Film can be an interesting medium for venting one’s personal frustrations. Though I don’t claim to know the mind of Noël Wells (best known for her role in Master of None), her feature directorial debut Mr. Roosevelt feels very personal, casting herself in the leading role of a screenplay of her own writing to tell a story of growth through humbling experience. Now, often that sort of ambition from someone largely untested in the director’s chair, carrying the load of a production both behind and in front of the camera, raises red flags as to how credibly one will be able to take the end result of their efforts, but Wells has surmounted those odds and made something heartfelt and sweet, even if it’s not quite as funny as she seems to hope.
Wells stars as Emily, a struggling comedienne in Los Angeles who, of course, just can’t seem to catch a break. One day, though, her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune) calls her to let her know that their cat, Mr. Roosevelt, has fallen terminally ill and will have to be put down. So Emily does the only sensible thing and flies back to her hometown of Austin, Texas to put the cat to rest. With no money after the emergency flight, Emily finds herself staying in Eric’s guest room, awkwardly getting to know his new live-in girlfriend Celeste (Britt Lower) and unearthing the demons of the past she abandoned.
Emily’s journey is a largely empathetic one, founded in coming to terms with past decisions and moving beyond those lingering regrets. Emily is prone to freak-outs and minor breakdowns, as well as ending up in situations she is less than comfortable with from peer pressure, but these are primarily her own hang-ups that many of us have had to overcome or address at one point or another. There’s something eminently relatable about Emily that makes her a casually watchable presence, and that has a lot to do with Wells’s natural charisma.
What Wells isn’t really capable of carrying on her solitary shoulders is the film’s comic beats. The film never quite falls flat on its jokes, but most of the situational antics hover in the area of endearingly awkward rather than actually hilarious. There is the occasional line that comes across as inspired and surprisingly novel, and the chemistry between Emily and newfound friend Jen (Daniella Pineda) is enough to carry any scene on feel-good vibes alone, but on the whole this is a slight-smirk kind of comedy rather than a gut-buster.
By those modest standards, though, Mr. Roosevelt is an entertaining bit of auteur theater, giving us a glimpse at the potential Wells has as a filmmaker. Assuming she continues writing and directing, these sorts of personal stories suit her well, and more confidence in her comedic chops would likely bolster those beats in future films. But as a first step, this is a perfectly adequate and admirable place to plant one’s foot.