In spite of the title, the Patton Oswalt / Paul Rudd comedy Nerdland isn’t about nerds. It’s about losers. The distinction may not sound important. But in the kinds of films that often play at New York’s annual Tribeca Film Festival — where more than 70 films are making their world premieres this year, Nerdland included — there’s a big difference. In film, at least, nerds may be socially maladroit or physically awkward, but they’re generally intelligent, obsessively dedicated to their interests, and surrounded by equally nerdy friends. They’re focused on achievable goals. They have potential.
Losers, on the other hand, are about squandered potential. They’re the aimless, the shiftless, the thoughtless, and the luckless of the world, the kind of people who can’t seem to catch a break. Loserdom has nothing to do with socio-economic status, or even success rate. It’s all about a certain kind of aggressive, lackadaisical irresponsibility. Losers are people who aim for the unachievable, then naturally fail to achieve it. They fail to plan, and charge into their insane schemes overeager and half-cocked. They create their own problems, then can’t understand where those problems came from. They inadvertently or deliberately drag other people down with them. They’re often doomed before their stories even begin. Nerds have obstacles to overcome. Losers usually have obstacles they fail to overcome.
That conflict between big dreams and merciless reality helps explain why the loser is such an archetype of independent cinema, the kinds of small-scale, inexpensively made, personal stories that Tribeca pulls in by the dozen year after year. This year’s roster of losers comes in a diverse set of flavors, but there’s a connection between them — a sort of brotherhood of ignoble and spasmodic failure. Depending on the slant, on whether filmmakers are laughing at them or cringing for them, losers can make great comedy or great drama.
Chris Prynoski’s trippy animated debut Nerdland (possibly called that because Loserland doesn’t have the same punch) features a pair of Comedic Losers: a pair of cheerfully incompetent, lazy dolts who spontaneously decide it’s time to become famous. Elliott (Patton Oswalt) is a scrawny screenwriter working on a ridiculous ultra-violent action script, for up to five minutes at a time between sessions with his well-used, heavily patched, blow-up sex doll. Elliott’s roommate and pitch partner John (Paul Rudd) is an actor, a beefy go-getter who serves as the partnership’s bad-ideas man. They live in a filthy, cluttered apartment in the shadow of Hollywood’s famous hilltop sign, and nurse dreams of moviemaking glory. But John’s 30th birthday is a day away, and he sees it as the milestone where living as nobodies in sloppy poverty isn’t cute anymore. So the duo start launching crackpot schemes for instant fame, from shooting a viral YouTube video of them giving a homeless man an oversized novelty check (for $144) to going on their own murder spree.
Prynoski is the founder of Titmouse, Inc., the animation studio behind Metalocalypse and the latter seasons of Superjail, and his first feature-length project shares some of those shows’ manic action and messy, explosive death. But Nerdland is even more in love with the raunchy and grotesque. One running gag prominently features John’s hairy, puckered anus. John and Elliott repeatedly seek the help of a collectibles dealer (voiced by Hannibal Buress) drawn with one eye, missing teeth, livid pimples, blue skin, and a pyramid-shaped corpulent body. Virtually every surface in the film is scuffed, stained, slimy, or smeared. And Elliott and John occupy a world full of distorted caricatures, inspired by the works of pioneering Fritz the Cat director Ralph Bakshi and Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge, with a dose of Ren & Stimpy’s gross-out-gag-loving John Kricfalusi thrown in for good measure.
Nerdland has a juvenile fascination with body parts and body fluids, and at times, it’s openly stomach-churning. But the stylish, joyously expressive animation is its saving grace. At a post-screening Q&A at Tribeca, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (who wrote David Fincher’s Seven) confessed that Nerdland went through various forms in the effort to get it to screens: He originally conceived of it as live-action, and at one point, he rewrote it as a series of five-minute webisodes. The online-short format makes sense for something so choppy, fast-paced, and episodic — the film often feels like a quick-hit series of episodes run together — but Nerdland would be nothing in live action. The exaggerated character design, the wild angles and dizzying distortions, and Prynoski’s trippy action sequences give Nerdland a never-seen-that-before jazzy, jittering energy, especially in the startling sequence where Elliott tries to reconcile himself to John’s mass-murder plan. As Prynoski drops into Elliott’s point of view, John becomes a shadowy darkness with veiny tendrils for hands, and the world drops away. The imagery becomes so striking that being an unemployed, artless failure starts to seem almost exalted.
But above all, the animation lets the audience see John and Elliott as unreal, as ridiculous caricatures engaged in ridiculous plans in a world that’s every bit as outsized, unlikely, and repugnant as they are. In live action, their behavior would be horrific. In Nerdland, it’s just offbeat whimsy. Animation makes them lovable losers instead of terrifying ones.
Comedian, former Daily Show correspondent, and TV host Demetri Martin stakes out a different sort of category in his directorial debut, Dean. He’s the Soulful Loser: the pathetic-but-endearing nebbish who might actually have a chance of working out his problems by the end of the film. Dean is wryly funny at times, often in bits surrounding the melancholy little comic panels its protagonist draws to express feelings he can’t or won’t verbalize. But it’s more clearly an adult coming-of-age film, a low-key story about facing problems and avoiding easy answers. Martin, who also wrote the script, stars as Dean, a hapless Brooklyn cartoonist who lost his mother to illness about a year ago, and has since dug in his heels and tried to resist any further change. When his father Robert (Kevin Kline, playing reasonable and kind) decides to sell the family house and move on, Dean responds exactly like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in the recent Sisters: he panics and stalls. He keeps telling his father, "We have to think about what we’re doing with our house." Then he flees to Los Angeles on a flimsy work pretense to avoid having the conversation.
