You probably best know Paul Lieberstein as Toby, the universally loathed HR rep from the NBC sitcom The Office. What you might not know is that when Lieberstein wasn’t getting abused in front of the camera, he was producing, writing, and directing the show behind it. After two decades in television, Lieberstein is making his feature film debut with Song of Back and Neck, a comedy that showcases his unique ability to twist existential pain into comedy.
Lieberstein stars as Fred Trolleycar, a middle-aged man who suffers from daily back pain so intense, he finds himself collapsing onto the floor on a daily basis. When a leading specialist (Paul Feig) explains that his back problems are inoperable and untreatable, Fred believes he may be resigned to be one of those guys who has back pain. When he’s feeling good, he walks hunched over taking careful steps. When he’s having an episode, he slides along the floor like a snake, dragging things down to the ground with his fingertips and toes. It’s a performance grounded in Lieberstein’s twenty years suffering back pain. Sometimes the performance is cartoonish and exaggerated, other times it’s subtle, but it always feels like a portrayal of very real pain.
Fred works as a paralegal at his father’s law firm, the same place he’s worked since a boy. He views it as a family business of sorts, despite never going to law school, and frequently butts heads with Atkins, the youngest partner at the firm, played by The Office alum Clark Duke. Here he meets Reagan (Rosemarie DeWitt), a neglected housewife looking for a divorce. Sensing a kindred spirit and fellow back pain sufferer, Reagan gives him the number of an acupuncturist, Dr. Kuhang (Raymond Ma). Despite being skeptical of Eastern medicine, Fred goes and discovers that when the needles are placed in his back, they vibrate, forming a symphony of harmonics. Fred begins gaining notoriety for his musical back and a budding relationship with Reagan makes him wonder if the source of his back pain might be psychological.
The premise of Song of Back and Neck is wonderfully bizarre, but the themes it touch on will feel very familiar. Lieberstein’s talent for milling existential pain into laughs is on full display here. It’s a midlife crisis film, but not a typical one. Fred is a very hard comedic lead to root for, embodying the kind of obnoxious ineptitude that prevents us for really want to see him succeed. Thankfully the film isn’t particularly interested in Fred’s success either.
Lieberstein’s plays Fred comfortably inside his wheelhouse, imbuing the character with just enough pathos to keep us from actively rooting against him. DeWitt is another stand out, playing the contagiously charming and insidiously broken Reagan. It’s a pitch perfect performance of manic loneliness that pairs well with Lieberstein’s embodiment of existential dread. It’s one of the more organic oddball couplings in recent memory. The fact that Lieberstein has crafted a story where these two people romantically collide in a way that is remotely believable is a testament to his excellent script.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Lieberstein retains his crown as the king of quiet comedic suffering. He’s built a film that feels both wildly eccentric and fundamentally relatable at once. Song of Back and Neck is a portrayal of repressed emotions that is as heartfelt as it is wickedly funny. Lieberstein has created a slow motion train wreck of a film. It can be painful to watch at times, but you won’t want to look away. Song of Back and Neck is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival.