BINGE-R #62: Friends From College + Friday Night Films

BINGE-R #62: Friends From College + Friday Night Films

 Afternoon Delight: Nat Faxon (Nick) and Cobie Smulders (Lisa) in Netflix’s  Friends From College

Afternoon Delight: Nat Faxon (Nick) and Cobie Smulders (Lisa) in Netflix’s Friends From College

FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE S1

Streaming Service: Netflix

Availability: All eight episodes now streaming

Netflix’s new comedy does an excellent job of never quite being the series you expect it to be. The story of a group of Harvard University pals reunited in New York as they hit 40, it’s in turn contemplative and farcical, plot-driven and wildly improvised. It casts immensely likeable actors – including comic Keegan-Michael Key, formerly of Key & Peele, and Cobie Smulders from How I Met Your Mother – as often unlikeable characters, and challenges you to divine how you feel about their twisted traits. One episode had me laughing wildly, the next dragged. I would recommend it – or at least the first two half-hour episodes – but I would also understand if you intensely disliked it and doubted me.

Smulders and Key play married couple Lisa and Ethan, a lawyer and novelist respectively, who relocate to New York, which adds unwelcome proximity to the two decades long affair Ethan has been having with the subsequently married Samantha (Annie Parisse). The initial scenes establish that troubling romantic entanglement as the crux of the show, but it never really resolves the underlying dynamic. It’s not that Friends From College doesn’t know what kind of show it wants to be, it’s just that it’s determined to be several, even if the stitching holding it together isn’t exactly tidy.

Creators Francesca Delbanco and Nicholas Stoller – whose own courtship inspired the latter’s 2012 film The Five-Year Engagement – initially sketch the relationships and attitude with telling detail, whether it’s Samantha sticking with a nickname for Lisa that her friend doesn’t really like, the casual but growing divisions of wealth, or the way when the six friends are together they both regress to their early twenties and unintentionally shut out everyone else with their shared language. The other friends, especially Nat Faxon’s layabout Nick and Jae Suh Park’s purely eccentric Marianne, are unfortunately second tier: deadpan reactions and helpful advice.

Several episodes are self-contained, including one where Ethan and final friend Max (Fred Savage), desperately try to concoct a Young Adult novel to pitch to a superstar author (Kate McKinnon, in full freaky flight). Stoller, who directs the entire series, is rightfully at ease letting this ensemble riff and run riot – there’s an “L. Ron Howard” bit that’s hilarious – although you may wish that some of the character’s selfishness was called out. The best comic addition is Billy Eichner as Felix, Sam’s boyfriend and Lisa’s fertility specialist. The character is uptight and completely humourless, which Eichner makes surreptitiously funny. That approach could sum Friends From College up.

>> Bonus Binge: If you want to sample Keegan-Michael Key’s inventive sketch work, Stan has the complete run of Key & Peele’s subversive social commentary, while Netflix has all nine seasons of How I Met Your Mother, the sitcom-smart successor to Friends starring Cobie Smulders, Neal Patrick Harris and Jason Segel.

 American Idiot: Brad Pitt (Chad Feldheimer) in Netflix’s  Burn After Reading

American Idiot: Brad Pitt (Chad Feldheimer) in Netflix’s Burn After Reading

FRIDAY NIGHT FILMS

If you want a pitch perfect black farce…

Burn After Reading (Netflix, 2008, 95 minutes): Joel and Ethan Coen hit on the America that was about to get overwhelmed by the Global Financial Crisis in this deliciously dry 2008 comedy where every character wants something more: personal wealth, a sexual conquest, a better body. The needs make these characters into something grotesque but also flexible, especially when a disagreeable CIA officer (John Malkovich) has his tell-all memoir stolen by his wife (Tilda Swinton), who in turn loses it to a pair of dubious gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt); you can add to the list George Clooney, in order of his character’s priorities, as a serial philanderer and government agent. Betrayal is matter-of-fact, perhaps because they all know the game is rigged, as blackmail and amateur espionage lead, as ever with the Coen’s, to a bloody reckoning.

If you’re after a telling coming of age tale…

Sister (Stan, 2012, 94 minutes): In Ursula Meier’s compelling drama the privilege of the Swiss ski fields and the unspoken accommodation of siblings are both exposed to the harsh glare of reality. Dodging school, 12-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) treks upwards each day to cunningly pilfer gear from a whited out resort so as to support himself and his intermittently absent guardian, his sister Louise (Lea Seydoux, from Blue is the Warmest Colour and Spectre). Watching Simon fence his take, you realise he’s smart, yet there are truths he cannot discern, and this coming of age story creates a union between the lonely pair that is painfully tight no matter how they desperately treat each other.

If you prefer the grandfather of Baby Driver

Bullitt (SBS on Demand, 1968, 109 minutes): Steve McQueen and director Peter Yates basically invented the action movie car chase with the now iconic sequence in the middle of this obtuse police procedural where the actor’s San Francisco police inspector coolly belts up and then burns out a pair of hoods. Whether investigating the murder of a newly turned informer from an organised crime syndicate or spending time in the company of his girlfriend, Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset), McQueen’s Frank Bullitt is a dispassionate, even ambivalent, figure, taciturn in words but ultimately physically expressive through his coiled stillness. McQueen’s sense of reserve, his mirrored, murky masculinity, was at the core of his screen stardom, and few films brandished it like Bullitt did.

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