In a conversation about Clerks II, a friend of mine remarked that he found it far too melancholy to function as a comedy. I have to wonder what he would make of Lurking in Suburbia, as morose a comedy as any I've seen in some time. I'm not averse to the picture that writer/director Mitchell Altieri has painted, but his lead character's unshakably downcast attitude dampens Altieri's good intentions.
And why is Conrad (Joe Egender) so downcast? As the film starts, he's waking, staring at a ceiling fan and coming to terms with the fact that he turns 30 today. As a natural-born slacker, Conrad ('Connie' to his friends) hasn't done much with his life thus far, and the sense of disaccomplishment has finally caught up with him. It's a midlife crisis pre-midlife, and Connie's not quite sure what to do or where to go next. I can sympathize with this, and to Egender's credit, his portrayal of Connie's adrift despair is keenly observed.
The trouble with Altieri's screenplay is that perhaps he observes Connie's despair too keenly. Lurking in Suburbia begins well (literally, with a shot lifted from the opening of Apocalypse Now). As Connie gradually introduces the audience to the world in which he lives and the friends he has, Altieri is careful to keep the humor and the hangdog in balance. The humor is rueful but generally effective in these opening scenes; the film's funniest and most cutting moment comes early on, when an arranged hook-up for Connie turns sour after the bubbly young blonde at his side says, "You went to high school with my mom."
As Connie sinks further into his blackened mood, though, Altieri's finesse dries up. The bulk of Lurking in Suburbia takes place at a party that is being thrown for Connie, and the celebratory shenanigans are meant to contrast with the deepening depression of the lead. Therein lies the flaw, though: By setting the two moods against each other, Altieri sacrifices the accomplished tonal meshing that he had earlier achieved. Connie's melancholy, allowed to run unchecked, shades over into self-pity, and thus we get insufferable scenes like the one where he rejects a stripper's sexual advances; meanwhile, the cutesy asides and drunken laff material gets defeated by the leaden serious parts.
The thing that bothers me about Lurking in Suburbia is that I can see how all of this, all I'm reacting against, is intentional and indeed meant to be reacted against. The third act, in which Connie essentially hits bottom only to receive several wake-up calls, has the same stance regarding Connie's behavior that I do. The overarching theme of the film is even spelled out by a minor character: "Don't waste your time figuring out what you're supposed to do. Just live your life." So I'm torn. Do I fault Altieri for dragging me along with this sad bastard, or do I praise him for repudiating and ultimately redeeming said sad bastard? At bottom, I have to go with my gut: The beginning works and the ending works, but the middle is a black hole, aiming for wistful and only achieving slightly whiny.
Too, though, there are likeable things even about the midsection of Lurking in Suburbia, further muddying my reaction. The acting is pretty good from all parties; in particular, Samuel Child (as the perpetual horndog Sean) and Ari Zagaris (as homosexual former football hero Danny) essay their parts with aplomb. Their interactions with Egender give off a convincing longtime-buddy vibe; this holds doubly true for Zagaris, whose character is the film's most fascinating. He figures heavily in the film's most effective scene, an impromptu midnight football game. It's here that Altieri best nails the idea that holding on to your past can lead to stasis even as it offers short-term enjoyment.
Elsewhere, though, the balance is imperfect; thus, the experience becomes dissonant. As well as I understand where both Connie and Altieri are coming from, the overcooked moroseness of the former defeats the achievements of the latter. The destination of Lurking in Suburbia is a satisfying one, but I think the journey is too rocky to justify. Your thoughts may vary, and you wouldn't be wrong.