Brian Posehn has been a comedic force standing just outside the bright spotlight of Hollywood for more than a decade at this point, but he’s finally been given the chance to shine a new holiday-themed comedy that is darker than the coal you’ll find under your Christmas tree if you miss this film.
Nick (Posehn) is a broken man filled with rage, sadness, and cynicism to ruin the cheeriest person’s day. He lives alone on the outskirts of Cleveland, but on the day we meet him he must travel across the city to celebrate the holidays with his siblings in an enormous house owned by his wealthy sister-in-law (Paget Brewster). It’s a trip that results from an invitation begrudgingly accepted by Nick, who has found it incredibly hard to feel joy for anything since the untimely death of his girlfriend several years prior, and it only makes him feel worse to see others being happy. For Nick, each day is just another mundane slog through the seemingly endless purgatory that is his life alone. He believes all hope and happiness has been reserved for people he doesn’t know, so much so that he has a hard time believing anyone he meets to be truly happy. Like so many depressed protagonists before him, Nick thinks what we call happiness or feeling content Is really just a lie we tell ourselves to ignore the fact we will all die with regrets.
With all this in mind it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that Nick’s bitterness towards yuletide cheer soon causes tensions to rise between him and his extended family. As with all great black comedies, Uncle Nick revels in the unspooling of family secrets and flat-out lies without giving any care for the collateral damage that may ensue. It may seem like Nick is out to harm his loved ones, but in his mind he is helping his family to see the folly of their ways. While that may be true, to an extent, the real motivation behind everything is that Nick doesn’t know what else to do with himself. He’s depressed and has been for as long as he can remember. He’s as stuck as a person can be, and his only way of expressing his unhappiness is through sardonic comments and half-assed attempts at being cordial at never quite work.
Nick’s family, for the most part, doesn’t seem to care for him or his snarky remarks. His depression has been apparent for years, and it has only grown worse over time. They seem to have only invited him because it’s what good behavior dictates around the holidays, and you can tell they almost immediately just how much they regret trying to be nice. Nick is worse than ever this year, and as the story plays out his warped take on existence begins to influence other members of the family. His brother, Cody (Beau Ballinger), finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the illusion that his marriage is a happy one. Meanwhile, Nick’s niece Valerie (Melia Renee) cannot stop flirting with him. They’re not related by blood, but that sexual tension does put Nick in a rather awkward position that his fragile emotional state is not quite equipped to handle.
Before things get too hot to handle, Nick meets his crass match in his equally sarcastic sister. Her unabashed life advice, coupled with copious amounts of alcohol, lead Nick down a path toward self-realization that just might give meaning to Christmas after all. It comes a little too late to save the rest of the family from facing their numerous demons, but every undoing feels fully justified in the context of the story. It’s not about tying up loose ends, but rather unraveling the lies tied to keep hearts in line. It’s not pretty, but it’s necessary, and as the viewer you are offered a unique front row seat to a family becoming undone as never before captured on screen.
Serving as a wraparound to the entire affair is a history of Cleveland and its beloved baseball team told through voiceover by Posehn. It’s a slow-burning metaphor that is meant to add comedic weight to the film’s darker turns, but the payoff only delivers in the film’s final sequence. The rest of the asides are just that, meaningless throwaways seemingly existing for no other reasons than punch-up and transitional work. The gags are hit-and-miss, which is deserving of some credit, but almost none of them have anything in common with the main story. It’s as if writer Mike Demski was so afraid audiences wouldn’t appreciate his dark humor that he found a way to weave a short film filled with dumb jokes into his narrative. Unfortunately for him and us, it’s largely useless material that feels entirely forgettable.
Director Chris Kasick makes his feature debut with Uncle Nick, and with the help of cinematographer Michael Pescasio he finds a way to make every scene look like a stage play. Any sequence involving two or more people is usually shot from one or two angles, with almost no one making any kind of gesture outside of small hand movements. Sometimes no one moves at all. It’s a static way to present a story, but thanks to strong lighting and the ever-present sense of friction between family members it’s an idea that actually works, to an extent.
When all is said and done, Uncle Nick feels in many ways like an experiment. The twists and turns of Demski’s screenplay tell of a desire to catch viewer’s off guard without having any idea of how to bring all of his ideas together, and the direction of Kasick’s direction tell of a filmmaker still trying to find a style all his own. Neither one delivers something spectacular, but it’s clear both are trying their best, and Posehn’s constant witticisms keep things moving even when other elements of the film fall flat. In a year crowded with holiday-themed films (The Night Before, Love The Coopers, Krampus and Christmas Eve are also out now, as well as additional titles), Uncle Nick simply doesn’t have enough good going for it to make the flick all the memorable. It’s good, but largely forgettable, and with competition as fierce as it is simply being watchable is not enough to warrant a strong recommendation.