There are two unfortunate constants when it comes to the early artistic works of the film-bro community: movies that never get better than their epic opening, and the obsession over impressing audiences via the unbroken take (I’ll even admit that I’ve certainly fallen victim to the misguided allure of both, back in my own film school days). “The Climb,” might be a film-bro, buddy comedy that gives into such gimmicky hooks, however, it soon becomes clear that the introductory shot is much more than simply a gag, its a narrative composition that turns into its own story, with a beginning, middle, and end, much like the one-scene, one-shot approach to Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s remarkable cinematic achievement, “The Tribe,” a Ukrainian film told entirely through its sign language and shot selection. Similarly, the blocking work of director Michael Angelo Covino’s splendidly staged film most always has a purpose, even if the approach does somewhat wear out its welcome.
Premiering way back in the the pre-COVID days of the dinosaur (Cannes 2019), “The Climb” is a buddy comedy exploring the tempestuous nature of half-wit human relationships (remember when you had those with people?). Kyle and Mike (Kyle Marvin, who co-wrote the movie with director Covino) close friendship is put through a trial after Mike (Covino) drops a major bombshell on a mountainside bike ride: he slept with his best friend’s fiancée, Ava (Judith Godrèche). This reveal sets the two friends on a seemingly forever-linked path of turmoil, each spiraling into a sea of personal struggles which reset and repeat themselves. Structured as a series of seven unceasing comedic vignettes, which exceedingly reveal more layers of character depth, “The Climb” can’t completely sustain its steady confidence, but through raw personality, expressly impressive camerawork and its genuinely emotional doofus back-and-forths, Marvin and Covino construct an engrossing flick that’s close to airtight until it reaches the halfway point.
Structurally fragmented through title cards, i.e. “I’m Sorry,” or “Let It Go,” basic sentiments of acceptance and growth that aren’t as easy to enact as they are rattled off as platitudes, the segmental storytelling approach plays close to ingeniously throughout the first 3 sections of the film. Kyle is the kind of dude who is too meek for his own good – not able to say no to anyone, let alone his new girlfriend, Marissa (an outstanding Gayle Rankin); on the flip side, his bestie Mike is a self-immolating a-hole who arrives at Christmas dinner drunk. The movie does a remarkable job establishing their personalities in the opening (almost nine minute take), a cycling sequence that’s about as well put together as some of the best deadpan, Coen Brother physical comedy bits.
The not-so-dynamic duo swap body types, early on, after tragedy strikes, which friend is more overweight almost becoming a signifier for their place in life. They end up feeling like a modern day Vladimir and Estragon trapped in Millennial-bro bodies, but the non-stop toxic behavior does inevitably read as a tad needlessly masochistic, the rote and resolute progression of character (perhaps deliberately) becomes formulaically stalwart. Mike and Kyle’s bickering starts swaying between hilarious and predictable (Mike’s speech on the ice-fishing trip, being a prime example) rather than authentically meaningful, as it plays towards the beginning. Each sequence also reads less singular in its photographic vision – almost like the pair ran out of cool shot ideas.
More open and outwardly affectionate than most films of its caliber – although, the flick can feel a lick too punishing, here and there, in the later scenes – Covino’s film is composed narrative filmmaking made with an urgency that also feels organic, but sadly, the approach ends up being the flick’s own worst enemy once it reaches the middle portion, as the familiarity of the characters’ destructive behavior starts reading as bluntly reiterative, the earnestness between the two leads wearing itself blatantly on its sleeve. Additionally, dialog reads hammier and hammier when not primarily motivated by comedic escalation tied to the physical comedy.
There is definitely an argument to be made that the less-refined, late narrative approach also parallels the lead characters paths in life. As much as it is a buddy-comedy, “The Climb” is also a coming-of-age story – the internet term “adulting” often springs to mind throughout the flick. “Doesn’t it feel like it was written for men though?” is an off-hand comment Marissa makes about a medication commercial. Marvin and Covino’s creative project may feel like it was made for a specific kind of cinephile audience, yet almost every scene functions as a singular idea and progresses multiple creative threads that pay off. Immature decision making and scabrous self-centeredness being the entire purpose of the asides, “The Climb” is simply absorbing cinematic storytelling, coordinating its artistic choices through the harmony of a dimwit friendship.