Let me start by saying upfront that I am biased, no, very biased. I have enjoyed Noel Well’s work for about a decade. She was one of the best students I ever taught at the University of Texas, and her work has improved and evolved throughout the entire time I have known her. Furthermore, Mr. Roosevelt is a film about someone leaving Austin in order to follow their work-related dreams, and about someone who owns a wonderful beloved orange tabby. All of this predestines me to be the target market for the film. Even walking into the theatre with so many pre-existing conditions, I can confidently say this was without a doubt one of (if not the most) heartfelt and genuinely funny comedies that I have seen in years. Now let me extoll the film’s virtues.
Noel earns her multi-hyphenate in this one. She wrote, directed and stars as lead character Emily in Mr. Roosevelt. Noel (for the few that may not recognize her) first reached a larger audience when she became a regular on Saturday Night Live for a season and further cemented her rightful place as a great comedic actor on Master of None. In both these programs her performance shined, but she was utilized in the creation of someone else’s universe – always a satellite and never the sun. This time around she finally gets to tell a story centered around her character, and it happens to be a character she knows very well.
The film follows faltering comedian/actor Emily from Los Angeles back to her native Austin when the pet she left behind suddenly passes away. This is the setup that leaves her struggling with feelings of regret for her decision to leave, shame for the lack of success she traded it all for, rediscovery of her old life with a new perspective and even a healthy dose of excitement about a life really only beginning.
Surrounding Noel is a supporting cast that starts with Nick Thune and Britt Lower as Emily’s ex-boyfriend (Eric) and his new girlfriend (Celeste). Emily flies back to Austin having never considered that the city could have changed in the two years she was gone. She has no exit plan, no place to stay and figurative (and literal) boxes full of unresolved emotions still tying her to her old life. The untangling of these complications begins as she thrusts herself into the middle of Eric and Celeste’s home and relationship.
Nick plays Eric just charmingly enough to pull Emily back in, but not so alluringly that you ever really want her back with him. People change when they are apart, and Britt aces the role of Celeste, representing the new life that Eric always longed for. Like the city itself (which probably deserves second billing as a character) Eric gentrified while Emily was away and there is no turning back the clock, no matter how much she might wish she could. The crux of the movie centers around Emily finally realizing this and putting as much energy into changing herself as she did trying to force everything back to the way it was before she left.
Along the way she takes you on a guided tour of mid-2000s Austin hipster culture making a hilarious stop at one of the “secret greenbelt beaches” with her new best friend/local chronic wait staff Jen (played aggressively and hilariously by Daniella Pineda). At the greenbelt she lets herself temporarily fall for everything that makes Austin unique. She joins in on the midday drinking and smoking and swimming as if she was living in a retirement community for 29 year olds. She even lets herself be charmed by Andre Hyland’s portrayal of a more Linklater era Austin red-neck hippie/stoned proto hipster. These scenes are spot on accurate and so utterly beguiling it is easy to see how she is seduced into wanting to freeze Austin and her life into this slacker snow globe moment.
The plot takes no surprising turns from there. The magic of this life wears off and its mixed bag reality shines through. The villainous Celeste who has replaced her in her old life…and house…and cat’s life is actually a nuanced human and not the enemy. Even Emily turns out to be less of a victim of circumstance and misfortune and more of a young woman in need of motivation to figure out what she wants. Even if you expect some of these turns, the humor and believability of the getting there are when Mr. Roosevelt really shines.
I’d compare the film to Mike Judge’s work, and I mean this as a gigantic complement. No single gag is necessarily fall out of your seat funny, instead they cumulatively charm you until you can’t seem to do anything except laugh at every interaction. She does this by not overly exaggerating any given moment in an unrealistic joke, but rather taking hundreds of totally believable ridiculous incidents and cramming them all together into one escalating funny movie-long joke. A prime example of this is Paul Gordon’s comically deadpan turn as the veterinarian as soon as Emily arrives in Texas.
At its heart this is still a low budget, indie flick filmed impressively on actual film. It still has some rough edges and grit to it. You could nit-pick some plot points, but I dare you to try to watch it and not laugh. I went in with high expectations and Mr. Roosevelt exceeded them.
Mr. Roosevelt recently screened at the Indie Memphis film festival.