What a year it’s been for David Krumholtz. In 2023, the actor has added a Tony-winning play (Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt) and a box-office sensation (you know which one) to his resumé. In both cases that affable face, so often in the margins, nudged toward center stage. Krumholtz goes one further with deadbeat comedy Lousy Carter, a premiere last week in competition at the Locarno Film Festival wherein the actor plays a graduate lecturer who learns he has six months to live and decides to try seducing a student. It’s less creepy than it sounds and, at its best, it’s all his.

Lousy Carter is directed by Bob Byington, returning to the Swiss festival for the first time since 2012, when his Nick Offerman starring Somebody Up There Likes Me took home the Special Jury Prize. Byington’s script plants the nominatively determined character in a community college in Austin, where he teaches a seminar on The Great Gatsby. (“You can’t do a class on one book,” a colleague remarks with only the most thinly veiled disdain.) His takes on the classic are boilerplate and add little (if anything) to the surrounding drama, yet that ineptitude might be the point here. Carter is the kind of beached male you tend to see in an Alexander Payne movie: further into his autumn years than he might like to admit, whatever blooming promise he had long faded. In Lousy’s case, this involves a rather strange backstory: early success with an animated film that somehow fast-tracked him into tenured academia. Whatever works.

At turns warm, curmudgeonly, and delightful, Krumholtz holds together an amiable cast. There is fellow Freaks and Geeks alum Martin Starr, typically bone-dry as Herschel Kaminsky, a professor of Russian literature and also Carter’s closest friend. There is Stephen Root laying it on maple thick as a Jungian psychiatrist. There is Jocelyn DeBoer as Kaminsky’s wife, with whom Carter is having an affair. There is Olivia Thirlby as Carter’s wonderfully apathetic ex. Best of all, there is Andrew Bujalski as a half-interested funeral director. The film is at its best when any two or three of these performers are placed together, building the rhythmic wit of Byington’s dialogue into a lively, funny, unpredictable patter.

This, regrettably, doesn’t happen quite enough to distract from Lousy Carter‘s cracks. That the plot points are familiar and conventional is less the issue than a nagging unevenness along the way. There are shades of early Louie to the vibe––that’s a compliment; there really was a time when people clambered to praise that show––but the film’s interests (comic, cosmic, taboo) never quite sit comfortably together. The scenes focusing on Carter’s attempted seduction of his student, Gail (Luxy Banner)––while thankfully respectful––suffer from an uncertain tone. The knee-jerk editing style, more jarring than snappy, hardly helps. Then there is the strange product placement: why, you wonder, is Gail forever cracking cans of Lone Star from her bag? And why does Carter wander from scene to scene with a bottle of whiskey that always seems to stay closed? The guy could probably use a dram.

Lousy Carter premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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