Do you remember the funny girlfriend in the first season of Master of None? The one who Aziz Ansari’s character, Dev, dated for most of the season, then broke up with at the end because he thought they should be more passionate about each other? Or maybe she broke up with him. I can’t remember. All I know is that I was disappointed, because I liked her and wanted to see her more.
That girl is Noël Wells, the writer, director, and star of Mr. Roosevelt, an indie comedy now streaming on Netflix. Wells plays Emily, a comedian who trying to make it in L.A. The film opens with one of her auditions, during which she bares her soul and then does a series of impersonations that starts with Holly Hunter and ends with a repeating pratfall that is an “impersonation of a vine.” I barely understand what a vine is, but I still laughed.
After her failed audition, Emily gets some bad news from her ex-boyfriend, Eric: their cat, Mr. Roosevelt, is on death’s doorstep. She decides to return to Eric’s place in Austin, Texas, to euthanize their shared pet. And that’s about the extent of this ridiculous, perilously thin plot, but it’s perfect, because this movie is about finding yourself at a ridiculous place in life, feeling as if your prospects are perilously thin, and somehow coming to terms with that. All the while making a fool of yourself.
In Austin, Emily finds that Eric has shacked up with a new woman, Celeste, in the house that Emily once shared with Eric. But it no longer looks like her house, because Celeste has redecorated it in a style that anyone who peruses shelter blogs will immediately recognize: spare white walls, naïve art, succulents, candles, throw blankets, and pillows—everything all very hygge but somehow not hygge at all, because Emily doesn’t feel welcome. Celeste is intimidatingly put-together, with tasteful, expensive-looking outfits and one of those vague internet entrepreneur jobs that, Celeste, of course, has an elevator-pitch-perfect way of describing. Emily, who wears cut-off jean shorts with black tights and tee shirts, describes Celeste as “a Pinterest board come to life.” She can’t believe that Eric has chosen such a boring striver and, even worse, that this woman has convinced Eric to give up his music in order to pursue a real estate license. Over a fancy restaurant dinner with another couple, Celeste pronounces: “You can only do the band thing for so long before you have to start thinking about the future.”
Emily’s future is hazy at best. Her major creative accomplishment—or at least the one she’s best known for—is a viral, silly YouTube video, one she can’t even monetize because the music she used in it is under copywright. (This particular conundrum is one of many details that this movie gets so right.) Emily knows that to someone like Celeste, she looks like a loser, and that hurts, but what really hurts is that Eric doesn’t think she’s a loser; he just wasn’t ready to take the same kinds of creative risks. Also: Emily really hurt him. Emily hast to confront her deep feeling of disappointment with him, herself, and the two of them as a couple, and she doesn’t do it with a lot of grace. (She also has to attend Mr. Roosevelt’s funeral, hosted by Celeste. . .)
Mr. Roosevelt reminded me of two other recent comedies by written and directed by women: Lake Bell’s I Do Until I Don’t, and Michelle Morgan’s It Happened in L.A. Like Mr. Roosevelt, those comedies poke fun at the pretensions of couples, and the way social media exacerbates performances of contentment and security. Mr. Roosevelt went darker and deeper than either of those films, while at the same time being a little more easy-going and relaxed from scene to scene. You get a good sense of Austin in Mr. Roosevelt and Wells gives what seems like a realistic portrait of the city’s roads, houses, parties, restaurants, and overall vibe. You also understand what Austin means to Emily: she’s more comfortable there than in L.A., yet L.A. is where she has been propelled, by her own ambition. If Emily acts out—and she does, for sure!—it’s because she’s dealing with some painful in-between feelings of homesickness and loss.
I’m worried that I’ve made this movie sounds like a total bummer, but it’s funny throughout, and the clowning that you see Wells do in the first scene, during her audition, is always right there, under the surface, giving the whole film a zany energy. This is Wells’s first feature and I’m hoping it won’t be her last.