The curative power of garage rock is alive and well, and newly imagined, in Band Aid, an exuberantly low-key charmer that uses a light, wry touch to tackle such weighty matters as artistic drive and inertia and the male-female divide, while offering new fuel for drummer jokes. Taking the helm for the first time with her screenplay about unhappy marrieds who choose to sing it out rather than give up, actress Zoe Lister-Jones proves herself a multihyphenate threat. Though it sometimes loses the beat, her big-screen debut is buoyed by ace comic timing and spirited singer-songwriter action (yes, action). With its talented cast of familiar faces, it’s sure to hit the right chords with indie-friendly audiences.
Lister-Jones and Adam Pally (who puts a scruffy spin on Paul Rudd’s Everyguy leading-man quality) play Anna and Ben, Angelenos who are stalled in their relationship and their respective careers. A lapsed book deal still very much in her rearview window, Anna is working as an Uber driver. (Among the handful of niftily brief glimpses of her clientele is a cameo by Lister-Jones’ Life in Pieces co-star Colin Hanks, whose spot-on departure from his nice-guy persona is aptly named Uber Douche in the credits.) Ben is a visual artist who has turned his back on the very notion, freelancing from home as a graphic designer, his interest in company logos dwindling to the point of indifference.
Despite a few stumbles, a winningly inventive comedy.
Arguing and getting high are their two default modes; it’s no wonder their therapist (a terrific Retta, of Parks and Recreation) can barely mask her impatience. Lister-Jones’ screenplay is attuned to the way couples’ fights can dive down a labyrinthine rabbit hole. For Anna and Ben, an argument about unwashed dishes quickly morphs into a shouting match about Holocaust survivors. And without overdoing it, the screenplay and the leads deftly capture how the automatic reaching for a joint or a pipe is a way of soothing an unexpressed emptiness for these two, particularly when they’re around super-achiever friends like Candice (Brooklyn Decker), who appears to be effortlessly juggling parenthood and a TV career.
After a bit of stoned entertainment using kiddie musical instruments at her godson’s birthday, Anna gets the inspired idea that they should turn their fights into songs. They dig out the high-school-era guitar and bass and, after their first stab at improvised fight-singing goes well, take things to the next level with a drummer, next-door neighbor Dave (Fred Armisen).
Disturbingly affectless in a way that only Armisen can pull off, Dave is the kind of humorless weirdo who inspires nervous cracks about serial killers. With his leather loungewear and ever-present ex-stripper “best friends” Cassandra Diabla (Jamie Chung) and Crystal Vichycoisse (Erinn Hayes), he turns out to be far stranger than Anna and Ben could have imagined. His proximity and drum set, however, make him the perfect addition to their band. And he can play. The character is bizarre enough to be diverting, if not entirely satisfying, but he lends a well-deserved note of impassive exasperation over the squabbling as well as backbone to the music, whose progress is artfully captured by editor Libby Cuenin.
The songs, written by Lister-Jones and Kyle Forester and bearing such titles as “Love Is Lying,” “Mood” and “I Don’t Wanna F— You,” are performed live by the trio and convincingly convert conflict into visceral joy. “This is so fun,” Anna says after the couple’s first improvised bout of cooperative musical combat. That goes for the audience, too — the marriage of blunt but revelatory wordplay and rock ’n’ roll zing is a delight.
Where the film stumbles is in the telegraphed trauma beneath the fun. Though the pain that the couple has been pushing away is understandable, it becomes overstated, especially in comparison to the movie’s beautifully deadpan comic energy. The mounting (non-song) arguments that unfold grow repetitive, which might be true to real life but is less than engaging for the viewer.
Lister-Jones is clearly eager to untangle some of coupledom’s troubling knots, but as the story proceeds, she relies too much on blocks of edifying dialogue to do the untangling. The wonderful Susie Essman, as Ben’s mother, is tasked with delivering a “let me ‘splain it all to you” monologue on the hormonal and emotional differences between men and women. Not only is it too much and too neat, but it’s a jarring switcheroo from her character’s first scene in the film, when she’s heard on Ben’s phone as an insensitive and overbearing noodge.
The instances of Bridesmaids-style girl talk likewise feel a bit strained, if only because they’re familiar. Where Band Aid excels is in its mix of blisteringly understated comedy with a compassionate view of the ways we can let our lives drift away from us. There’s something bracingly fresh in the way Lister-Jones and Pally combine blind spots and vulnerabilities with a particularly secular-Jewish self-consciousness, not to mention the slapstick angst of sex when you’re not really into it.
She and DP Hillary Spera approach the comedy with an unfussy attention to character dynamics and a feel for Los Angeles locations, from the dark intimacy of open-mic clubs to the wide-open blankness of the beach. At the latter spot, with impressive subtlety, Spera and the director convey a trippy sense of dislocation after Anna and Ben take mushrooms for songwriting inspiration. Even with the movie’s lapses and missteps, inspiration courses through it like a well-turned melody.
Production companies: Mister Lister Films, QC Entertainment
Cast: Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally, Fred Armisen, Susie Essman, Retta, Hannah Simone, Brooklyn Decker, Angelique Cabral, Colin Hanks, Ravi Patel, Jamie Chung, Erinn Hayes, Gillian Zinser, Jesse Williams
Director-screenwriter: Zoe Lister-Jones
Producers: Zoe Lister-Jones, Natalia Anderson
Executive producers: Daryl Wein, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Edward H. Hamm Jr., Shaun Redick
Director of photography: Hillary Spera
Production designer: Hillary Gurtler
Costume designer: Sarah Fleming
Editor: Libby Cuenin
Songs: Zoe Lister-Jones, Kyle Forester
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Sales: QC Entertainment