“On the Count of Three” is marketed as a “darkly comic” movie. Well, there's dark comedy and there’s darker comedy, and then there's comedy like this — so dark that you wonder if the two words can realistically co-exist in one sentence.
So it’s not clear in which genre to place this edgily confident if bumpy and unsettling directorial debut from talented comedian Jerrod Carmichael, a buddy movie that begins with said buddies pointing loaded guns at each other with the intention of firing at the same time (hence the disturbing title.)
Clearly things won’t be going perfectly to plan, because then there’d be no more movie left. But, just a warning: The sense you might get right then and there of “I'm really not sure I can watch this” will likely stay with you for the full 86 minutes, even as you acknowledge the considerable acting chemistry generated by Carmichael, directing himself, and Christopher Abbott.
So, back to that scene. It comes a few hours into the bleak winter’s day covered by the film. Without divulging too much, Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Abbott) are longtime friends, but very different trajectories have brought them to this dreary parking lot. Val is working at a landscaping supply store and his best prospects seem to be a promotion to floor manager. He begins this work day by taking all his allotted smoking breaks, not a good sign.
Val decides to go visit Kevin, and suddenly they’re inadvertently presented with an opportunity to break Kevin out of the institution he’s in. Thus begins a day in which they both seek to right the wrongs committed against them, and perhaps some they’ve committed themselves.
The script by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch makes a game effort throughout to toggle between humor and pathos, levity and despair, with occasional hits and some misses, too. (It’s quite a tall order, even without the broader references to issues like police racism and gun control.) What’s consistent is an unnerving unpredictability — we really don’t know how this day will resolve itself — and the authenticity of the lead actors, who make us care even as we struggle to accept some of the plot elements. Without these sharply calibrated performances, the film would flounder.
Each man is given unresolved conflicts, some more compelling than others. Val, in a relatively restrained performance by Carmichael — who, through his comedy, certainly has experience taking humor to bleak places — has serious issues with his estranged father (J.B. Smoove of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”) He also has to face up to his inability to be a responsible partner to a trusting girlfriend, Natasha (“Carmichael Show” colleague Tiffany Haddish, underused in a small role).
As for Kevin, played more broadly by Abbott, he has deep anger at a man, now serving his country in the military, who bullied him in younger days. Worse, there's the creepy doctor who molested him in his youth. (Henry Winkler plays the unfortunate medical professional).
Not surprisingly, Carmichael proves a director who is nothing if not confident and comfortable with the UNcomfortable. He keeps the action moving — at a few moments, the film even feels like an action pic. A climactic scene has an apocalyptic feel and harks back visually to one of the most famous buddy films of American cinema, though the buddies were named Thelma and Louise.
But it's the acting that keeps the film afloat. Carmichael is a multifaceted talent, and one wonders what he'll do next — especially if next time his name is on the script, as well.
“On the Count of Three,” a United Artists Releasing release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for violence, suicide, pervasive language and some sexual references.” Running time: 86 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.