Mr. Roosevelt toes the line between warmly endearing and overly precious.
Mr. Roosevelt, a homespun comedy written and directed by “Master of None’s” Noël Wells, toes the line between warmly endearing and overly precious. Shot in and around Austin, Texas, the film has a sensibility reminiscent of any number of quirky indie comedies, but it ultimately manages to avoid feeling forced or contrived thanks to Wells’ personal touch. The characters, settings and situations are filled with a kind of loving familiarity, as if the director has had them rattling around her mind for ages. They emerge on screen fully formed and with just the right amount of self-awareness—this is a coming-of-age comedy through and through, but it also deconstructs the coming-of-age genre in a time when people “come of age” a lot later in life than they used to. Wells’ take on millennial culture is warm and occasionally enlightening, and it makes the film’s hokey humor and cutesy temperament easier to stomach.
Wells is a Texas native who moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in comedy. In Mr. Roosevelt, she stars as Emily, a Texas native who moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in comedy, albeit with far less success than Wells herself. Taking the old adage of “write what you know” to heart, the director begins the film as an incisive satire of LA’s comedy scene. Her character deals with dorky improv dudes whose attitudes toward her oscillate between obnoxiously flippant and vaguely threatening, and there are some great in-jokes involving the Upright Citizens Brigade theater and the perils of auditioning. While trying to determine her creative identity—she’s doesn’t do stand-up or sketch, and her biggest success to date is a popular viral YouTube video that she “failed to monetize”—she pays the bills working for an unsuccessful marketing startup run by a bunch of dismissive dudes. Depressed and disillusioned with her Hollywood life, Emily readily decamps for Austin when she learns Mr. Roosevelt, the cat she shared with her ex-boyfriend, Eric (Nick Thune), has died.
Arriving in town on a one-way flight, Emily fully expects to find Eric under similar emotional duress. However, other than feeling sad about Mr. Roosevelt’s passing, Eric is happy, well-adjusted and living with his new girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower), to whom Emily takes an immediate dislike, in part because Celeste has completely redecorated the house Emily and Eric used to share, transforming the relatively plain two-bedroom into something out of Kinfolk. The film hones in on the unique sadness of being a stranger in a previously familiar place, and the feeling extends outward into the city itself, where all of Emily’s old haunts have been replaced with newer, more chic variations. The seemingly perfect Celeste, a “Pinterest board come to life,” embodies this notion and serves to remind Emily of everything she’s lost—not just a cat, but a home, a life and, perhaps most key to the film, a lifestyle.
Indeed, Mr. Roosevelt luxuriates in the hipster splendors of Austin. People in their twenties (and people who wish they were still in their twenties) drink cheap beer at house parties and live in overcrowded co-ops and have topless picnics at Greenbelt swimming holes, all while begrudging the gentrification that they themselves helped bring about. Complaining about a system in which you are also a willing participant has become something of a millennial hallmark, and it’s also the very problem that plagues Emily throughout the film. It’s eventually revealed that she didn’t merely break up with Eric—she unexpectedly left him (and, crucially, the cat) without so much as a phone call letting him know. Emily is prone to self-sabotage, and the film’s specific sense of humor derives from her vain attempts to regain the life she readily abandoned. Such a selfish and fruitless pursuit borders on classic absurdism, and then there’s the ironic notion that it’s all her fault to begin with. The film is irreverent and goofy, but not without considerable pathos.
Nothing in the film, from the premise to the narrative structure to the overall tone, is particularly novel, but there’s a welcome honesty throughout. Mr. Roosevelt is a carefully observed and deeply empathetic experience, with Wells displaying warmth and fairness to each of her characters, most importantly her own. It’d be really easy to hate a character like Emily, and you can envision her being the villain or the butt of every joke in a different kind of movie. But Wells shows her the kind of compassion that can only come from someone who’s been there before. Sometimes, however, her compassion verges on self-indulgence, and you get the sense that maybe she’s rationalizing or excusing some of her own past digressions. But then that’s just part and parcel with the film, which tells us that admitting you’re messed up isn’t the same thing as apologizing for messing up, itself. Mr. Roosevelet is at times egocentric, but Wells’ directorial spirit, from her winning 35mm camerawork to her expert ear for dialogue and character, make the film less of a vanity project and more of an art project.