an original cast member for the first few episodes of Saturday Night Live, and who is a respected filmmaker in his own right with the great 1968 Bergman-inspired short film The Dove, which is much funnier in its 14 minutes than anything you will see in Chez Upshaw). Coe's wheelchair-bound character is vivacious and fun-loving, but he's clearly at the end of his life, and his doings at Chez Upshaw usher in a new possibility for the couple: why not turn this place into a go-to destination for those terminally ill people who have decided to end their existence?
It's a good premise for some very dark laughs, but such subtly-played comedy never arrives, because the two lead characters are so narcissistic (and so souced all the time; this movie has more liquor consumption than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). They're also, maybe as a result, incredibly stupid. When they are approached by the sleazy rep of a pro-suicide society (Shane Johnson, in an obvious sleazebag role), big question marks should have appeared in their heads, especially since their actions could land them in a prison cell. But none of this is ever discussed (and such discussions could have resulted in some additional laughs). Similarly ignored is the notion that many of the wacked-out people who eventually come to the B&B's door as assisted suicide clients are obviously insane. I wasn't expected to be offended by this movie--I knew what I was getting into. But I WAS offended by the unobservant treatment of the issue (if the filmmakers had taken a more nuanced look at it, it could have resulted in a brighter script with more intelligent comedic moments). Look, even the largely reviled Jack Kevorkian, before doing his controversial deeds, diligently screened his clients in regards to their psychology and possibly the presence of a mind-altering depression. But, here, Heaton and Rita unquestioningly (and greedily) assist a variety of clearly unbalanced souls into the afterlife...and this is resolutely NOT funny (it's actually quite mean). This makes the viewer think that this couple is a fatally idiotic duo...and why should we care about what happens to such screechingly argumentative and childish characters?
Chez Upshaw is, also, an unrelentingly unpleasant comedy to look at. Its amateurish direction, bad editing, uninspired cinematography, and over-the-top sound effects (including, yes, the inevitable fart-maker) are odious, to say the least. There are a couple of laughs here and there, mostly loaded in the first 20 minutes. But any audience goodwill is soon sucked away by the film's clumsy gaudiness. Pollak comes across exactly as I saw him before--as a bumbling, bombastic devotee of an outdated vaudevillian line delivery (as an actor, he's best used sparingly). Douglas, meanwhile, injects much more life and believability into her character than was clearly required (this movie proves she can elevate absolutely anything she's cast in). However, by the end, the two leads are mired in the same sinking boat, and the viewer just wants to exit Chez Upshaw and start in on the process of erasing this errant, people-hating movie from their minds.