Several weeks ago, during our Fall Preview, I predicted that Barry Munday would be “bad.” My reaction upon finally seeing the film was not actually that far off from what I assumed it would be, but now I must shift Barry Munday into the “good” 50% of cinema (that “good” or “bad” rating system isn’t particularly nuanced). It is an incredibly slight film, verging on completely trivial at times, yet it is charmingly dopey and features an unexpected comedic KO from Patrick Wilson. Frankly, the film is better than it has any right to be.
Barry Munday (Patrick Wilson) is in his late 30’s, yet he acts and lives his life like a lame college kid, goofing off at work until he’s free to hit the happy hour at Chili’s or some other uncool business area bar/restaurant and scam chicks. Barry’s entire purpose in life is to get laid, and his standards are impressively lenient. He ogles and flirts with every single female he sees, oblivious that there is a sharp age cut-off below which he is now far too old to cross. Then he meets Candice (Mae Whitman) at a multiplex. She is well below this cut-off line, but Barry flirts with her instinctively. When Candice’s father discovers the two together in the theater, he attacks Barry’s junk with a trumpet (which he just happens to be carrying). Barry wakes up in the hospital to discover that both his testicles have been removed. Shortly thereafter, Barry gets an unexpected letter from an attorney representing Ginger (Judy Greer), a bitter and unattractive lady that Barry hooked up with while blackout drunk. Ginger is now pregnant. Instead of fighting the paternity claim, Barry finds himself overjoyed. This could be his one and only chance at fatherhood. Now Barry needs to learn how to grow up and win Ginger’s true affection.
Barry Munday has the low-high concept premise of a lesser Happy Madison film. It frankly seems like it should be starring Dane Cook. Turning that concept into a quirky indie frankly makes the whole thing seem even more awful (to me at least). On top of all that, the film has some big narrative problems.
There is no conflict in Barry Munday. Conflict can mean a lot of different things in a movie, depending on the genre, the story, and the writer’s approach, but generally you at least want to give your hero a goal of some kind, or some friction that ultimately causes him/her to change as a person by the end of the film. Knocked Up (a thematic relative here) was also low on dramatic conflict, but there was still a conflict. Seth Rogen had a personal arc he needed to make. He had to decide he was committed to growing up and being a father. Barry does too. But Barry makes this decision the moment he learns Ginger is pregnant. In fact, he is completely gung-ho about it, never wavering in his enthusiasm. The closest thing we get to conflict on Barry’s end is that after the baby is born midway through the film he is briefly given reason to suspect that the baby may not actually be his. Yet, despite this, Barry remains fully committed to helping Ginger raise the thing anyway. So Barry’s arc is completed at the end of Act I. If this were a cop movie, Barry would have already shot the drug kingpin villain by minute 20.
With no arc to have, Barry needs a goal and some hurdles to surmount along the way. Barry wants to be in a loving relationship with Ginger. The hurdle is that Ginger thinks he’s an immature idiot. This sounds like a standard mission for a romantic comedy hero, but where Knocked Up pitted Seth Rogen’s schlubby man-boy against a smart, successful, beautiful, and kind woman, Barry is pitted against a bitter, angry, unattractive, and mean woman. He’s frankly too good for Ginger in a lot of ways. If it were just about her being unattractive, the movie could’ve been about Barry getting over superficial things, but Barry does like her. On top of this Ginger is a real shrew, insulting Barry every chance she gets. Yet, regardless, Barry makes the decision that he’s gonna make this work at the end of Act I. So Ginger is the character who gets the arc here. She learns to appreciate Barry, not the other way around. This shifts the narratives friction onto Ginger, but she’s just a supporting character. She doesn’t have her own subplot or even scenes where Barry isn’t present. This creates kind of a void of appropriate tension. It also makes Ginger really unlikable. I felt bad that such a pleasant, well-meaning fellow as Barry was stuck with such a bitch.
