Anchor Bay // 2009 // 79 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 30th, 2009
One, two, three, four!
High school band geek Danny Stein (Steven Kaplan, in a fine debut lead performance) is on the hunt for a date to the senior prom. He wants to go with sophomore Alice (Ashley Benson, Bring It On: In It to Win It), but she views him as a big brother. His best friend Camille (Alia Shawkat, Arrested Development) asks him to go with her, but he considers their relationship strictly platonic. Between the tux and limo rentals, Danny has sunk over $600 into prom night, and has no date in sight. And then he finds out he that has to rent a room at the Embassy Suites -- has to because even Bart Beeber, the dorkiest kid in school, got a room. Meanwhile, Danny navigates his parents' recent divorce. His mom (Cheryl Hines, Curb Your Enthusiasm) thinks her new boyfriend (Jon Polito, The Man Who Wasn't There) may propose, even though she's more in love with the idea of financial stability than the man himself. Danny's dad (William H. Macy, Fargo) has moved into a low-rent bachelor pad and struggles to make ends meet and to reacquaint himself with the dating scene. If Danny can find the right girl to accompany him to the prom, maybe that one special night can be a single point of stability in his otherwise chaotic life.
The debut feature of writer-director Brian Hecker, Bart Got a Room was tailor-made to slip into the indie sleeper hit space occupied in previous years by Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, and Juno. It never quite caught on. That's too bad, really, because while Bart Got a Room offers plenty of idiosyncratic characters, it doesn't wallow in the self-conscious quirkiness that has come to define modern independent productions (though William H. Macy's perm makes him look like he'd be right at home in a Jared Hess flick). Hecker's movie is a refreshingly straight-forward and naturalistic indie comedy.
Bart Got a Room's plot is so formulaic that it almost plays like homage to '80s teen comedies like Better Off Dead or Three O'clock High, though it rarely delves into the wild absurdities that are the hallmark of zany teen romantic comedies, and its climax is unconventional in both its earnestly sweet focus on family and its lack of a predictable romantic resolution. When it does dip its toes into the realm of the absurd (as when Danny's father tries to hire a hooker to go to the prom with him), it feels believable because the characters and situations are otherwise realistic. Danny Stein's Jewishness is largely responsible for this fine balance between realism and the absurd. Hecker places his characters within a very specific cultural context without ever really commenting on that culture or making it the butt of jokes. That Danny is Jewish has nothing to do with the universal anxieties he experiences, but it has everything to do with lending his world a lived-in texture and making him a three-dimensional character and an unlikely hero for whom it is easy for us to root.
Bart Got a Room's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. By favoring naturalism over adolescent absurdity, Hecker's movie produces a steady stream of bemused chuckles but nothing in the way of side-splitting laughs. The result is a film that, even at less than 80 minutes, sometimes feels sluggish and too long. Danny Stein is easy to like, but also one of the most stable characters in the movie. So stable, in fact, that we never quite feel that his quest for a prom date is a turning point in his life. Even if the worst were to happen, it's easy to imagine that he'd go on to college and a successful career, and that missing out on a high school dance would become less and less significant when viewed in the rearview mirror of his adult life.
Bart Got a Room comes to DVD in a decent 1.85:1 transfer, enhanced for widescreen displays. The opening credits sequence, set against a bright blue sky with vivid white clouds, looks spectacular. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn't maintain the standard set by the movie's first few minute. Detail varies from quite sharp to slightly fuzzy. Colors are mostly accurate, but reds and oranges tend to be overblown, marring flesh tones. Digital artifacts are minimal. It's not a great transfer, but it's solid. Audio is presented in Dolby 5.1 surround. It's a decent track, limited by its source. Much of the dialogue sounds like it was recorded on set, which helps the mostly naturalistic performances but prevents the mix from achieving pristine perfection. Considering all of the dialogue is perfectly discernible, I think favoring the actors' original performances over ADR polish pays off.
Extras include an in-feature pop-up trivia track and a trailer for the film.
For an indie comedy, Bart Got a Room is refreshingly earnest and intelligent with characters and dialogue that aren't over-written and too precocious by half. It's too bad, then, that the absence of compelling conflict leaves the movie feeling listless and a bit scattered.
Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Pop-Up Production Notebook