Sundance Review: 'On the Count of Three' Is a Dark Suicide Comedy That Can't Find the Right Tone

Directed by Jerrod Carmichael

Starring Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, Henry Winkler

BY Josiah HughesPublished Feb 1, 2021

The way we talk about suicide as a society is evolving, and it absolutely should, as more people understand the real-life impacts of rhetoric and how such a potentially dangerous topic is framed. As such, using suicide as the basis for darkly comedic thriller would have made On the Count of Three a lightning-rod for controversy if the film was as edgy as it purports to be.

Directed by Jerrod Carmichael, who also stars alongside Christopher Abbott, On the Count of Three follows the tragicomic lives of Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Abbott), two childhood best friends in a nondescript American town whose lifetime of pain has led them to believe dying by suicide is the only option. For Val, a lifetime of dead-end jobs and a lack of family base has led him to want to end it all, while Kevin has spent most of his time in and out of mental hospitals in part due to the trauma of being sexually abused as a child.

After they both respectfully fail to die by suicide, Val breaks Kevin out of an inpatient facility and hands him a loaded gun. Thus, the film's title is revealed almost immediately — on the count of three, they'll each shoot one another and finally finish the deed. Instead, they decide to have one last day on earth and tie up loose ends.

That means visiting landmarks from their past, including a run-in with Dr. Brenner, the psychiatrist that abused Kevin as a child (played by Henry Winkler, whose shoddy wigs in flashback scenes are sadly reminiscent of his campy Childrens Hospital characters, thus distracting from the morose subject matter). Other serious run-ins include confrontations with Val's abusive father (J.B. Smoove, proving that Curb's Leon does not fit in a dramatic role) and Tiffany Haddish.

The film has a particularly bright moment towards the third act, where the pair's potential last day on earth develops into something a little more high-paced, including a police chase involving dirt bikes. Further, the film admittedly looks nice with its crackly real-film cinematography, and the drama is occasionally heightened by a score from Owen Pallett.

Still, the whole thing is a tonal disaster as jokes are peppered in between overwrought existential rants, and the leads are completely imbalanced as Carmichael's character is too deadened and Abbott, as is increasingly becoming the case in his roles, can never seem to tone down his stuttering, 110-percent delivery on every line. His character seems to be struggling between knowledgable woke-ness and an unhinged desire to end it all, which is an interesting tension on paper but in the film he often goes off the rails into both Joker and Venom territory.

Further, one can't help but think this movie was desperately angling for the attention of A24. In addition to shooting on film, tapping an indie rock composer for the soundtrack and stunt casting comedians in serious roles, Abbott's Kevin sports inexplicable dyed-blonde hair and a beautiful puffer coat that would look right at home on Highsnobiety. And if there's a reason you can't quite place what sparsely populated, beautifully treelined American town they're in, that's because it was shot in Ottawa, which somehow cannot capture the je ne sais quoi of depressing smalltown America. That does explain why so many of the smaller roles feel like they speak in CBC voice.

Jerrod Carmichael is one of the best stand-up comedians of his generation, and his short-lived sitcom The Jerrod Carmichael Show was an underrated masterpiece for its era. As a director, he helmed Lil Rel Howery's fantastic 2019 special Live in Crenshaw, and he's also a producer on the Emmy darling Ramy (whose Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch penned this project, which might explain why it often feels more like a wacky TV episode than a standalone film). If anything, it's comforting to know that he's human after all, because On the Count of Three marks the first time he's seemed amateurish in his decade-plus career.
(Valparaiso Pictures)

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