05 Jun Jules Feiffer’s Words Keep “Bernard and Huey” Just Buoyant Enough
As you might hope for a film with a script from the great Jules Feiffer, Dan Mirvish’s Bernard and Huey bristles with anxious, circuitous, hilarious talk. Based on characters the longtime Village Voice cartoonist invented a half-century ago, Mirvish’s roundelay sex comedy offers spiraling spiels and bald, bold declarations of self right out of his epochal comics. “You’re afraid of the truth. So is everyone else. That’s why I’m not famous,” insists Zelda (Mae Whitman), a 25-year-old aspiring graphic novelist whose works are built around concepts like “a penis that ejaculates carbon emissions.”
As always, Feiffer’s people cloak and reveal themselves in words, often doing the latter mostly when they think they’re doing the former. Jim Rash delivers a bristling monologue about how his character’s ex pretended her tactic of compassion was actually an ethic; later, an on-again/off-again couple will argue over which of them is the key transitional figure in the other’s life.
That elfin wit Rash plays Bernard, the schlemiel-ish old college pal/rival of David Koechner’s carousing Huey, a one-man sexual Sherman’s March blazing from the Hudson to the East River. Rash finds the music in Feiffer’s flights of chatter, dashing nimbly through Bernard’s speeches and arguments, sourcing each word or sputter in character — Bernard seems to making all this up as he goes. Koechner’s Huey is more of a performer, a boor playing the part of the sophisticate to keep the bedroom he’s borrowed at Bernard’s West Village apartment hopping. Koechner shows us the strain of generating all that talk. Huey rattles off an impressive list of favorite authors before admitting, “I haven’t read a book in fifteen years.” The two are conceived in counterpoint, of course, each reflecting and defining the other in ways that, often, are too obvious to be illuminating.
Still, Feiffer and Mirvish never inflate the significance of these dudes’ sexual misadventures — the tone, as in a Feiffer cartoon, is detached, observational, even taxonomical. (Some of the talk dates back to comic strips about Bernard and Huey from the 1950s.) The film could be subtitled A Comedy About What Men Like This Are Like. Mirvish even offers a long-take tribute to Feiffer’s panel layouts in one confrontation, seen in silhouette, between Bernard and Zelda; as in an inky black-and-white strip, we’re invited to study the body language.
Some cast members struggle to make Feiffer’s words seem natural, most notably two young actors who play the leads in college flashbacks. (Some of their strained talk — “Look at that preppie airhead smile! That skank’s too fuckin’ much!” — suggests Jim Belushi adrift in About Last Night…, that film adaptation of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago.) The story, too, isn’t as inspired as the best speeches or Rash’s performance: Bernard’s age-appropriate longtime lover (Sasha Alexander) has to exclaim, “You come here to tell me you’re in love with a 25-year-old undergrad?” There’s a variation on that line in most bookish Manhattan sex comedies. Feiffer, at least, isn’t romantic about cross-generational horndogging and works amusing variations on the musty setup. The young woman, Whitman’s Zelda, is Huey’s daughter, and nothing unfolds the way you might expect. Rather than rage when he finds out, Huey notes, “She got my genes. She will butcher him.” Whitman, meanwhile, duets winningly with Rash, two skilled screen actors free to cut loose for once on dialogue worth their time.