Jason Winer’s clever drama about a man who can’t experience happiness is a funny, uplifting, insightful story that surprises us with hilarious sequences and witty dialogues and features impressive performances by Martin Freeman, Morena Baccarin and Melissa Rauch.
What if experiencing strong emotions made your body shut down for hours? And what if the feeling that triggered you the most was the most important emotion of all? The protagonist of Jason Winer’s Ode to Joy (played to perfection by Martin Freeman) is a man who suffers from cataplexy, a symptom of narcolepsy that does just that: every time he feels an emotion to an extent he can’t control with “unhappy thoughts”, he collapses on the floor. And, though feelings such as anger, surprise and fear definitely affect him, the one that triggers him the most is the very same emotion that makes one’s life worth living: happiness.
I’m not just talking about that kind of happiness caused by one in a lifetime experiences. Charlie’s neurological disease can be triggered by seeing a mother holding her child, or by noticing a particularly cute animal while walking down the street. In fact, it can even be provoked by thinking about the feeling. And so, while major events are definitely risky, so are stories with a happy ending, cheerful music and unsolicited comments from strangers. If we stop to consider how many times we happen to think of something that makes us smile, it’s not hard to understand that, when we first meet Charlie, his life is not exactly the definition of easy.
With this premise, Ode to Joy could have easily turned out to be one of those mushy, predictable stories we’ve already seen a hundred times before, one that would focus on the illness and try to make us cry as much as is humanly possible. Instead, Jason Winer’s thoroughly enjoyable drama is an uplifting, endearing, genuinely hilarious and wildly entertaining romantic comedy with likeable characters, delightfully absurd sequences, unpredictable turns of events and more than one lesson to teach.
We first meet Charlie (Martin Freeman) at a wedding, the perfect occasion to get familiar not only with our protagonist’s “adorable quirk”, as his brother Cooper (Jake Lacy) would later describe it, but also with his special brand of humour, that will keep us company throughout the film. Charlie’s coping mechanism consists in thinking “unhappy thoughts” whenever his cataplexy is about to overcome him. He has gotten used to avoiding happy situations and seeing the negative side of everything, and his daily routine is an endless source of perfectly timed and extremely funny sequences that keep us company for the entire duration of the film. And, while most of the credit is due to the excellently written screenplay, it needs to be said that Martin Freeman is absolutely perfect for the role.
Although we don’t always agree with the choices he makes, Charlie’s dry humour and expressive glances make him so relatable that he connects with us instantly, as a victim of circumstance whose absurdly comic endeavours can’t help but make us burst into laughter every time he says or does something out of the ordinary. And, just when you think you know where the film is headed, here comes an unexpected character or event that changes everything and makes you fall in love with Ode to Joy all over again.
The first surprising character is Charlie’s love interest, Francesca (Morena Baccarin). If our unhappy hero is the pessimistic but likeable protagonist Ode to Joy needed, Francesca is his perfect match and the one person who is able to balance out his sarcastic comments with her warmth and spontaneity. When we first meet her, she has just been publicly (and hilariously) dumped by an ex-boyfriend who couldn’t even begin to understand her, and who intentionally picked a public library to tell her the news, so as to prevent her from making a scene. Needless to say, Francesca does make a scene, and that is when Charlie, who happens to work at that very same library, intervenes. Which leads to a series of events that put to the test all the defence mechanisms he has put into place to keep all kinds of pleasant emotions out of his life.
There are so many reasons why it simply shouldn’t work between Charlie and Francesca, and yet they end up presenting us with a love story that is not only the source of many hilarious scenes, but also very real. The chemistry between the two leading characters (and the two leading actors) is undeniable, but there’s more than that. Ode to Joy enfolds in a completely unexpected way that keeps us guessing until the end, which is a very rare thing to find in a romantic comedy these days. It’s also what makes Winer’s gem of a film so compelling and so very watchable.
If Charlie and Francesca are the two protagonists of this story, they are not the only characters worth mentioning. Charlie’s little brother Cooper (Jake Lacy) is an excellent wingman: not only he provides much of the comic relief in the film, but his character is absolutely essential in this movie. Cooper helps move the narrative in unexpected directions, as he is much more impulsive and less empathic than his restrained brother, and Lacy’s performance brings his character to life in a very believable way.
Jane Curtin also makes an appearance as Sylvia, Francesca’s closest relative and source of infinite wisdom. Aunt Sylvia is yet another brilliantly written character who approaches a serious subject in an unconventional, unexpected way, acting as a guide for Francesca and helping us understand her motives and actions. It’s thanks to Aunt Sylvia that Ode to Joy can remain the funny comedy it is, while also approaching complex themes such as fear and loss in an immensely moving way.
But Ode to Joy‘s surprises aren’t over, as its most impressive character only shows up halfway through the movie. Played by The Big Bang Theory‘s Melissa Rauch, Bethany is Francesca’s hilariously boring co-worker and, therefore, perfect “girlfriend material” for Charlie – at least, according to Cooper. From the moment she unexpectedly makes an appearance, Rauch absolutely owns every single scene she’s in. We don’t even care if it takes our attention away from Charlie and Francesca: we can’t get enough of seeing her in (slow) action. And it’s not just her fascination with the most tedious subjects and her long, improbable speeches that make us laugh: Bethany is also responsible for the film’s funniest moment by far, a meme-worthy scene you wish you could rewind over and over again.
Ode to Joy is an unconventional, poignant, hugely enjoyable drama that combines the right amount of dry humour with a series of witty, well-timed and surprisingly meaningful turns of events. It presents us with a series of believable, well-rounded characters, it keeps us entertained with clever dialogues and twists, it touches upon serious issues with extreme delicacy and it ultimately sends across a thought-provoking, heartwarming, beautiful message.
Ode to Joy had its European premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival on 22nd June, 2019 and it was so well-received that it was chosen to be part of the Festival’s “Best of the Fest” Strand: another screening has been planned for 30th June, and tickets are on sale at this link.