What makes Dean a loser isn’t his awkwardness, his sublimated mourning, his arrested development, or even his cringing attempts to avoid reality by living through his cartoons. It’s his childish selfishness, his determination to control other people to take his mind off the fact that he has no control over the larger world. Martin’s script gets in plenty of funny, telling digs at the character, like when he has to return to his friend’s car to grab his phone because he can’t stand to be without it for the 10 minutes it takes to pick up his fast food. (His friend, Eric, played by Rory Scovel, lectures him about being in the moment. Then he checks his own phone during the 30 seconds it takes Dean to retrieve his.) But Dean is more sentimental drama than comedy.
Dean has a lot in common with Gus in the 2016 Netflix series Love. He’s a physically unimposing man with an ineffectual manner, some surprising skill with a snappy comeback, and a deep-seated interest in getting with a character played by Community’s Gillian Jacobs. While in LA, Dean runs across Nicky at a party. (Jacobs plays her to type, as winsome, funny, and a little sad.) He’s so smitten that a casual text from her gets him off his plane back to New York, and sends him to a beach volleyball game, fully dressed and symbolically dragging all his baggage along with him. Dean clearly sees Nicky as the cure for his problems — his unfinished book, his undigested grief, his broken relationship with a woman he asked to marry him solely to make his mother happy before she died.
Dean is the kind of indie drama that makes loserdom look pathetic, but also a bit relatable, and possibly temporary. Martin’s episodic adventures move him steadily toward a moment of decision about what kind of person he wants to be. Martin’s script tends toward the twee, with a hushed tone, a lot of awkward but arch banter, and mopey, intrusive indie-rock by Pete Dello & Honeybus. As a screenwriter, Martin comes across as part Woody Allen with quieter neuroses, part Miranda July with less aggressive whimsy. But while the early stages of Dean are close to insufferably precious, the story mellows into something touching and real. A turning point comes when Nicky reveals something about herself that changes the earlier parts of the story significantly, and reveals her as something much more solid and significant than Dean’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl salvation. From that point on, Dean becomes an encouraging, humanistic film about finding a way back from self-imposed loserdom. The film offers hope, not just for the character, but for everyone struggling with maturity, responsibility, and fear of the future.
There’s no such sense of hope in Robert Scott Wildes’ toxic feature directorial debut Poor Boy, which showcases the least appealing types of cinematic losers: the Dangerous Losers who pose a threat to everyone around them. Lou Taylor Pucci and Dov Tiefenbach star as a pair of brothers, Romeo and Samson Griggs, living in a high-and-dry houseboat parked in the desert outside a run-down rural town. They’re the kind of colorful, outlandish, deeply inhabited characters that feel like they come from a Coen brothers movie, by way of the much less playful darkness of a Tracy Letts story. Romeo is the talker, all big schemes and never-ending hustle; Samson is more prone to sullen silences and solitary raptures. But both of them share a blinkered enthusiasm for plans born of ignorance and wishful thinking, and both of them have a nasty tendency to address their problems with sudden, explosive violence. It’s a deadly combination, but also a wearying one as it plays out over and over.
The Griggs boys are living on borrowed time and the money from small-time scams, theft, and betting on bare-knuckle brawling. They live belligerent, narrow lives of boozing and crude rhapsodizing about female anatomy. When the houseboat’s owner plans to sell it and evict them, Romeo’s plan for escaping poverty involves marrying a Native American, because he "heard somewhere" that they come with big dowries. So he builds an online dating profile for Samson (on the world’s oldest functioning computer, complete with dial-up modem and what looks like some leftover internet from 1991), with the come-on "WE CAN DO IT A BUNCH OF TIMES" and the racist addendum "MUST BE INJUN." Then they sit back and drink, absolutely certain that they’ve just signed themselves up for riches.
The script, which Wildes co-wrote with Logan Antill, hovers on the edge of vulgar comedy, full of offense for its own sake. The Griggs are full of terrible ideas and worse execution. But there’s a pervasive ugliness to their destructive anger at the world for not cooperating with their desire to be rich. Their attitude toward women is summed up in their frequent catchphrase "It ain’t gonna suck itself!" And the rest of the town seems to exist for them as a haze of possible chumps, marks, and enemies who’ve earned petty revenge. The script is as undisciplined as the characters: It spills out in a series of scattered vignettes, captured in several cases by a manic handheld camera that’s frequently out of focus or pointed in random directions. There are a few sublime, removed moments, including one tremendous scene involving Michael Shannon in a small role as a rodeo clown, and another as Samson offers a sort of pagan prayer to the grilled rabbit he’s about to eat, inviting it to return to the fire. But mostly, the film is as visually and narratively off-putting as the increasingly hateful protagonists.
And Poor Boy ends with an act of nihilistic destruction that’s so pointless and hyperbolic, it shatters the film’s attempt at building a sort of cracked camaraderie around its protagonists. Pucci and Tiefenbach give raw, committed, convincing performances, and their bone-deep loyalty feels like the only real and admirable thing in this sweaty cauldron of bile. But for all the different ways indie movies find to examine people who’ve lost their way or their luck, the least engaging one has to be the loser story that sympathizes with the victimizers rather than the victims. It’s painful (or hilarious, if done right) when a self-sabotaging character goes down in flames. But it’s much harder to relate to them when they burn down the world in the process.