Director Jim Hosking’s An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is one of those absurdist boutique comedies that pushes against the definition of a punchline. The absence here of a joke is meant to be hilarious, or to at least congratulate the audience for willfully submitting to a denial of pleasure. Every element of the film is studiously, painstakingly random.
Like many wannabe cult comedies, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is set in some sort of 1970s-flavored Nowheresville that abounds in bad wigs, pastels, and hideous facial hair, probably out of the belief that these things are inherently funny—or so obvious as to be fashionably unfunny. Characters talk in a stilted mixture of obscenities and banalities, which the actors spit out with an arbitrary sense of emphasis that serves to further reduce the words to gobbledygook. As the film drifts on, one is primed to wait impatiently for a joke to hit the figurative board, let alone the bullseye.
The film’s hipster parlor games celebrate hostility as the singular authentic emotion in a world riven by detachment and alienation. Hosking and co-writer David Wike may be aiming for the pregnant, ineffable melancholia of a Rick Alverson film, but they land much closer to something along the lines of the similarly awful Lemon. Alverson is genuinely concerned with alienation, while someone like Hosking uses cruelty as an adhesive to conjoin a grab bag of calculatedly offensive jabs. Characters in An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, for instance, are pathologically obsessed with weight, and a number of supporting actors have been cast for their heaviness, serving as springboards for a litany of cheap insults. It’s meant to be hilarious when two overweight people have sex, which Hosking films as unflatteringly as possible. To ask a simple question about any of these trivial indulgences—“Why?”—is to take Hosking’s bait, as he implicitly considers such questions to be square.
The film’s plot pivots on a familiar series of tropes: stolen money, a runaway couple, a miserable marriage, and a mysterious celebrity who arrives in a small town, stirring up resentments. The focus of everyone’s attention is Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson), a Scottish writer who growls like Peter Boyle’s character in Young Frankenstein and who’s constantly struggling to properly fart—a bit that Hosking extends seemingly into infinity. Lulu (Aubrey Plaza) is married to a hideous coffee shop manager, Shane Danger (Emile Hirsch), but pines for Beverly. For reasons that warrant no explication, Lulu teams up with Colin (Jemaine Clement), and the two hide out in the hotel where Beverly’s to perform a potentially life-altering show.
After reveling for 45 minutes or so in essentially dead air, the film delivers a few modestly effective bits. Colin has a pointless story about his familial heritage, which Clement delivers with an unexpectedly moving sense of impotency. The last name of Beverly’s new partner, Von Donkensteiger, has a supple ludicrousness that’s worthy of the Marx Brothers, and Beverly’s show turns out to be rather lovely, giving the film a jolt of actual beauty.
Yet the film’s various tangents are revealed to be window dressing for another narrative in which a beautiful woman flatters male misfits. The filmmakers largely take Lulu’s loneliness and frustration seriously, and Plaza’s performance is naturalistic by the film’s cuckoo standards. Allowing Lulu agency may sound like a case of artistic chivalry, but one wonders why she must be excluded from the film’s flamboyant weirdness. Among the most gifted of modern comic performers, Plaza may have struck sparks with Clement if she had been allowed to meet his eccentricity halfway. Instead, Hosking sentimentally treats her as “the girl,” roping her off from the insanity, so that Lulu’s attentions may allow Colin to transcend his sexual self-loathing. Underneath its proudly ugly aesthetic and smug non-jokes, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is a conventional male actualization fable.