Romantic comedies are one of the hardest genres of film to get right, and there has been a bit of a shortage of really good ones over the last few years. Making its European Premiere at EIFF, Ode to Joy can go straight onto the list of very good contemporary rom-coms. Directed by Jason Winer, and featuring a terrific cast, Ode to Joy is an absolute delight of a film, and one of the highlights of EIFF2019 so far.
Martin Freeman is Charlie, a man suffering from a rare neurological condition called cataplexy, which causes him to collapse into unconsciousness whenever he feels strong emotions. His particular Achilles heel, is joy. He essentially has to live his life avoiding happiness at all costs. If he collapses at the wrong place at the wrong time, he could literally die.
The script written by Max Werner handles this very sensitively, but also mines every last nugget of comedy out of it. This opening sequence at the wedding of Charlie’s little sister is tremendously funny. He is barely managing to keep his shit together, and his brother Cooper (Jake Lacy) is encouraging him to ‘think unhappy thoughts.’
His daily commute to his job at a New York library involves him playing funeral music on his phone, to try and counterbalance all the nice things – seeing eye dogs, adorable kids, a man helping a pregnant lady with her groceries – that might cause him to collapse. Then Francesca comes into his life. Played by the stunningly gorgeous Morena Baccarin, all of Charlie’s friends and family know he is screwed the moment they see her. He knows better than to go out with her, but does it anyway.
Winer then takes the film off in a slightly unexpected direction, but it works fantastically well, and maintains the core emotional truth of the characters. Even with Martin Freeman’s innate likeability, Charlie isn’t always the easiest character to warm to. Underneath the comedy there is a real bittersweet feel to the film, and an occasional caustic edge to the humour that is surprising, but again, it feels true. If you had spent your entire life unable to feel joy, you would probably have a few rough edges to your personality as well.
As we all know, Freeman and Baccarin are both gifted comedic actors, and they are on great form in Ode to Joy, and have terrific chemistry together. I worried in the early scenes that the script was skirting dangerously close to manic-pixie-dream-girl territory with Francesca, but thankfully this is avoided. Elsewhere in the cast, Jake Lacy is a lot of fun as Charlie’s little brother, but the show is stolen by Melissa Rauch as Francesca’s co-worker Bethany. She is absolutely brilliant and has the films funniest moment by a mile.
Ode to Joy just has that classic rom-com feel about it. Set in New York, it has lots of those lovely NYC walk and talk scenes with stunning architecture and scenery in the background. If like me you’re a total NewYork-ophile, you will definitely get the warm and fuzzies watching Ode to Joy. Visually stylish, brilliantly written, with flawed and funny characters, this is one not to miss.