Niceness is not the same thing as kindness, although the two get confused all the time. Niceness does not require much effort, but because being polite is so valued by society, it becomes a cheap way for a lazy person to say, “I’m a good person.” Kindness, on the other hand, is an act of clear-headed honesty, one that often needs a gargantuan amount of work that most people don’t have the time or inclination to do. So our personal interactions become something like My Blind Brother, the feature writing-directing debut of Sophie Goodhart (adapting her 2003 short film of the same title), which centers on two people who are so wrapped up in not hurting someone’s feelings that they choose to live in comedic anguish.
Bill (Nick Kroll of The League and Kroll Show) is an insignificant figure, beaten down by a lifetime of obligation to his brother Robbie, the blind fellow of the film’s title. Robbie (Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation) is the family’s achiever, the guy who overcomes all obstacles in his way to succeed while Bill languishes in the background, his jaw loose and his shoulders slumped -- he has the look of a guy who would give you the world’s limpest handshake. To be fair to Bill, he has good reason to look so wiped out at the film’s start. He did just complete a marathon with his visually impaired sibling, after all, working as Robbie’s guide on the racing path.
Bill has nothing going for him in life, and that’s by design. He chooses personal failure and sacrifices a life of his own so he can melt into the shadows of Robbie’s life, so Robbie can pursue his dreams of competing in athletic endeavours for charities that help the blind. On the surface, Robbie is the prototype of an Oscar bait film’s hero -- Scott’s sunglasses and haircut make him look like Mission: Impossible-era (the first one) Tom Cruise -- but he’s a difficult person to get along with. Sure, he is full of can-do optimism when the news cameras roll, but at home he’s more of a foot-stomping child when Bill doesn’t want to immediately begin training for another event. Robbie focuses only on his achievements, his goals, his ambitions for more achievements, at the expense of recognizing Bill’s contributions to his success. There are deep-seated resentments at play here, and they boil over for Bill after he helps Robbie complete the opening marathon.
An escape to a bar puts Bill in contact with his soulmate in self-induced misery and being guilt tripped, Rose (Jenny Slate, Obvious Child). She is drinking at the establishment with a post-funeral group mourning her boyfriend. She is responsible for his death in a darkly comic way -- he got run over by a bus because she distracted him while they were in the midst of breaking up. She vows to do something good with her life to make up for her transgression. After, of course, she sleeps with Bill for a one-night stand -- because she is being nice.
This leads to the funniest and most purely cinematic moment in a film that is otherwise rather stale in the visual department: a graceless attempt by Rose to get dressed in Bill’s bedroom the morning after their tryst. In that moment, Goodhart and cinematographer Eric Lin strategically use the camera to keep Rose “decent,” despite the fact that she is nude in a stranger’s bedroom, hating herself for every decision she has made for her adult life that led her to this moment. Slate plays the scene with the physical humor turned up to 11, like a humiliated (and much more naked) Mr. Bean. Her arms grasp at her body looking for cover while she fumbles around for her black mourning dress from the evening before. Somewhere inside Rose, there is a desire to not be terrible, to move beyond disastrous overtures of being “nice.” While she stated such a desire the night before, she probably did not mean it at that point. But around the time she puts on her underwear backwards in front of the man she had sex with on the night of her ex-boyfriend’s funeral, the switch flips. She needs to set things right in the world, but she is woefully ill-equipped to do so.
So she volunteers to become Robbie’s assistant while he trains to swim the length of a lake. Of course, she does not know he is Bill’s brother -- dramatic tension, we have liftoff. It’s both predictable and a killer rimshot moment, the kind of predictability that can nonetheless achieve big things. The sharpest part of My Blind Brother is in how Goodhart immediately makes Rose backslide by having her agree to date Robbie despite her lack of interest in him. A misunderstanding leads to a kiss and, oh no, problem time! Because, again, nobody can ever get their feelings hurt -- that would be mean. Except Bill’s feelings are hurt, and Kroll sells it with sedated, droopy-eyed self-loathing, while still somehow ingratiating himself to Rose, complicating things all the more.
The three dance around each other until it becomes excruciating for them and the audience alike. This is not cringe humor in the way Ricky Gervais used to do it. It’s not about someone putting their foot in their mouth in an uber embarrassing fashion, like in The Office. It is about people refusing to be honest with themselves and with others. It’s a painful position to be in, especially once everyone lays the cards out on the table while Robbie attempts to swim the lake.
The movie is a showcase for the tragicomic stylings of these three superb performers, but in other ways it is a minor work. Although it has that great “morning after” scene, in which the camera moves to capitalize on every last bit of humor in the situation, that technique is hardly seen throughout the rest of the picture. Whether this is due to budgetary or spatial constraints (or a combination of the two) so much of the movie is shot with the camera placed a medium distance away from the actors. It rarely gets close to study the characters as they twist in their self-made prisons, nor does it pull back enough to allow distance and perspective. It creates a bizarre scenario where we are with these people, almost like we’re in the same room, but never close enough to know them as well as we could. Kroll, Slate, and Scott push through that to create something special, but there is little to establish My Blind Brother as a cinematic experience. It could just as easily have been performed on the stage, possibly to even greater effect.
Even still, a movie that makes such an impassioned plea for the right brand of kindness, one that features performances of this quality, is a successful movie.
Director: Sophie Goodhart
Writer: Sophie Goodhart
Starring: Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, Adam Scott
Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of fiveAvailable in limited release and on demand