The romantic comedy Ode to Joy is a fact-based farce inspired by a story on the popular radio show “This American Life,” adapted for the screen by executive producer Max Werner. The film premiered at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem earlier this year (selling out, no less) and is now in general release.
Our intentionally lovelorn hero is Charlie (Martin Freeman), a middle-aged New York librarian who suffers from a rare neurological condition called cataplexy. Similar to the better-known narcolepsy, it causes Charlie to swoon in moments of extreme duress, particularly in moments of euphoria.
Understandably, this has played havoc Charlie’s romantic inclinations to quite a degree. As he bitterly notes, most of his dates have ended up with him in the emergency room — the better the date, the quicker the faint.
As a result, he has attempted, with a measure of success, to live his life in a perpetual state of misery or at least indifference, all the better to remain upright and conscious.
A chance, and somewhat contrived, an encounter with the impetuous Francesca (Morena Baccarin) leads to a disastrous first date, and Charlie is only too eager to pawn Francesca off on his fun-loving younger brother Cooper (Jake Lacy). Cooper repays the favor by setting Charlie up with Francesca’s eccentric co-worker Bethany (Melissa Rauch), and all seems well.
Like Werner, much of producer/director Jason Winer’s prior experience has been in television (Modern Family, Life in Pieces, Single Parents) and sometimes it shows. Ode to Joy is a pleasant diversion and superior to Winer’s debut feature, the needless 2011 remake of Arthur, but there’s a small-screen feel to the proceedings.
It is abundantly clear from the get-go that Charlie and Francesca are made for each other – while Cooper/Francesca and Charlie/Bethany certainly are not – and part of the fun is trying to guess how the story resolves itself, and true love wins out, all the while knowing it will.
Keeping things buoyant is the amiable cast, with Rauch the obvious standout. She’s funny, sexy, and sympathetic – and in the inevitable break-up scene with Charlie, quietly heartbreaking. On a weekend getaway with Charlie, Cooper, and Francesca, she blissfully observes that the bucolic burg they visit is dreary, then spices things up with an after-dinner “cello sing-along” (the film’s comic highlight). One almost wishes she and Charlie would end up together because they’re the far more amusing couple.
As befits the title, the titular section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” – makes its presence known, although for many of a particular generation this selection was immortalized by its use in Die Hard (1988). Then again, who can hear “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss and not immediately think of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)?
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.