SIFF Film Review – You Must Be Joking
You Must Be Joking
They say comedy is harder to pull off than drama. Making an audience laugh is much more difficult than making them feel emotional. It takes a lot of nerve to hop on a stage and get that kind of reaction out of strangers. I can barely stand up and talk about myself to others before I start feeling anxious. The main character of You Must Be Joking (2014) goes through the same sense of hesitation, but instead of letting it overwhelm her, she decides to jump in and see what happens.
Sas Goldberg stars as Barb Schwartz, a regular everyday person living in New York. By all accounts, Barb is just like everyone else: she works as a paralegal at a law firm, has her own apartment, and goes through her daily routines just like we all do. Her days are spent paper pushing and dealing with her snobby supervisor Haley (Vanessa Ray). She doesn’t really have a bad setup, truth be told, but Barb isn’t satisfied with trudging through the daily grind. Deep down, she has a passion for comedy, often sneaking in time to watch comedians on YouTube while on the job.
Clearly, Barb would much rather be a performer than a paralegal. But pressure from her family – notably her overbearing mother Linda (Margaret Colin) and disapproving sister Lisa (Katherine Waterston) – forced her to go to law school. The film nails this element right on the money. How her family dismisses what she truly wants and stresses her to have a “real” career echoes conversations I’m sure we’ve all had in our own lives. The narrative feels the most truthful in this context, as Barb’s frustration with loving her family but unable to make them understand rings with authenticity.
Things change when Barb reunites with her childhood friend Billy (Jake Wilson). By some strange series of events, Billy hired the law firm to represent him in a sex tape scandal, but his real purpose here is to help push Barb toward becoming a comedian. Jake Wilson and Sas Goldberg co-wrote the script (with Wilson directing), and their collaboration is essential to what makes the film work. They have a strong chemistry together. Barb and Billy may not have seen each other since high school, but once they interact it’s like they haven’t skipped a beat.
Through Billy’s insistence, Barb signs up for an improv class, and is surprisingly good at it. This is where we get to see Goldberg really stretch as an artist. Given that she helped write the script, it’s not a wild guess to assume she’s taken these types of classes in real life. As a result, her acting overall is a mixture of humor and experimentation. Goldberg is undoubtedly game to try anything, whether it’s dramatic or comedic. She dives into the material with tons of enthusiasm. Although most of what is attempted works, there were times where the performance got a bit too broad, almost like she’s throwing anything on the wall to see what sticks. This may come across to some viewers as over the top, but I see it differently. This is a performer whose only issue is that her arsenal of skills is almost too large. Goldberg is a talent to keep mindful of, and I hope to see her again sooner rather than later.
As a director, Jake Wilson keeps his camera steady, shooting scenes with a natural sensibility. But because of this, the added fantasy sequences contrast noticeably with everything else. In certain scenes, Barb drifts off, imagining herself or someone in a heightened and absurd state. These scenes break from the flow of the narrative. In one instance, a character mentions Barb’s propensity to eat bagels, to which she pictures herself as Lucille Ball in the famous conveyor belt scene in I Love Lucy. In another, while feeling depressed, we watch Barb transform into a sad clown. The characters and story are strong enough to not need these inserts to drive home the point.
The biggest issue is with the final act. I won’t delve into where Barb ends up, but how it all develops undercuts the work she put in earlier. We see Barb grow in the improv class – being one of the best students – yet what ultimately happens to her isn’t a result of her efforts, but comes about through desperation and sheer luck. Instead of taking life by the horns and dictating her own path (which is the big overall theme here), she finds herself being at the right place at the right time. For most people, success (or failure) will come after a lengthy struggle. Barb’s fate happens because the film deems it necessary for her to get there before the end credits roll.
With all that said, I still enjoyed You Must Be Joking, mostly due to the chemistry between Goldberg and Wilson. It’s easy to imagine them as real life BFFs. Here is a story of a person doing what they love, supported by someone who doesn’t try to change who they are. There’s something old school but intrinsically refreshing about that here.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with co-writer/director/co-star Jake Wilson and co-writer/star Sas Goldberg at SIFF 2014.