Two New Comedies Tackle Capitalism And Codependency

Opportunity Knocks For Driven Go-Getters In 'Snack Shack,' 'Problemista'

Gabriel LaBelle as Moose and Conor Sherry as AJ in a scene from


Gabriel LaBelle as Moose and Conor Sherry as AJ in a scene from "Snack Shack." (Photo courtesy of Paramount/Republic Pictures)

Ruben Rosario

There's enough room in the current movie landscape for diverging stories about underdogs chasing their version of the American dream. Two new comedies flying under the radar, now playing in theaters, are a curious study in contrasts. They bring together goal-oriented people who team up for a daunting business venture, but besides these characters' affinity in worldviews, their journeys could not be more different, and their depictions of the pursuit of happiness couldn't be further apart.

Depending on your vantage point, capitalism opens doors or slams them shut in your face. It either provides a level playing field or is unfairly disadvantageous to outsiders. It allows people to see past their differences or threatens to disrupt their harmony. It provides a bridge to help bring aspirations to fruition, or it can maintain them out of your reach.

Conor Sherry as AJ and Gabriel LaBelle as Moose in a scene from


Conor Sherry as AJ and Gabriel LaBelle as Moose in a scene from "Snack Shack." (Photo courtesy of Paramount/Republic Pictures)

So what's your preference? A suburban period piece brimming with the comfort-food pleasures of the familiar? Or an A24 oddity with a peculiar disposition, an urban sensibility and surreal flourishes? Time to dig in.

“Snack Shack”: Remember those lazy summers where the days morphed into a shapeless blob of leisure and slumber? The besties at the center of this winsome coming-of-age comedy from writer-director Adam Rehmeier have no time to lie down. There they are, placing bets on greyhounds after crossing state lines from their native Nebraska, while the rest of their classmates are on a field trip.

The year is 1991, and gangly A.J. (Conor Sherry) and brash, tightly wound Moose (Gabriel LaBelle) are not just looking to make a quick buck. The duo are not only friends but budding entrepreneurs. They're brewing beer behind their parents' backs, something the minors can get away with because Moose's parents are oblivious. A.J.'s mom (Gillian Vigman) and dad (David Costabile), on the other hand, are sharp as a tack and have zero tolerance for bullcrap. Something's gotta give, and it does in such spectacular fashion that it tells you Rehmeier is just as interested in the grown-ups he's written than in his potty-mouthed protagonists.

Gabriel LaBelle as Moose, Conor Sherry as AJ and Nick Robinson as Shane in a scene from


Gabriel LaBelle as Moose, Conor Sherry as AJ and Nick Robinson as Shane in a scene from "Snack Shack." (Photo courtesy of Paramount/Republic Pictures)

The boys' ears perk up when their older friend Shane (Nick Robinson), a Desert Storm vet and a lifeguard at the local public pool, directs their attention to the titular vendor stand, located on the pool grounds but owned by the city. One hilarious brush with local officials later, A.J. and Moose are the not-so-proud owners of “Snack Shack's” snack shack.

Much like in his previous film, the bruising crime rom-com “Dinner in America,” Rehmeier's bark is worse than his bite, and the irreverence that follows, after the boys clean up the run-down shack and find to their astonishment that they can rack up the Benjamins big time, is tinged with an underlying affection for his characters and their backdrop. (The filmmaker also hails from Nebraska.)

We buy the central friendship from the get-go because Rehmeier has his stars speak to each other in a torrent of stream-of-consciousness banter. You don't even notice that the gobs of expletive-laced dialogue guide the story forward because it feels so effortless and natural. Plus his actors are up to the challenge. Looking like the love child of “Big Little Lies'” Douglas Smith and Léa Seydoux, Sherry (“Are You Afraid of the Dark?”) shows that you should never underestimate gawky, awkward teens, because those ugly ducklings tend to turn into swans.

And LaBelle, whose character is so driven by the almighty dollar that he has a poster of Oliver Stone's “Wall Street” on his bedroom wall, does a bracing 180-turn from the introvert he played in Steven Spielberg's “The Fabelmans.” Both actors are in the zone, and it's a pleasure to see them show off their chops.

If there's anything holding “Snack Shack” back. it's Rehmeier's decision to hinge a sizable chunk of the narrative on the rivalry that develops between the boys over Brooke (Mika Abdalla), an aspiring photographer who's spending the summer at the home of A.J.'s neighbor. (She is literally the girl-next-door.) Her arrival, and the tension she generates between A.J. And Moose, sends the movie down a more familiar path, providing structure to an otherwise episodic portrayal of the teens' summer months, and in the process making the movie more conventional. But give credit to Rehmeier, because Brooke is no bland love interest. She immediately comes up with a vulgar nickname for A.J. that isn't suitable for printing here. She's undeniably a tease to both young men, but the movie refuses to throw her under the bus, giving the character an intriguing vulnerability beneath her confident façade.

