Mo McRae’s face may be more recognizable than his name. As an actor for more than 20 years with over 60 credits and counting he’s worked steadily, appearing on TV and in film in such roles as Benjamin Berry in “The Flight Attendant,” Blip Sanders on the short-lived “Pitch,” and Gus Henderson in “Den of Thieves.” Now he’s moved behind the camera as the co-writer and director of “A Lot of Nothing,” his feature film debut.
Officially, the film is about an uber-successful Black married couple whose perfect lives are knocked off kilter when they learn via the evening news that their cop neighbor, who is white, has killed a kid. In a time where the police killings of Tyre Nichols in Memphis and George Floyd in Minneapolis are front of mind, they assume that the victim is Black and decide to get answers. And that’s when everything goes wrong.
In their professional lives, where they are essentially the only Black people in an overwhelmingly white environment, James and Vanessa (Y’Lan Noel and Cleopatra Coleman, respectively) are used to keeping their views to themselves. They are never emotive. This police killing, coupled with living next door to the accused, hits differently. At some point, Vanessa decides she wants to get answers from the cop himself and that happens, essentially, against his will. As they contend with the reluctant cop, they forget that James’s brother Jamal (Shamier Anderson), who is an ex-con, and his very pregnant fiancée Candy (Lex Scott Davis) are coming for dinner.
“A Lot of Nothing” is described as a satirical thriller, but both adjectives miss the mark. There is hardly anything truly thrilling or satirical about the film. What does shine, however, is the acting. Y’lan Noel, perhaps best known as Daniel from Issa Rae’s hit HBO series “Insecure,” with whom McRae worked with on “The First Purge,” is convincing as the uptight and paranoid lawyer James who is also a very devoted husband.
Cleopatra Coleman, Erica from “The Last Man on Earth,” is his equally not-truly-comfortable-in-her-own-skin wife. As two people who feel silenced in predominantly white jobs, they recount, and even sometimes show the microaggressions, they endure with their white colleagues, specifically white men, consistently undermining them in the slightest but hugely impactful ways. They transfer their anger over their lack of power in their work lives onto Brian, the cop who killed the boy and is also their neighbor.
As Brian, Justin Hartley, whom millions loved as Kevin from NBC’s massive hit drama “This Is Us,” is smug and confused over the couple’s actions. While there is tension between the three, it is immediately clear that it is about more than a cop killing a little boy. In him, they unload their racially fueled workplace and societal trauma onto him. It is a move that largely undermines both James and Vanessa’s likability. That is pushed into overdrive when Jamal and Candy show up.
Vanessa is especially unlikable for her treatment of her brother-in-law and his fiancée. Jamal, played by Shamier Anderson from “Stowaway” and “John Wick: Chapter 4”, is an ex-con and the overlooked brother in the family. James was always favored, with Jamal living up to the low expectations of him by ending up in prison. Candy, played by McRae’s wife Lex Davis Scott, a former dancer known most for her leading role in the Lifetime film “Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart,” is beneath her, as Vanessa makes clear.
Unlike James and Vanessa, Candy and Jamal are not as educated. And, to boot, Candy works with crystals and energy. The elitism exhibited, mostly by Vanessa but cosigned by James, makes the couple increasingly unlikable. Even when the root of the disdain is revealed, James and Vanessa are still unlikely to win any popularity contests.
McRae’s direction is solid. It is clear he has studied his craft, graduating from short films he began directing a decade before to an ambitious feature film. “A Lot of Nothing” is no small undertaking. Closing credits reveal just how grand of an endeavor this film is, but there is never a moment where the direction looks lazy or clumsy. In every frame, McRae demonstrates he is confident in his lens and in his actors.
The problem for “A Lot of Nothing” rests solely in the writing. McRae and Sarah Kelly Kaplan, known for the HBO series “Perry Mason,” are unsure of the story they wish to tell. Instead of being focused on one central theme and outcome, “A Lot of Nothing” is all over the place. It’s not that what it wants to explore is unworthy, because there are lots of valid issues and themes raised. In the TV series format to which both writers are most accustomed, “A Lot of Nothing” might have thrived. As a film, however, it simply falls flat.
Flawed writing doesn’t mean “A Lot of Nothing” has no value. McRae certainly shows promise as a director, if not a writer, with Noel, Coleman, Anderson, and Scott demonstrating they can handle complex portrayals well. It’s just unfortunate the story doesn’t live up to all their talents.