In “Straight Up,” writer-director-star James Sweeney comes close to breaking the land speed record for dialogue established by “His Girl Friday” all the way back in 1940. The characters in this minor but often very funny sideways rom-com talk at each other in sardonic, hyperliterate bullets of cleverness, riffing on cultural references in an effort to lift themselves out of their funk. Typical question and response: “What if this is as good as it gets — like that movie “As Good as It Gets’?” “Well, sometimes something’s gotta give — like that movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow.’”
I could spend the entire review quoting the dialogue and, honestly, it would be funnier than the movie itself, because what Sweeney genuinely possesses as a writer and, to a lesser degree, a performer, he’s still figuring out as a filmmaker. “Straight Up” is about a gay man, Todd (Sweeney), who’s so fed up with being alone that he wants to go back in the closet, and Rory (Katie Findlay), a savvy but struggling actress who’s just glad to have a boyfriend who loves “Gilmore Girls” as much as she does.
Can this relationship work? Of course not. But watching these two smart people outsmart themselves and each other has its modest yet real pleasures, not to mention an undercurrent of melancholy that makes the laughs stick to the ribs. The camerawork and editing are crisp, if tentative; Sweeney uses off-center framing to droll effect without quite establishing a style of his own. Says Todd to Rory, “You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re clean. That’s all that matters,” and would that were true of the movies as well.
Findlay has been in other projects — she was very good in the first season of “How to Get Away with Murder” — but this is the first to showcase her crack comic timing and rueful appeal; Rory’s the kind of too-intellectual-for-L.A. actress who argues herself out of auditions because the scripts are dumb. Todd, meanwhile, is sex-averse and slightly OCD, and his self-loathing interlocks with Rory’s in ways that make them both feel almost whole. Sweeney delivers his lines in rapid-fire bursts that betray a tightly-wound wit trying not to panic, and the way Findlay volleys back his bon mots guarantees that, on some level, Todd and Rory are perfect for each other.
Their friends just think they’re insane, especially when the two show up at a costume party dressed as Brick and Maggie from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” (They didn’t know Brick was gay because they’d only seen the movie.) “Todd, you’re like a Kinsey 6. Five when you’re not wearing cashmere,” says Meg (Dana Drori), a louche model with a dim-bulb boyfriend (Joshua Diaz) who thinks “Ellen DeGeneres” is the answer in every game of charades. There’s a dinner with Todd’s broadminded and only mildly racist parents (Randall Park and Betsy Brandt) that’s amusing without making much sense. In fact, all of “Straight Up” plays as if it’s pouring from the mind of a talented writer who’s still putting his house in order.
This, I’d submit, is one of the few upsides of the current pandemic. With movie theaters shuttered and the studios keeping their franchise blockbusters on ice (rather than risk the wrath of multiplex chains by releasing them to video-on-demand), the James Sweeneys of the world benefit, and so do we. “Straight Up” has been playing in “virtual screenings” via local movie houses and is available through the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s website as of May 8. It’s worth a look, if only to get in on the ground floor of a comic mind who will hopefully continue to grow. And it’s worth a listen, if only for observations like “You know what’s ironic? Arguing about Alanis Morissette with your gay boyfriend.”
Written and directed by James Sweeney. Starring James Sweeney, Katie Findlay. Available for virtual screening at Coolidge.org/films/straight. 95 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, deadpan sex talk)