DIFF 2017 Review: Noël Wells’ ‘Mr. Roosevelt’

Mr. Roosevelt opens with Woody Allen’s Annie Hall on the brain. Emily Martin — played by the film’s writer, director and star, Noël Wells — is staged with a medium close-up against a teal background (not Alvy Singer’s nihilistic brown). She recounts a story from grade school that signaled the beginning of her comedic endeavors. Like Singer’s monologue, Emily’s is cross-cut with memories of her childhood; the present recedes into the past to establish the artist’s psychology. Yet where Annie Hall found its home in the artist’s psyche, with the film ever remaining in a loop of memory and time, Mr. Roosevelt plays things along a straight narrative line. Allen-as-Singer stood outside himself and the film; Wells-as-Martin remains in the moment. Emily’s monologue is revealed to be an audition. Life seems to be one overdrawn audition that she just can’t nail.

When Emily’s ex-boyfriend calls and says that their cat, Mr. Roosevelt, has died, she leaves L.A. for her hometown of Austin and is thrown back into the life she cut off to pursue her dreams. Mr. Roosevelt’s inciting incident isn’t the death of her beloved pet, but the realization that Emily isn’t a necessary character in the narrative she left behind, and maybe not essential to the life she leads now. Eric, her ex (Nick Thune), has a new partner who is everything Emily is not. Celeste (Britt Lower) is a “Pinterest board come to life”; she runs a successful tech company, hosts Sunday afternoon brunches and remains perpetually calm and composed. This new woman has even claimed Mr. Roosevelt as her own. Yet she’s not the woman Emily longs to be, she just possesses the execution that the afflicted Emily wishes she had. (This juxtaposition is also embedded as a lament over Austin’s turn from its hipsterland quirk in the takeover of tech bros and the bespoken nu-Silicon Valley.)

What transpires from the set-up is typical of the 21st Century comedy. Once she befriends a group of free-loving, do-as-one-will Austinites that try to set her straight, Emily’s veiled narcissism and low self-esteem lead the oblivious yet loveable fuck-up to self-discovery through an embarrassing comedy of manners and social pratfalls. It’s the common moral tale of the millennial, 20-something. And while it’d be unfair to compare this to the masterpiece that is Annie Hall, the film never coalesces around the formal wit of its first scene. But what Wells’ debut lacks in originality, it makes up for in the promise of its creator.

Wells has a knack for leaving her scenarios open for the unexpected and bizarre, like the rousing denouement when she steals Mr. Roosevelt’s ashes from the memorial brunch that Celeste has planned. She’s also a welcome presence in front of the camera. Her presence as a physical comedienne and sense of improvisation engages throughout. She has a lot to learn behind the camera, though. That freedom and improvisation she possesses as a performer doesn’t transmit well into her direction. Some sequences feel ill-timed and awkward and wind up losing shape after a few beats. Framing cinematic scenarios as comedy is a traditional skill that doesn’t always yield easily to comedy in the age of Vine.

Despite its over-moralizing and trite narrative, the film’s sweetness and Noël Wells’ promise make Mr. Roosevelt a comedy worth spending 90 minutes with. That Wells clearly has a certain affection for Annie Hall is a good sign of what’s to come.

Colin Stacy (@bcolinstacy) is a writer, husband and father in Fort Worth, Texas. His writing has been featured at Reel Spirituality, Movie Mezzanine and 100 Films | 100 Scenes. He’s also the creator of the “Written and Directed by Elaine May” t-shirt.