“I can’t decide which one of you is more narcissistic” is a line from Dan Mirvish’s adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s comic strip “Bernard and Huey,” and it’s one of two pieces bits of dialogue — amidst a roaring avalanche of verbiage, mind you — that neatly encapsulates the experience of watching this movie.
The other line is “Do you really believe this s–t, or are you just talking?”
“Bernard and Huey” is the story of Bernard (Jim Rash, “Community”), a 49-year-old editor of historical non-fiction, with an active sex life and not much else. He’s been living in his apartment for a whole five years, and he hasn’t even bothered to get a table yet. One night there’s a knock on Bernard’s door, and he’s surprised to discover his estranged college friend Huey (David Koechner, “Krampus”) on the other side, waving around fistfuls of cash and looking for a place to stay.
Huey isn’t a wandering vagrant. Since his philandering days in college he’s become a wealthy, philandering businessman with an understandably unhappy wife named Aggie (Bellamy Young, “Scandal”) and a daughter Huey hasn’t seen in 15 years, Zelda (Mae Whitman), who is also unhappy. When we first meet Huey he is literally fleeing his responsibilities to his family. So he takes refuge with Bernard, and that’s when things get awkward.
Bernard and Huey were, in college, the sort of friends that everybody struggles to explain. Even Bernard isn’t entirely certain why they knew each other. Huey was a handsome playboy/operator type, with a literal little black book of women’s names, punctuated by descriptive sentence fragments to help him keep them straight. Bernard was, he willingly admits, a wimp, who struggles to successfully woo the women Huey sends his way. (Maybe taking them to see films like “Shoah,” which Bernard thinks is probably a kind of French musical, is partly to blame.)
But they’re adults now, and it looks on the surface as though the situation has reversed. Huey may be more financially successful, and has more family to show for his time on Earth, but Bernard is more confident and sexually promiscuous, and that’s all either of them seem to care about. Forcing them into the same apartment together brings back all their old rhythms and jealousies, and before long they’re both making terrible choices.
Bernard leaves his girlfriend to date Huey’s daughter, who walks all over him the way Huey himself used to. Huey gets back at Bernard by seducing Bernard’s ex, Roz (Sasha Alexander, “Rizzoli & Isles”), who knows exactly what she’s doing. And before long they’re both exactly the people they were in college: Huey can do no wrong, Bernard can do no right, and it’s not nearly as pointed or tragic as “Bernard and Huey” makes it out to be.
It’s difficult to make a character trait like “neurotic narcissism” appealing, especially when it applies to both of the main characters in a movie like “Bernard and Huey,” where almost every line of dialogue is about how they’re neurotic narcissists. Bernard bemoans the idea of dating women who are “old enough to be my wife,” so it seems like something akin to character development when, later on, he whines “I’ve lost the strength to be as shallow at 49 as I was at 24.”
These characters don’t have to be likable, of course, and that’s a good thing for “Bernard and Huey,” because they’re definitely not. The problem is that for all of Jules Feiffer’s clever dialogue, expanding the comic strip to feature length, where we have to sit with them for nearly an hour and a half (as opposed to sampling their life stories in short, easily digestible chunks) only makes it clear that in real life, you’d want nothing to do with them. And in fictional life, you don’t learn nearly enough about them to justify this long a visit.
“Bernard and Huey” isn’t particularly funny, although the script does tend to pump out a zinger once in a while. It isn’t particularly tragic, because the plight of these characters is well-earned. “Bernard and Huey” wades in its own shallow cleverness, and seems to be under the misapprehension that acknowledging the shallowness of the characters and storyline is, in itself, clever. But it only takes a few scenes for that observation to become painfully obvious. So we wait, and we wait, for the movie to expand into something else. To prove, if you will, that it actually believes this s–t.
But by the end, apparently, it was mostly just talking.