Remember these names: Matt Oberg, Stephen Schneider, Anna Chlumksy (if you grew up in the nineties, you already know her), and Cristin Milioti. They are the stars of the horribly titled “Bert and Arnie's Guide To Friendship,” a new indie that is a bit slight, often funny, mostly likable, and importantly, a romantic comedy that is not obnoxious. Its premise is nothing new, to be sure, but director Jeff Kaplan’s film has more humor and verve than almost every new sitcom that debuted on network television in the past year, and in Oberg, Schneider, Chlumsky, and especially Milioti, it has four fine comic performers who elevate director Jeff Kaplan's script (co-written with Ian Springer) into a modest success.
Oberg’s B. W. “Bert” Scheering is a full-of-himself college professor and the noted author of a hit novel (title: “The Virgin Monster”) who discovers that his wife is sleeping with Arnie, a womanizing executive with a caddish persona. Bert’s marriage screeches to a halt and thrusts him into the perils of single life, a world Arnie knows well. Playing the author card only gets him so far; even an attempted tryst with Faye (Cristin Milioti – more on her shortly), a deadpan student with a perennially congested-sounding voice who asks Bert to write her a letter of recommendation, proves disastrous, very, very disastrous.)
Meanwhile, Arnie meets his match in the sweet, confident Sabrina, played nicely by Chlumksy, the “My Girl” star who roared into adult roles with Armando Iannucci’s artfully profane political masterpiece, “In the Loop.” (She currently appears on Iannucci’s HBO series, “Veep.”) When Arnie learns Sabrina is a fan of one Bert Scheering, he forces himself back into the author-professor’s life, and the two begin a rocky friendship. As is perhaps evident, there is not a great deal of plot here, really, but thanks to the performances, and some witty dialogue, “Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship” actually gains strength as it progresses, and culminates in an especially winning final half hour.
While Bert is the film’s ostensible lead – Oberg, whose strait-laced demeanor has led to roles on The Onion’s “News Network” and “Sportsdome” TV series – Arnie is the more difficult role. As played by Schneider he is the pompous womanizer, but an individual also struck by feelings of inadequacy; his bitchy upset at Sabrina for not inviting him to her karaoke party is note-perfect. (“Do you have any Tylenol PM?” he asks an amorous Sabrina with maximum bitchiness.) Both characters are semi-caricatures — Bert the uptight, sexually frustrated author and professor; Arnie the cad who secretly wants a commitment. But the actors make them believable and funny. Even the sorta-kinda friendship that develops between the two over the course of the film makes sense because their elements of each other’s lives that on the surface at least, appear alluring.
Chlumsky’s Sabrina is perhaps a more well-rounded, truly believable character, a smart woman who inadvertently gets caught between B and A, and Cristin Milioti steals every scene she’s in as Faye. The Tony-nominated (for Broadway’s “Once”) actress recently made news as the “mother” in “How I Met Your Mother,” and the wide-eyed “30 Rock” alum takes the film’s most clichéd role and makes her handful of scenes the most memorable in the film. There are a number of other very funny sequences, including Bert’s run-ins with a book critic (played by the smoldering Bree Sharp) and a killer karaoke scene in which Arnie tearfully belts out Marc Cohn’s guilty pleasure soft-rock staple, “Walkin’ in Memphis.” The direction from New York University alumnus Kaplan is mostly unfussy with one big exception, the use of a completely unnecessary interview device that pops up every so often for no apparent purpose. It feels forced, like an unsubtle acknowledgment that there really isn't much story here.
But the interviews are used sparingly and do not prove overly distracting. Considering the inanity of so many “adult” romantic comedies in the past decade – see the Katherine Heigl oeuvre – the fact that “Bert and Arnie” has a few laughs, some nice performances and does not beat the viewer over the head with a slapstick-lead-pipe means it is a film worthy of respect. It is certainly no masterpiece, and not as memorable as some of this year’s larger scale character-driven romantic comedies (I’m looking at you, “Frances Ha”), but “Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship” offers its share of pleasures. If only there was still time to change that title. [B]
Available June 18 on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Playstation, XBOX, YouTube, Nook, CinemaNow and Vudu; New York City theatrical release from June 21-27.