If you’ve been married long enough, you know that you have to take the bicker temperature every once in a while. Are you engaged in semi-regular, low-level bickering? That’s the sound of happily wedded friction; your relationship’s doing fine. Do you never bicker at all? You’ve forgotten who each other are and you need to see a marriage counselor, stat.
Are you two guilty of wall-to-wall, 24/7 angry bickering? Zoe Lister-Jones thinks you should start a band.
The movie “Band Aid,” which Lister-Jones has written, directed, and stars in, is a clever and heartfelt comedy-drama that remains aloft as long as it retains its sense of humor; when the going gets serious, the dialogue turns therapeutic and heavy. Still, it’s a decent debut and an ambitious attempt to juggle tones.
The movie opens with its LA couple, Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally), in mid-bicker, and it’s not the good kind. You sense this marriage is nearing the end of a long, exhausting road — the jousting has become reflexive. They’re living one long fight punctuated by meals and sleep.
All their friends have toddlers, which, for reasons that become clear, is especially painful for Anna, who makes sure she gets good and high before going to a kiddie birthday party. There, she and Ben pick up toy instruments and launch into an impromptu song. They’re good; the kids rock out. A light bulb goes on. “What if we turned all our fights into songs?” asks Anna.
For its first half, “Band Aid” works cheeky variations on the theme of marriage as band, with Ben and Anna bashing out noisy garage anthems with titles like “I Love You (But I Don’t Wanna [Expletive] You” and choruses like “I’m in no mood for your mood!” They enlist a neighbor as their drummer; he’s played by Fred Armisen (“SNL,” “Portlandia”) as a cheerfully spacy recovering sex addict who drags the comedy into genial cartoon territory. Eventually there’s the promise of a record deal. Or is it a threat?
You’ve seen Lister-Jones on TV, mostly — she was a regular on “Whitney” and currently costars on CBS’s “Life in Pieces” — and she has a bright, sardonic presence with an alto note of distress. Pally, a walking bedhead of an actor, complements her in style; you can see why Anna and Ben fell in love and why they now drive each other crazy. The relationship comedy of “Band Aid,” and its mildly stinging observations of LA life, ultimately give way to deeper emotional crises, with Lister-Jones diving under the skin of Anna’s discontents.
You get what she’s after — the rare indie comedy-drama to probe the subtext of a married woman’s emotions — but her script puts the subtext on top, in the dialogue, where it turns obvious. The arguments start to wear on the audience as much as the characters, and by the time we get to the scene in which Ben’s mother (played by the invaluable Susie Essman, of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) Explains Women To Him in a tidy little monologue, even he has to admit that “that’s a little reductive.”
Lister-Jones is also a writer more than she’s a musician, as is obvious from the awkward lyrics to Anna’s climactic number — a self-help confessional more than a song. The character calls the tune “a work in progress,” and you sense the movie is, too, as though the director were bickering with herself over form and subject and emotion and tone. There are worse things than working it out as you go along. Still, you may find yourself hoping Lister-Jones settles the argument before her next movie.
Written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones. Starring Lister-Jones, Adam Pally, Fred Armisen. At Coolidge Corner. 91 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, brief nudity and sexuality, awkward rock and roll).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.