Julio Torres as Alejandro and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth in a scene from


Julio Torres as Alejandro and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth in a scene from "Problemista." (Photo courtesy of A24)

But it's Robinson who gives the film's most memorable performance, imbuing the stoic, warm Shane with a melancholy undertow. The “Love, Simon” star has never been better. As A.J.'s fixation with Brooke evolves and deepens, so, too, does his friendship with Shane, an older-brother figure and fountain of wisdom with his own battle scars. It's precisely their bond that allows Rehmeier to pull off a doozy of a tonal shift late in the game, one that could have torpedoed a lesser film but here lays bare how life's joys and sorrows are so often intertwined, rolled up into a ball of contentment and heartache.

One could argue “Snack Shack” is an homage to the sex comedies of the 1980s and '90s with very little sex to speak of, but its characters are so rich, its setting captured with such care, that it doesn't much matter in the end. Rehmeier has made his very own “Dazed and Confused,” a raucous, sunburnt portrait of the bumpy road that sends adolescents tumbling into adulthood.

“Problemista”: The feature debut of actor and comedian Julio Torres (HBO's “Los Espookys”) has plenty going for it: chutzpah and creativity in buckets, an eclectic and committed cast headlined by Torres and the indomitable Tilda Swinton, and urgent subject matter that's given a thoughtful satirical treament. On top of everything, it's the story of a gay man where his sexual orientation is tangential but never central to the plot, albeit integral to the film's sensibility. All pluses in my book.

So why is it such an obnoxious endurance test? The A24 release plays like the cinematic incarnation of that art school student who's too entrenched in their bubble for their work to have much of a pulse. This aggressively kooky concoction unfolds like “The Devil Wears Prada” as reimagined by Michel Gondry, only much lamer than that sounds.

Larry Owens as Craigslist and Julio Torres as Alejandro in a scene from


Larry Owens as Craigslist and Julio Torres as Alejandro in a scene from "Problemista." (Photo courtesy of A24)

Obtrusively narrated by Isabella Rossellini, “Problemista” is a satire about the immigrant experience, bent in the shape of a children's storybook. It revolves around Alejandro (Torres), who hopes his existential toy design ideas will land him a dream job at Hasbro. But getting his foot in the door is easier said than done for this Salvadoran free spirit who moves to New York City to pursue his dream, only to be stuck in a dead-end job supervising a cryogenic chamber. That's right: Alejandro whiles away the hours babysitting the frozen body of a cancer-stricken artist called Bobby, played in flashbacks by rapper RZA.

A momentary mishap on the job sends him to the office of his supervisor Sharon, well played by Kelly McCormack. In the film's most biting scene, Alejandro spars with Sharon as to whether his actions constitute grounds for dismissal. The scene would have had more of a kick if the circumstances leading up to Alejandro's predicament hadn't been so lazily conceived.

Alejandro is in big trouble. He has been sacked, which gives him one month to find a new employer who will sponsor him and thus allow him to keep his work visa. But this setback opens up a new employment opportunity when he crosses paths with Bobby's wife, Elizabeth (Swinton), who hopes to have an exhibit of her husband's art, comprised solely of egg paintings, to help cover the rising costs of Bobby's deep freeze. She concludes Alejandro is the assistant who will make that happen.

Julio Torres as Alejandro and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth in a scene from


Julio Torres as Alejandro and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth in a scene from "Problemista." (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Problemista” zeroes in on the dysfunctional work marriage between the ditzy, fuchsia-haired Elizabeth and her new slave, er, consultant. Elizabeth is stuck in the iMac-propelled 2000s mentality that Filemaker Pro is the most effective way to store information. Alejandro, all too aware the clock is ticking, lies about his Filemaker Pro proficiency, a decision with consequences that Torres places too much emphasis on as the narrative progresses.

And that childish fixation on rather outdated jokes is at the root of the problem with “Problemista,” a film of sophisticated ideas that trots them out in insufferably infantile fashion. Even more problematic is the way it tries to excuse Elizabeth's toxic behavior. I kept spending a good portion the movie fighting the urge to scream at the screen and tell Alejandro to run away from this eccentric train wreck of an individual. No dice. Torres thinks this boss from hell is just darling, so much so that he takes the nickname that others have given Elizabeth, “Hydra,” and turns it into an eyesore of a fantasy encounter that makes the animation in “Pee-Wee's Playhouse” look like cutting-edge CGI.

Torres thinks he's being charming, but mostly, he's just irritating. His brand of whimsy makes me break out in hives. Lost in all the preciousness of “Problemista's” skewering of corporate culture is a potent takedown of how the U.S. makes it incredibly difficult for immigrants, especially those who have so much to give, to find their slice of the American dream. But before he can make a movie worth giving a damn about, Torres needs to get over himself. And, you know, maybe come up with something other than a feature-length justification for all the Karens out there.

“Snack Shack” is now playing at AMC Aventura 24 and the Cinépolis in Coconut Grove. “Problemista” is now playing at Regal South Beach, AMC Sunset Place, Regal Kendall Village and the Cinemark Bistro in Boca Raton.

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