My first experience of Jerrod Carmichael, probably at least a decade ago now, was watching him captivate a small, not particularly great audience I’d just bombed in while doing virtually none of the things you’d normally expect a comic working an audience to do. He didn’t shout, he wasn’t animated, he didn’t ask them tons of questions to create “energy” or “participation”; he was just an odd, sort of cerebral guy in a hoodie leaning against the back wall of the stage sharing a series of goofy, semi-surreal thoughts. He created a quiet kind of “anti-stage presence” that didn’t feel like shtick.
Carmichael’s directorial debut, On The Count Of Three, premiering at Sundance this week, is a lot like my memory of watching him perform: thoughtful, surprising, surreal, depressive in an oddly optimistic way, and above all a unique vibe that’s not easy to forget. Whereas every actor seems to make their directing debut with some unbearably bleak festival slog (“it’s about a family struggling to come to grips with personal tragedy”), On The Count Of Three takes ironic juxtapositions to their most absurd degree, in an 84-minute film about suicidal best friends that somehow seems breezy.
With a script by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch (alums of Ramy and The Carmichael Show), Carmichael plays Val, opposite the underrated and suddenly ubiquitous Christopher Abbot as Kevin, two best friends who have made a suicide pact of sorts. If that sounds bleak, well, it sort of is, but it’s also liberating. Val and Kevin can live this day like it’s their last day on Earth, because it is. On The Count Of Three becomes a sort of dystopian road trip buddy movie, the whole thing living in that brief, unique window where tragedy becomes opportunity.
The gag is that Val, in coming to depression later in life, is being a suicide poseur. I don’t want to spoil much more of it than that, and I probably don’t need to. You’ve seen a road movie before; the main characters go on quests and meet people from their pasts and present (Tiffany Haddish, JB Smoove, Henry Winkler). Having seen one or two other movies recently with very similar structures (shooting in a pandemic may dictate this kind of episodic structure), what separates On The Count Of Three from the others is that the people they meet never seem like opportunities for “funny cameos.” In fact, it seems like the script took pains to imagine the least funny issues they could — depression, suicide, domestic violence — and tried to fit them all into a movie that’s funny without being expressly comedic. That it allows situations to play out naturally, in a more character-driven fashion, rather than as transparent excuses for jokes, is probably why it’s actually able to find the humor.
The ending may not land as hard as the film was building it up to, but it’s an enjoyable, singularly off-beat ride with some of the best use of Papa Roach since Silicon Valley. I’m trying and failing to remember a scene this year that has made me laugh as hard as Jerrod Carmichael trying to commit suicide in the bathroom of a mulch factory while Travis Tritt’s “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive” blares over the sound system. On The Count Of Three is the rare enjoyable suicide movie because at its heart, it understands that while depression and suicidal ideation are very sad, they’re also kind of corny.