In spite of this, Barry Munday still mostly works. A bit like I Love You, Man, the movie feels purposeless, but you don’t necessarily care in the end because it is pleasant and provides some laughs. A lot of credit goes to writer/director Chris D’Arienzo (who wrote the majorly fun musical Rock of Ages), adapting the book Life is a Strange Place by Frank Turner Hollon. D’Arienzo, either by design or accident (this is his first film, so one never knows), never goes hard for the jokes here. The bits and gags and one-liners sort of drift in and out, quietly, which is not something I expected from a movie where a guy gets his balls destroyed by a trumpet in the set up. D’Arienzo’s gentle touch makes all the difference. Cause, don’t get me wrong, most of the jokes here are incredibly stupid, but D’Arienzo doesn’t shove them in our face like a Happy Madison film would. A perfect example is a scene where Barry is bamboozled by his mother into attending a support group for men with genital deformities. The scene is riddled with bad-taste-landmines (like a guy whose penis is 16″ long but as thick as a pencil), but the film calmly steps through it. The jokes just kind of happen in Barry Munday, inviting you to take a bite or not. This approach encouraged me to bite more than I thought I would.
The exception that proves the rule in Barry Munday is Barry’s best-friend Donald, played by the great Shea Whigham (most recently of Boardwalk Empire). Donald represents what this movie easily could have been. Equally dim-witted as Barry, Donald’s passion in life is air guitar, and there is a completely pointless and unfunny subplot in the film involving Donald’s entry in an air guitar contest. I get the impression that a lot of Donald’s scenes were edited out of the film (that’s what it feels like at least), which doesn’t surprise me. I would have kept cutting further. As silly as the movie can be, it generally plays as real. Donald reeks of forced comedy. A sad waste of Whigham, who I normally love.
With such a completely passive approach, Barry Munday would have likely proved so forgettable that I’m not sure I could have written a review were it not for Patrick Wilson’s performance. Wilson is a guy I’ve never had much of an opinion about. He seems to specialize in playing boring duds. He plays them well, but it always seems like anyone could have. And I certainly never thought he could be funny. Wilson kills as Barry Munday. Not only is he funny, but he saves and carries the entire film.
Barry is a fun character. He is so upbeat and endearingly immature, it is hard not to enjoy watching him. When he first visits the doctor with Ginger, he has taken the time to make up a list of questions to ask the doctor. Some are legitimate questions, but he also asks if the doctor can recognize a woman by her vagina. Wilson manages to never make Barry cloying or so ridiculous that he seems like a cartoon. Barry’s obsession with women at the beginning of the film seems like it was intended to feel really pervy and unlikable, but Wilson is so winning as the character that I almost felt bad for him when girls were disgusted by him. It felt like Big. He’s just a hormonal boy stuck in a man’s body, unable not to stare at boobs. Wilson’s creeper face he makes while locked in a boob-staring trance is solid gold. Actually, Lothario Barry is so much fun to watch it is almost sad how quickly he reforms in the film. My favorite bit is when he spots Candice at the multiplex concession stand, and sidles up to her as though he were at a bar, talking with the concessions clerk as though they were a bartender. “Dos sodas, please.”
The film has a really fantastic cast actually. Judy Greer is always fun, though I wish she’d been given a less grating character to work with here. Billy Dee Williams shows up as Barry’s boss, in a rare non-gimmick role (he’s a fine actor, I wish this would happen more). Jean Smart is one of the few characters who adds some believable humanity to the silly film. Malcolm McDowell is given a few fun moments as Ginger’s dad, and Chloe Sevigny, Kyle Gass, and Christopher McDonald all get some choice bits too. Weirdest casting is Cybill Shepherd as Ginger’s mom, who is given absolutely nothing to do in the film. She barely even speaks. I have to imagine there is a lot of her on the cutting room floor.
There is really no reason to see Barry Munday, but, if you happen to find yourself watching it, you will likely have a pleasant time. This is the kind of comedy that produces smiles instead of belly laughs. At the end of the day though, smiling is nice too.