Gus is the perfect indie comedy premise, based upon a contrivance that’s almost believable in a “This American Life” kind of way. Lizzie (Radha Mitchell) and Peter (Jon Dore) are a happily married couple having trouble conceiving. Suddenly, Lizzie’s erratic best friend, Andie (Michelle Monoghan) — the type of girl who has late night freak-outs, calling Lizzie at one in the morning, only to show up the next morning all bubbles and sunshine, beseeching Lizzie to “beach it up, bitch” — winds up pregnant after a one night stand and decides to have the baby so that Lizzie and Peter can adopt it. They, in turn, force Andie to move in with them so they can care for her and shortly thereafter, Peter’s fresh-out-of-rehab brother, Casey (Michael Weston), also moves in. Comedy and tragedy ensue.
Being a first-time film for writer/director McCormack, Gus suffers a lot of first-time-movie trappings. The movie wants to be one of those light comedies with a dramatic backbone, but the drama side of things generally does not work. All of the requisite emotional beats are there, but they are not properly built up to such that some of the character developments almost seem to come out of nowhere. As a result, the drama winds up bordering on the maudlin. It’s not Lifetime or “After School Special” bad, but at times it is not far removed. This is particularly true when it comes to Lizzie and Peter’s relationship. In its early going, Gus appears to be about Lizzie and Peter’s relationship, with the other characters and relationships seeming to be on the periphery. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that McCormack is really interested in the friendship between Andie and Lizzie. At times, it almost feels like McCormack is bored with the Lizzie/Peter relationship, and is just trying to hit notes on an outline to get back to Lizzie and Andie.
While the Lizzie and Peter storyline struggles (and is not particularly helped by Mitchell or Dore), the Lizzie and Andie story is fantastic. Here, the drama feels much more natural, and the beats are generally more earned. While Mitchell is over-the-top playing the emotional beats of a wife, she is great at playing the emotional beats of a friend who thinks herself the better and more grounded woman. Monoghan is absolutely fantastic as Andie, a role that is littered with potential trappings of becoming too kitchy-eccentric. The stark contrast between these two sets of relationships is such that I wish someone had told her to simply push the husband/wife drama off-screen and focus more whole-cloth on trying to present a realistic and honest portrayal of two women’s friendship.
Gus does show some potential for McCormack on the dramatic side of things, and shows even more potential on the comedic side. The humor does not always work or stick the landing, but there are quite a few genuine laughs in the film, particularly from the always-fantastic Weston and the “hey I recognize her” Mimi Kennedy, who is riotously hilarious as a couples therapist. Unsurprisingly, the comedy feels at its most natural when the humor arises out of Andie and Lizzie’s relationship, and it’s because of this that I’m excited to see more from McCormack. Although she has not yet seemed to have found her comedic voice, McCormack is not pinching someone else’s voice. That is, it doesn’t feel like she is just trying to give us her version of someone else’s sense of comedy but, rather, that she is trying to find and explore her own. From “Girls” to Bridesmaids, plenty has been written over the past few years about the lack and need for more women voices in comedy and Gus gives hope that Jessie McCormack may soon get to be part of that solution.
Gus is in theaters, and available On Demand.