When Noël Wells’s tenure on SNL ended abruptly after a single season, it looked like her career was essentially over. For someone who specializes in impression work, she made almost no impression where it really counted. But in the wake of that dismissal, Wells went on to give an extraordinarily nuanced performance as Aziz Ansari’s love interest in Master of None, something that hadn’t even been hinted at in her previous work. Now she returns with something even more ambitious: Mr. Roosevelt, her feature film debut as writer, director, and star — and one of the strongest films at this year’s AFI Fest.
Mr. Roosevelt opens with Wells playing a thinly-veiled version of herself named Emily Martin, in a reference to Annie Hall. In close-up, Emily recounts a pivotal childhood incident in which she was laughed at when reciting her only line during a school play. Young Emily is devastated — until her mother explains that the line was a joke, and the audience laughed because it was funny. The knowledge that she can make people laugh, and might even have some talent, spurs Emily to chase that feeling wherever it may take her.
As an adult, Emily becomes internet famous for YouTube shorts that rack up millions of views, but they don’t translate into actual fame or fortune. (In one of the funnier throwaway lines, Emily informs a friend that she couldn’t monetize a popular video of her dancing in a bathtub filled with spaghetti because it featured a Michael Jackson song.) She toils away on the periphery of UCB sketch groups in Los Angeles, surrounded by a cloud of noxious dudes; during a drunken act of fellatio, one guy pauses to tweet out a joke just so he won’t forget Daytimes she works at an editing firm, which is just a bunch of people hunched over laptops in a house, led by a funny (if barely there) Doug Benson.
Emily’s life is upended when she receives a phone call about a medical emergency. She gets on a flight to Austin, Texas the next day — not to see some dying grandma, but her cat, Mr. Roosevelt. Emily entrusted him with her ex-boyfriend, Eric (Nick Thune), yet she arrives to find that he has a new girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower), who has latched onto Mr. Roosevelt as if he were her own. While visiting Austin, Emily is forced to confront her feelings about Eric and the way their relationship ended, as well as his creepily charming new partner.
Someone hearing about Mr. Roosevelt might assume the film is another navel gazing work of art by a comedian that attempts to understand just how screwed up they are and how that informs their art. Luckily, Wells has created something far more interesting than that banal cliché. Part of this has to do with her specialty — she’s not a stand-up, but rather a sketch and improv comedian. So even though Mr. Roosevelt is openly autobiographical, it doesn’t wallow in self-pity and over analyze itself. Wells’s strengths lie in creating new stories, rather than plumbing her own, and that she still manages to include personal details without turning the film into an indulgent mess is a testament to her sense of taste.
Mr. Roosevelt is strongest when casting Emily as a competitor to the new girlfriend. Lower plays Celeste with a wonderful passive-aggressiveness (though the aggressive part exists mostly in Emily’s imagination), and a deadpan delivery that avoids any overt jokiness. She’s a less toxic, more authentic version of Elizabeth Olsen’s character in Ingrid Goes West, eternally concerned with the minutiae of life but never stopping to look at the bigger picture.
Still, there are moments when the film is a bit wobbly. Thune’s ex-boyfriend is underwritten and stiff; it’s hard to see what would have brought him and Emily together, and her longing for him after the fact doesn’t quite add up. The ending also wraps things up in too pat a fashion. Sure, it’s easy to figure out how most comedies will end, but this still feels telegraphed, as if Wells ran out of steam. Endings are always difficult, however, and it would be a shame to cast aside the excellent meat of the film because of a flimsy denouement.
Even in these weaker sections, Mr. Roosevelt is still a pleasure to watch for purely visual reasons. Determined to avoid the sense of sameness that has infected recent indie comedies, Wells opted to shoot with a wonderfully grainy 35mm stock. She and cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen capture Austin as a green oasis in the middle of a barren Texas.
For a film that revolves around a sick cat, Mr. Roosevelt is remarkably limber as it dances through moments of inspired physical comedy, trenchant social commentary, and poignant longing. It’s a startlingly assured debut from Wells, and hopefully, a sign of even greater things to come.
Mr. Roosevelt opens in limited release November 17, followed by a Netflix release.