The comedy of male immaturity reached its peak a little more than a decade ago, when “Step Brothers” brought the genre to obnoxious perfection. “The Climb” takes what seems to be a more elevated — more grown-up — consideration of some of the same themes. It’s about two best friends from childhood struggling with some of the challenges of heterosexual adult life, principally women.
Directed by Michael Angelo Covino from a script he wrote with Kyle Marvin — the two are real-life buddies playing guys named Mike and Kyle — the film layers non-jokey (but sometimes quite funny) sitcom beats with difficult feelings and painful dramatic situations. There are two weddings (one offscreen) and a funeral, as well as a bachelor party and a handful of awkward holiday gatherings.
But don’t be fooled by the signs of cinematic sophistication: the kinetic Steadicam shots; the numbered chapters; the semi-surreal quasi-musical numbers; the French movie one of the characters goes to see by himself. Rather than ascending to new heights of bromance, “The Climb” coasts down into the barren flatlands of masculine self-pity.
This sour, regressive wallow starts and ends with bicycles. We first meet Kyle and Mike pedaling uphill through a mountainous stretch of French countryside. Mike is the more serious cyclist, with a lean physique, tight shorts and a way with words like “bidon” and “cadence.” His fitness and confidence offer a clear contrast with the soft-bodied Kyle, who is wearing ordinary sneakers and a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. The alpha-beta hierarchy all this implies will be complicated later on — nearly to the point of reversal — but first Mike reveals that he has been sleeping with Kyle’s fiancée, Ava.
That’s not a spoiler. It happens before the opening titles. Ava, played in a single scene by the French actress Judith Godrèche, turns out to be disposable. Perhaps a better word is functional, since like all the other women in the movie — another fiancée, a mom, a stripper, a couple of sisters — she serves as a speed bump on Kyle and Mike’s long road toward a more perfect manly union.
What Ava does is provide both guys with wounds that alienate them from each other while guaranteeing them perpetual indulgence from the audience. Mike, his guilt compounded by grief, lets himself go. He drinks recklessly and puts on weight, while Kyle slims down and gets his act together. (The physical transformations seem to be achieved mainly by means of grooming and posture). He reconnects with Marissa (Gayle Rankin, giving the best and most thankless performance), the high school girlfriend who dumped him, even though nobody else in his life can stand her.
That includes Kyle’s sisters (Daniela Covino and Eden Malyn) and mother (Talia Balsam). There’s also a dad (try not to shout “Norm!” when you spot George Wendt), but he’s marginal to the story. Men can be boobs or brutes, but they are fundamentally without malice. That’s girl stuff. The acts of deceit, manipulation and betrayal that drive Kyle and Mike apart are all the work of women.
That might actually be interesting if Marvin and Covino had written a screenplay with genuine wit, rather than an agglomeration of zingers and non sequiturs. The verbal humor makes “The Climb” seem smarter than it is, just as Covino’s dexterity with pacing and camera movement provides some comic momentum. But the emotional core of the film — the love that supposedly binds Kyle and Mike in spite of everything — is empty. The final scene, which finds them back on their bikes, manages to be sentimental and cynical in equal measure.
It’s not that they’re bad guys. They’re just so tentatively and generically drawn that they never emerge as characters beyond a handful of easy-to-read attributes. Why do they care about each other? What else do they care about? They seem like extras in their own movie. Or maybe they should have been supporting characters — “Boyfriend No. 1”; “son”; “drunk dude at ski lodge”; “future ex-husband” — in a movie about Ava, Marissa, and Kyle’s mom.
Rated R. Guy stuff. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.
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