‘The Climb’ Film Review: For a Change, Cannes Does Comedy

Cannes 2019: Director Michael Angelo Covino wrings genuine surprise from some of the staples of modern American humor

Little out of the ordinary goes down in “The Climb.” Friends bicker and bond, families meet for the holidays, couples join together and come apart – the wheels of life keeps spinning.

So the fact that director Michael Angelo Covino is able to wring as much genuine surprise from such seemingly unexceptional raw material is a real testament to creative spark he brings to this project — and is one of the many reasons why this film, which premiered on Friday in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, is one of the standout titles of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Covino brought a short of the same to Sundance in 2018; he remakes that short here, where it serves as the first volley in a film that tracks the evolving relationship between two lifelong frenemies across seven unique chapters.

As it happens, Chapter 1 kicks off not too far from Cannes. In an unbroken nearly 10-minute take, we follow athletic Mike (Covino himself) and doughy Kyle (co-writer Kyle Marvin) on a South of France bike trip ahead of the latter’s upcoming marriage. Right as they hit a particularly steep incline, Mike drops a bomb: He too has been sleeping with Kyle’s fiancée – now, pudgy, try to catch up!

Both Kyle and consequence eventually do, and the dynamic between them evolves three times before the scene ever lets up. When the film finally offers its first hard cut, it does so in service of a joke – using the cut from one sequence to the next as a long built-towards setup/punchline.

Within that first chapter are nearly all of the elements that make “The Climb” such an unexpected gem. Some of those have been quite common in recent film and television, like the cringe comedy emanating from a painfully real dynamic and the two performers game for embarrassment. That’s not to diminish what Covino brings as an actor; I only mean to say that style has been the bread and butter of American comedy for the past decade or more.

What American comedy has not seen, on the other hand, is all that Covino brings as director.

And that’s an awful lot. He shows truly impressive formal control, incorporating sophisticated camerawork and tightly coiled edits while allowing time, space and rhythm – in short, the foundations of cinema – to play as equal participants in the comedy.

In a wonderful conceit, the film jumps forward in time with each new chapter, making us work to understand where we are in the plot, and, more importantly, where the two leads are in their relationship with one another. So in deference to the pleasure of discovering the plot as the film parcels it out, I will not reveal exactly where we pick in Chapter 2.

Suffice it to say that as “The Climb” goes on it introduces new characters into the mix, including Kyle’s parents (played by Talia Balsam and George Wendt) and his second fiancée, Marissa (Gayle Rankin), who is given ample time to shine.

American comedy has often had a hard time getting a foothold in the high temple of cinema that is Cannes, so I suspect that festival programmers warmed to this film for the many (wholly refreshing) ways it feels out of step with this moment in time. At a point when the line between media has blurred and the conversation has turned to ‘multi-platform content’, here is odd little throwback that apes the textures of celluloid and moves with the rhythms of cinema.

Here is a real film — and a damn good one, at that.