Jeff Grace’s Folk Hero & Funny Guy tells a familiar story of a friendship between alpha and beta males, which thrives on a carefully replenished cocktail of mutual admiration and resentment. Jason (Wyatt Russell) is a successful contemporary folk singer who wakes up every midafternoon with a different gorgeous young woman, while his childhood friend, Paul (Alex Karpovsky), is a struggling stand-up comedian who lives in a glorified closet in New York City, reeling from a failed relationship. They’re each a recognizable type: Jason’s the hound disguised as cooing, barefoot, hippie empath, the male equivalent of the “cool girl” that women castigate men for enjoying, while Paul’s the figuratively constipated geek who’s trapped in his own head.
Many films are concerned with this quite real dichotomy, two of the most prominent being Doug Liman’s Swingers and Alexander Payne’s Sideways, both of which almost certainly informed Folk Hero & Funny Guy. The question, rarely explored by these films, is: Why are he-men and self-conscious intellectuals drawn to one another? This sort of friendship broadly thrives on an ongoing accommodation of difference, as the intellectual makes the stud look even manlier by contrast, while the stud intensifies the intellectual’s self-righteousness. Womanizing and ineptitude with women also thrive on emotional distance from women, which is a powerful bonding agent in men. The alpha and beta unite and revel in their respective gifts as well as, ultimately, in their private versions of sexual estrangement.
In Folk Hero & Funny Guy’s best scenes, Grace displays a delicate understanding of these modes of male fragility, particularly in terms of how Paul chokes with women as well as on stage with his stand-up—two pursuits that clearly reflect one another. One night in a bar, Paul strikes up a conversation with Bryn (Meredith Hagner), a talented singer who’s playing an open mic night that Jason has been cajoled into headlining. Grace builds low-thrumming suspense as Bryn and Paul talk outside the bar while Jason hangs inside, because we know that Jason’s eventually going to hook up with Bryn. This development makes sense, as Jason and Bryn share similar interests and talents, and Paul is the ongoing odd man out.
This suspense reflects our kinship with Paul and his predetermined condition of failure. Jason, meanwhile, doesn’t care one way or another, empowering him with an abundance of confidence, which our society values above any other human quality. To paraphrase Swingers, Jason’s the guy from the rated-R movie with ambiguous intentions, while Paul’s the hero from the PG-13 movie who everyone hopes will make something happen for himself, commanding our empathy at the expense of respect. And, of course, Paul loses Bryn, whom he actually likes, because he abandons the tension of the situation and retreats, feeling relief and embitterment over self-imposed inevitability.
But Folk Hero & Funny Guy also misses a number of opportunities, failing to show how Jason and Paul’s strengths and insecurities fuel their arts. Jason’s a fine musician who sings to get laid, and so he’s far closer in sensibility and depth to John Mayer than to his hero, Bob Dylan. But Jason’s shallowness has little stature, which is the point, but even shallow men emit emotional friction. (Think of Keith Carradine’s expert embodiment of such a character in Nashville.) And we keep waiting for Paul’s tormented situation with Bryn to fuel his comedy, which is poignantly awful and dependent on a hilariously lame bit about evites. Paul’s supposed to have talent, though he can’t quite tap into himself; like most submissive, self-hating men, he distrusts his abilities, which are sporadically shown to be promising. Grace may be attempting to evade a formula of self-actualization by refusing to grant Paul a catharsis, but this omission robs the film of stakes.
This anticlimax does inform Folk Hero & Funny Guy with lingering sadness, as it casually mines the pain felt by a guy who’s surrounded by people who inhabit a realm that’s never going to be open to him. Paul, in other words, is like most people who must make peace with the deflation of their dreams in the face of those, like Jason, who appear to waltz through life. The final scene is surprisingly moving, then, for its gentle sense of reconciliation: As Paul is shunted back to his own world, Jason briefly dares to follow, implying a possibility for communion based less on power than unqualified affection, which suggests that the death of one dream is the birth of another.