How is it that movies about stand-up comedians are often among the more melancholy and dark things out there? From 1982’s The King of Comedy all the way through to last year’s Joker (with pit stops at Punchline and Funny People along the way), the struggling stand-up has become the poster child for the sorrowful forced re-examination of life choices.
International Falls, the debut feature-length film from director Amber McGinnis, not only continues that trend but easily takes the cake as the blackest of the bunch. Starring real-life comedians Rob Huebel and Rachael Harris, the film is a dark and penetrating look at the psyche of a stand-up as he slowly comes to grips with the fact that his career is over… if it ever got started in the first place.
Huebel is Tim Fletcher, arriving in the titular Minnesota city (apparently known as the “Icebox of the Nation”) for a two-night, mid-winter set at a low-rent roadside hotel. There he meets front desk clerk Dee (Harris), who is looking forward to his visit far more than he himself is, as she has aspirations of becoming a stand-up herself. What begins as a painfully awkward post-show rendezvous in his hotel room continues the following day, as she traipses him around town to see the sights (such as they are), hoping to glean some insight.
Instead, the common ground between them solidifies (as much as it can in the span of a few hours) over failed marriages. Dee’s husband has been cheating on her for more than a year, and Tim is separated and relegated to mailing his kid a stuffed moose from the local liquor store. The more time the pair spend together, the more closure they try to get—she eventually confronts her philandering husband, and Tim gifts her his joke notebook and even offers a few pointers, all the while incessantly griping (and rightly so) about how ridiculously cold it is.
Punctuated by staccato bursts of wry comedy and unflinching honesty, International Falls is a simple, well-crafted study of two lost souls and also serves as the promising start to McGinnis’ sure-fire career. The screenplay by one-time stand-up comedian Thomas Ward (adapted from his own 2012 one-act play) presents mainly as a no-frills, character-driven bit of poignancy, which smoothly navigates its rather drastic tonal shifts. A Grand Jury Prize-winner at the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival, the movie winds up feeling like a living and breathing comedy-tragedy mask, which, despite ending on somewhat of a high note, may be remembered far more for the sad, sad clown at its center.