The state of the comedy film today is interesting and slightly perplexing. We rarely make straight comedies anymore, we make action comedies like 21 Jump Street or horror comedies like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, and more and more films are branding themselves beneath the heinous portmanteau “dramedy.” When we do make straightforward comedies, they’re high concept, like this year’s half-baked Sex Tape. In that respect, J.C. Khoury’s All Relative feels like a film out of time, something that would have felt more at home in a pre-Judd Apatow world. In a way, All Relative is refreshing, even quaint, but that antiquated feel is also a bit of a problem.
Harry (Jonathan Sadowski, Friday the 13th) is a graduate student studying architecture who’s finally ready to start dating again after his fiancé cheated on him a year ago. He meets Grace (Sara Paxton, The Inkeepers) through a chance encounter at a bowling alley, only to find out she is currently dating someone. Later that night, Harry meets Maren (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator), an older woman who thinks Harry is the perfect happy weekend fling. The two are keen to keep their relationship strictly between the sheets, but when Grace suddenly becomes single, Harry cuts ties with Maren. His new relationship with Grace blossoms over the course of a minute-long montage, and everything goes swimmingly until Grace takes Harry to meet her parents and he discovers that Maren is Grace’s mother.
All Relative feels reminiscent of many stock romantic comedies from the 1990’s, but not in a way that’s clever or ironic. Harry and Grace meet while they’re bowling; doesn’t that just feel a little old-fashioned? Harry has a minority friend, Jared, played by Al Thompson, who exists entirely to give Harry sage advice and terrible suggestions in equal measure. Harry studies architecture, which is the single most common profession for the male romantic lead. There are plenty of articles that discuss this phenomenon at length, but to name a few examples: How I Met Your Mother, Sleepless in Seattle, (500) Days of Summer, Click, Love Actually. This exemplifies All Relative’s general lack of imagination.
The film doesn’t just play by the numbers, it accentuates them, by making Harry’s architecture career a pivotal plot point. Grace’s father just so happens to be a senior member at the architecture firm Harry is applying to. Does this raise the stakes? Sure, but it also can’t help but induce an eye roll or two. It constitutes one too many coincidences. There are a number of films that center around a coincidence, as in a single coincidence. Asking us to buy that Maren is Grace’s mother? Sure; what a crazy coincidence! But asking us to buy that Maren is Grace’s mother and is married to a senior partner at the specific firm Harry is interviewing at? That asks too much.
The film was shot on an incredibly modest budget, and doesn’t attempt to hide that fact. Khoury relies on the strength of the script and performances to carry the film. While the faith in the script might be misplaced, the faith in the performances is a bit more founded. Connie Nielsen is funny and affecting as Maren, and Khoury wisely allows her to be admirable and despicable in equal measures. Sara Paxton works wonders with what little she is given, managing to create a three-dimension character out of a script that so desperately just wants to treat her like a trophy to be fought over. Jonathan Sadowski, on the other hand, feels like a secondary player thrust into a leading role, and he never quite manages to accrue the magnetism the role requires.
All Relative is a comedy through and through, but its most effective moments are quieter ones of emotional heft. This is not a film of far reaching political or social commentary, but it does have a sizable, if misplaced, heart. All Relative is most successful when it’s making small attempts at drama. This is partially because of the cast and partially because the film is not particularly funny. Aside from the criminally underutilized Al Thompson, who finds the whole debacle hilarious and pushes for a “mother-daughter threesome,” no character is irrational enough to draw much comedy out of the situation. One of the great pleasures of farce is that the characters take simple misunderstandings and complicate them into absurdity through lies and miscommunication. This makes a Harry, a character obsessed with honesty, a terrible choice as the hero in a narrative that only works when the characters want to lie. Khoury seems more interested in bringing conflicts to their rational conclusion than to their comedic extreme.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
All Relative is a film out of time, a ‘90s period piece but with smart phones. Director J.C. Khoury never fully embraces the anachronisms embedded into the architecture of the narrative, and a result is a film that feels out of touch with the modern day. The film sticks criminally close to the rom-com formula, but doesn’t have the wherewithal to satirize that fact. All Relative is the kind of film audiences are too savvy for today. A good comedy has a razor sharp edge. Unfortunately, this one’s just been worn down by time.