The Climb is a Brilliant Reinvention of the Buddy Comedy.
In the opening moments of Michael Covino’s The Climb, which follows a peaceful biking trip between two 30-something friends, wannabe alpha Mike (played by Covino himself) and docile dork Kyle (co-director Kyle Marvin) are thrown into disarray when Mike abruptly confesses that he’s been sleeping with Kyle’s fiancée. Mike, who is scheduled to be the best man at Kyle’s wedding (and is the more experienced cycler), speeds ahead to avoid having to deal with the fall-out of his outburst; “Why did you wait to tell me now?” Kyle emotionally pleads, to which Mike simply responds, “I knew you’d have trouble getting up the hill.”
Of course, Mike’s plan can only work for a little while, as his exhaustion soon leads him to careen carelessly over the road, inspiring the ire of an upcoming driver who forces him off the road. The sequence runs a full eight-and-a-half minutes, and is captured in a single Steadicam shot which fluidly tracks between Mike, Kyle, the path ahead, and the passing traffic, expressing their petty push-pulls of power in spatial terms. The sequence is not only very funny and an impressive technical feat, but it also represents their friendship in microcosm: Mike is stuck in a cycle of impulsive, self-destructive behaviour, eager to escape the consequences in the short-term but unable to consider the long-term damage he might cause, while Kyle is destined to live in his shadow — a solid fall guy who is too comfortable in position as Mike’s rock of stability to ever stand up to him or make the difficult decisions necessary to improve his station in life. Each man pities and envies the other in equal measure (albeit for very different reasons), and this yin-yang connection that they’ve shared since childhood keeps them bound together, even though everybody around them can see they’d both be better off apart.
Covino’s debut feature (expanded from his award-winning 2018 short) doesn’t exactly break any new ground, but it handles its low-stakes narrative with enough formal ingenuity, emotional insight, and unpretentious good spirit that it quickly won me over. The remainder of the film tracks the passage of Mike and Kyle’s friendship over a period of several years, as the dangerously co-dependent pair repeatedly compete with, betray, and antagonize one another. This progress (or lack thereof) is divided into seven sections of roughly equal length, each of which takes place over a single day and is separated from the previous one by a number of months.
Most of these segments are covered in a single shot, with the camera roving methodically through a confined location. In outline, these strict formal parameters may sound like a pretentious gimmick to coat a veneer of artistry over a conventional plot, but Covino in fact demonstrates a remarkable gift for employing the qualities of the long-take to enhance the humour. Recent American comedy has been marred by a casual indifference to form, with most filmmakers content to simply set up a few cameras for coverage purposes while the performers are given free rein to deliver the verbal punchlines — a disturbing trend which has marred the indie scene just as much as the multiplex (the Duplass Brothers are every bit as culpable as Judd Apatow). The Climb represents a much-needed corrective to this tired mode, utilizing complex, choreographed camera movements in tandem with tight staging to craft a comic symphony of unfortunate exits/entrances, misunderstandings, and pratfalls. Its inspirations skew closer to the classical era screwball of Hawks and Dwann than mumblecore.
The structural play also forces the audience to do some guesswork in order to fill in the gaps in between segments, and temporally orientate themselves (although the chapters are connected through a logical linear timeline, each one could easily be isolated and screened as a self-contained short). One chapter opens at a funeral, leaving the viewer in the dark for a while as to which character has died; another opens with a kidnapping which we only discover to be a prank after a sustained period of suspense; the film’s high-point is a set-piece in which an estranged Mike arrives at a Christmas celebration hosted by Kyle’s family. The camera weaves through the crowds with the lithe elegance of Robert Altman at his best, conveying a complex history for both characters through tossed-off conversational details and minor elements of the mise-en-scène.
However, while it’s damn refreshing to watch a comedy that feels so carefully crafted, the jokes themselves are a mixed bag. At times, the material channels the deadpan slapstick of early Hal Hartley, while at others it feels like a young comedian’s bad improv set. Easy digs at the overweight, the elderly, and sex workers should honestly be below a filmmaker of Covino’s evident talent, and Gayle Rankin is saddled with a thankless role as Kyle’s humourless, domineering fiancée Marissa, leading to a number of tired boy’s club jokes about wives as castrating shrews. Also, the film’s few lapses into outright absurdism — such as a musical insert of an elderly couple dancing in skis or a group of construction workers erupting into a fourth-wall-breaking impromptu rendition of “I Shall Not Be Moved” — feel like clumsy, unnecessary distractions. The Climb shines brightest when its stylistic flourishes are used to flesh out and satirize the friendship of the toxic man-children at its centre.