It would be too easy to call the strained romantic comedy “Ode to Joy” a joyless exercise — but it’s hard to think of an adjective that works better.
The seed for this story comes from a “This American Life” story about a guy who suffers from cataplexy, a form of narcolepsy in which the sufferer experiences muscle weakness and even blacks out when having any strong emotion — particularly happiness. Screenwriter Max Werner and director Jason Winer travel far afield of the original story, with a dismal collection of shrill, unpleasant characters in a scenario that plays the real problems of cataplexy for cheap laughs.
Charlie (Martin Freeman) is the one suffering cataplexy in this story, and he goes to great lengths to keep himself from getting overwhelmed by cuteness. He walks to his boring job at the Brooklyn library wearing headphones that play dirges. He averts his gaze at cute dogs or even cuter children. When his sister Liza (Shannon Woodward) is getting married, Charlie has his younger brother, Cooper (Jake Lacy), mention sad news events — like dolphin slaughter or the war in Syria — to keep him from becoming too elated.
Into this well-ordered, if somewhat depressing, life enters Francesca. I could tell you that Francesca is vivacious, overflowing with bubbly personality and a knockout to boot — or I could tell you she’s played by Morena Baccarin, from the “Deadpool” movies and “Firefly,” and that would be saying the same thing.
How Charlie meets Francesca qualifies as one of the most aggressively dumb meet-cutes in movie history. Things pick up on their first date — a depressing one-man play, followed by a long walk in the rain talking about Francesca’s cancer-stricken aunt, Sylvia (Jane Curtin) — until she asks him to come up to her place, and Charlie promptly hits the concrete. The date ends in the emergency room, and Cooper must tell Francesca about his ailment.
Charlie tells Francesca they can’t date any more, but he does suggest she go out with Cooper. This turns out to be a good way for Charlie and Francesca to stay in each other’s orbit, since Charlie can’t get too happy knowing she’s going out with his brother. This plan is tested when Cooper, Francesca, Charlie and his mousy substitute girlfriend, Bethany (played by Melissa Rauch from “The Big Bang Theory”) go for a weekend double date at an upstate B&B.
It’s probably instructive — or at least cautionary — to look into the filmmakers’ IMDb listings. There, one will see that Winer hasn’t made a movie since that unfulfilling “Arthur” remake with Russell Brand in 2011, and Werner’s last movie script was the howlingly awful Halloweek kids’ movie “Fun Size.” Both have done a lot of TV work since, but it hasn’t prepared them for sustaining a story past formulaic plot devices or shaping authentic, lived-in characters.
Freeman and Baccarin have little chemistry, even when their characters are trying to generate some, and Lacy is too convincing at being a shallow jerk to make his role any fun. The only genuine laughs come from Rauch’s go-for-broke performance as the space-case Bethany, highlighted by a disturbingly note-perfect imitation of the late Dolores O’Riordan performing The Cranberries’ Irish death song “Zombie.” Rauch seems to be the only person in “Ode to Joy” who was given permission to make anyone laugh.
‘Ode to Joy’
Opened August 9 in select cities and on demand; opens Friday, August 16, at the Megaplex Gateway (Salt Lake City), Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy), and Megaplex Thanksgiving Point (Lehi). Rated R for some language and sexual references. Running time: 97 minutes.