Sundance 2021: 'On the Count of Three:' Comedy and Despondency Go Hand In Hand
Updated: Mar 7, 2022
A good black comedy does a couple things. First, it has to nail the humor. Pick a lane locate the eccentricities within your characters, and stick with it. A strong start can dwindle if the characters aren’t handled with caution and attention. Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, for example, falls victim to the “overdoing it” curse in the second act, while Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is a devastating case of “underdoing it”.) . Second, the dark elements have to surprise you, but still fall within the realm of possibility. Despite how ridiculous the circumstances may seem, based on how the world is established, you aren’t left baffled by something coming out of left field. The Coen brothers clearly have a knack for this sort of thing in movies like Fargo and A Serious Man. Finally, the film, despite its moroseness, should feel human. Throw in that element of naivety, that twinge of guilt, that bit of awe. That’s the unicorn point. Laughing at other people’s pain isn’t a sustainable course of action. I love Armando Ianucci, but watching too much of his stuff turns me mean. I like black comedies that, despite a satirized subject, can leave me yearning, or even melancholy. Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, and now, Jerrod Carmichael’s On the Count of Three.
What comes to mind when you hear “On the Count of Three?” Maybe when you’re getting a shot as a child, or ripping off a bandaid. Maybe it’s when your mom is getting impatient with you and is going to evoke the -parental countdown-. It evokes a childlike sense of preparation, a preemptive warning. It’s a mutual agreement between people that after the third count, the task will be completed. It’s trust that, when that last number arrives, fate is sealed. In On the Count of Three, it’s the preparatory concurrence that deeply disillusioned friends Val and Kevin are going to end it all together.
This was bound to be an audience splitter from its premise alone, as is the risk for any film that tackles the treacherous topics of mental health and suicide. It is fully understandable why some people could be rubbed the wrong way by its preliminary nonchalance. But it finds its unicorn point in a depiction of genuine friendship. Christopher Abbott is legitimately riveting, achieving a perfect balance of mania and vacillation. There has never been a person more in the right than the person who chose Last Resort by Papa Roach as the recurring anthem for this deeply distraught individual. Jerrod Carmichael should be praised for his direction as well as his performance as a frustrated but comparatively subdued straight-man. Given the nihilist circumstances of their final day’s activities, it’s no surprise that the hijinks are borderline reassuring. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? They’re going to get caught? As blunt and morbid as it sounds, this is the attitude that prevails. The two are going to exact revenge on the people who made them feel like life isn’t worth living. What greater offense can be committed than the stealing of purpose?
On the filmmaking side of things, the fluidity and precision behind the camera help avoid a potentially tawdry look that the grittiness of the premise might, on another occasion, garner. As baseless as it sounds, this polish is an advantage thematically; greater proficiency in the presentation aid in putting your trust in the movie’s message. I found myself overwhelmed with a million different emotions and fully believing that this sensory overload was well-intended.
A slightly miscast Henry Winkler aside (it’s extremely difficult to separate his “pure evil” role here with his comically evil role as Dr. Saperstein in Parks and Recreation), the team was aces. It’s relatable, it’s brutal, and it makes you question whether you, in fact, are okay if you are nodding your head along to the dialogue of these two. The Count of Three won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it might just be your shot of espresso.