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On the Count of Three review – hit-and-miss suicide bromance comedy

Strong performances from first-time director Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Abbott buoy a shaggy caper about depressed best friends

Christopher Abbott and Jerrod Carmichael in On the Count of Three. Photograph: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Marshall Adams

The shaggy bromance comedy On the Count of Three explains its title and premise in its stark opening scene. Two best friends have guns trained at each other’s head, agreeing that, yep, on the count of three they’ll shoot, bringing to end two lives that in their eyes haven’t been worth living, an inevitable solution to a bleak problem. Predictably we then rewind to “earlier that morning” to see how the pair found themselves on the precipice of suicide at the back of a strip club.

Val (Jerrod Carmichael, also the first-time director) goes from glumly smoking in bed to glumly smoking at work, a life without aim or purpose, one that he sees no point in continuing. Kevin (Christopher Abbott) is no stranger to trying to kill himself, having bounced from therapist to therapist to an institution where he’s currently staying, doggedly attempting to convince his doctor to let him go despite a suicide attempt just three days prior. When Val goes to visit, he decides to break him out, revealing his life-ending master plan, but just as they prepare to fire, Kevin decides that there are a few things they need to do first, taking them on a journey through their youth, tying up loose ends, before they die later that evening.

In the space of just 84 minutes, comedian Carmichael, working off a script from Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, tries to wring humour and pathos from the pair’s manic last day, hitting everything from child molestation to depression to domestic violence with cameos from Henry Winkler, Tiffany Haddish and JB Smoove, a bravely stacked debut that just about avoids toppling over. Like the characters themselves, though, it’s forever on the verge of falling apart, hurtling along at speed with every hit matched by a miss. It’s the unusually wrought friendship and the frank mental health discussions that keep it on track. We’re so accustomed to seeing young men talk around issues of depression that it’s a relief to see two characters facing it head on without shame or embarrassment and the script shows how they exist on opposite ends of the same sad spectrum, dealing with their hopelessness in different ways.

Carmichael, more traditionally associated with strictly comic fare such as his well-received sitcom The Carmichael Show, makes a striking debut as a film-maker, opting for unusual visual and music choices throughout and showing confidence with the film’s more ambitious setpieces (a final quarry-based standoff is rather beautiful in scope). He’s not always as well-served by the script, though, which relies a little too heavily on unfunny buddy comedy quarreling, a tactic that starts to grate by the film’s finale. It’s a shame because there are also nice little character details littered throughout – Kevin’s unease with using a gun, as it betrays his political leaning; Val’s effective monologue about the doomed idea that fixing one thing might fix everything; the discussion over how playing on-the-nose songs to match your emotion is corny – that hint at a better, slicker draft of the same story. The pair do their best with the uneven dialogue they’re given and there’s a strong enough chemistry between them to sell the more underwritten elements of their friendship but still, one keeps wondering what could have been with something a little tighter.

Abbott in particular is a marvel, a Sundance mainstay at this stage, allowed to play the more fully fleshed of the two, whose childhood of abuse and willfully unhelpful therapy has led to a fractured view on the world and he digs deep to sell even the falsest of moments. With delicate material, the film treads sensitively (Carmichael consulted mental health experts to ensure authenticity) and any fears over something that might glorify or diminish suicide are quickly allayed. While it’s ultimately a little too messy to work quite as well as it could have, given the interesting and ambitious ingredients, On the Count of Three is proof that Carmichael is a director to be excited about, hoping that perhaps he finds time to write his next script himself (although his upcoming slate as a writer – including a 48 Hours remake with the Safdie brothers and a Django Unchained sequel with Quentin Tarantino – suggests he might be a tad busy). It’s a good shot but next time, I’m sure he’ll hit the bullseye.

On the Count of Three is screening at the Sundance film festival with a release date yet to be announced

In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

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