For his followup to Excision, Ricky Bates crafted a smart, stinging, satirical comedy that lampoons the dying American dream of white, well-to-do, upper middle class families living out their days in perfectly manicured suburban homes. The success of his latest work proves two things. First, Excision was no fluke, and Bates remains a director on the rise. Second, Ray Wise, seen here doing his best Archie Bunker impersonation, should be in ALL the things.
With his MBA in hand but no employment prospects on the horizon Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler) is forced to move back home with his doting mother (Barbara Niven) and racist, clueless father Donald (Wise). Raymond’s long dormant ability to see into the spirit world is reawakened when the Mexican landscaping crew Donald hired to fix the lawn stumbles upon the skeletal corpse of a young girl. As an aside, this ability also rears its head after Raymond’s childhood doctor (the always welcome Jeffrey Combs) discontinues the prescription for his anti-psychotic medication (which he’s told is for high blood pressure) as a means of retaliation for Donald’s being late on paying his bills. Enlisting the local barmaid/former school chum Becca (Kat Dannings) to help him put the troubled spirit to rest, Raymond also has to contend with a trio local bullies for whom high school is their Vietnam (a war that never ends) and a father that is committed to having Raymond committed to an insane asylum. Phew. That’s a mouthful.
Honestly, the plot is incidental to your enjoyment of the film. Gubler is a real treat to watch as a rubber faced, unconventionally handsome beanpole of a lead. Playing the role of the Bud Abbott straight man, he has balances zinging one liners with being a grounded force that stabilizes the film and holds the variant plot points together. Bates takes his comic cues from the biting, satirical comedies of the 1970s, invoking John Waters, Mel Brooks and Jon Landis during his Kentucky Fried Movie days. At other times it fells like Heathers updated for those who found post-grad school life not all it was cracked up to be. I found myself laughing partly because this style of humor is so rarely evoked nowadays, when there seems to be trepidation to offend anyone with a joke that might be off color. Yes, it is laugh out loud funny to hear Wise’s racist dad apologize to his black football players that his wife forgot to “buy the grape pop.” Gothic offers a scathing takedown of the privileged class that believe just because they won the genetic gene pool they are everyone’s social betters. There’s no better moment of this in the film than when Gubler leans over a snarky high school girl and, staring directly into the camera’s lens eviscerates her in brutal fashion for her small minded, provincial ways.
I’m comfortable laughing art this, or the dozens of other instances of dark humor because Suburban Gothic is smart enough to deride individuals who think they’re bettering society by “telling it like it is” instead of celebrating them as anti-status quo truth sayers. That’s part of the genius of Ray Wise’s performance. In lesser hands his words would come off as mere hate speech. Yet Wise gives his father character a buffoonish air not unlike that of a twice removed uncle you only see around the holiday season. It’s the air of a man that doesn’t know time has passed him by, that his best days and timeof relevance have both long passed.
The weak link of Gothic is Kat Dannings as Becca. It’s the umpteenth time we’ve seen her play a sullen, disaffected character with a propensity for snark. It’s a role she’s snoozed her way through so often one has to wonder if anytime a producer has an aspiring young actress up for the role, Dannings hunts her down and snuffs the life out of her, burying the remains in a drainage ditch somewhere outside Hollywood.
That qualm aside, Suburban Gothic remains one of the sharpest comedies I’ve watched all year. At the moment it is tearing its way through the festival circuit, but much like Excision, Bates’ film will surely find a larger audience sooner rather than later.