Writer-director Jordan Roberts’s 3, 2, 1…Frankie Go Boom initially promises to be another perfectly tedious film about a stereotypically quirky family whose struggle to navigate emotionally choppy waters is intended to have symbolically universal appeal. Frankie (Charlie Hunnam) is an aspiring writer with no apparent means or desire of supporting himself, camping out in Death Valley as he wrestles with a would-be masterpiece that’s meant to get him even with his brother Bruce (Chris O’Dowd), who’s tormented him since birth. The delusional Bruce, an aspiring filmmaker who specializes in posting embarrassing real-life episodes (usually featuring Charlie) on the web for cheap, sensationalistic hits, soon films his brother as he tries, and initially fails, to get it up for Lassie (Lizzy Caplan), a troubled, recently jilted young woman Charlie met outside of Bruce’s graduation from rehab. The recording, needless to say, falls into the wrong hands, thus sending Charlie and Bruce on a series of sitcomish adventures of ever-escalating insanity.
3, 2, 1 relentlessly piles on one eccentric contrivance after another: Bruce’s incestuously suggestive relationship with his mother; a burned-out actor with a pet pig who jogs only in a jockstrap; and a male-to-female ex-con who calls herself Auntie Phyllis. The film should be virtually insufferable, but it has a shaggy charm. Roberts has a talent for loose, crude dialogue that catches you on the rebound, and he’s wisely instructed his superb cast to treat the lines as throwaways; you don’t catch anyone working at the zaniness. And the film, though it features the inevitable disappointingly pat romantic subplot that’s apparently required of any movie that stars two attractive people of opposing genders, never really goes soft, as Roberts never loses sight of the fact that these toxic nincompoops are authentically bad for one another.
Still, there are a few scenes that are strange and ambitious enough to inspire regret that 3, 2, 1 doesn’t add up to more than a collection of generally amusing sketches performed by talented actors. One sequence finds Charlie and Bruce having to negotiate with a group of men who resemble stereotypical notions of a Mexican gang, which sets us up for a scene in which our hapless white heroes are tormented by a litany of racial clichés. Roberts, however, reverses that expectation: Frankie and Charlie are trespassing dickheads with an unwarrantedly condescending and myopic attitude, and are treated in response deservedly as the interlopers that they are.
And the scenes with Auntie Phyllis, played by Ron Perlman (and the obvious joke is that Phyllis looks just like the resolutely manly Perlman, only with a cheap wig added), are a small marvel. You brace yourself for humor that’s centered around the kind of unquestioned homophobia that dominates far too many American comedies, an expectation that Roberts and Perlman quietly turn on its ear. While Auntie Phyllis would admittedly comply to few straight males’ idea of what’s “hot,” she’s allowed to arise as a legitimate force in the film, and the jokes are at Bruce and Charlie’s expense, as they’re buffoonish would-be (con) artists who’re encountering someone with a gravity and strength, not to mention a confidence in themselves, that’s way out of their league. Auntie Phyllis’s strangeness isn’t lampooned but celebrated, and her moments briefly suggest a comedy that refutes the casual inhumanity that passes as most American comedy these days.