"You're clever, you're witty, you're miserable...what's not to love?"
Is it just me, or are all of these small independent gay-themed rom-coms starting to blend together? Led by lonely and lovelorn protagonists with severe self-confidence problems and aggressive addictions to internet dating, these films chronicle our determined yet sometimes desperate journey to find "The One"--that special guy who wants more than a hookup, like cuddling on the couch while watching a movie after a romantic dinner. There's a reason these movies are so similar--for better or worse, they speak to their intended audience (including yours truly). But in order to rise above the crowd, they need to avoid the easy jokes and give us heartfelt performances--something the debut feature from J.C. Calciano does just well enough to avoid the forgettable fate of so many films before.
Which isn't to say Is It Just Me? is without flaws. It has its share, much of them revolving around central character Blaine (Nicholas Downs). A USA ToGay columnist (like a certain writer from a certain popular HBO show that I seem to reference in so many of these reviews) who hides under the penname "Mr. Invisible", he uses a shield of sarcasm to mask his pain of being alone and--by his definition and no one else's--another "A" word that plagues so many single gay men: "Being average in a world of physical perfection is the worst kind of gay purgatory," he writes, later telling BFF Michelle (Michelle Laurent): "Maybe I'm afraid of putting it out there just in case nobody wants it."
The script further hurts him with an early scene in a coffee house, where an ass of a barista treats Blaine like he's the ugliest man to ever walk the earth. Calciano (who also wrote the screenplay) goes a little too far, pressing his point to an absurdly exaggerated level--highly unnecessary given the talent on screen. We get it...Blaine's throwing a pity party for himself, and we're all invited. Can we move on? Oh wait...he also has this question: "Am I a decent looking guy? Would you pity me if you met me in a coffee shop?" Sigh...Blaine my love, you clearly are not ready to be in a relationship. I'm gonna overlook this character flaw for the sake of this review, because we've all been there and I know that--deep down--you're a good guy. (But lord, snap out of it!) The film also takes a few small stabs at the media, which seems to take delight in capitalizing on the misery of men--the direct result of the unattainable ideal it promotes.
Blaine's self-worth is further complicated by the presence of his hunky roommate Cameron (Adam Huss), a go-go dancer at a strip club/sushi bar (called Young Wangs) and an aspiring actor (he played the camp counselor in Death Camp Massacre, and check out the amusing tagline for Death Grip). Bursting with muscles (with a name like Cameron, it's obvious he's a stud, right?) and a high opinion of himself, he never met a tight pair of briefs or a picture of himself that he didn't like, although he may not be the sharpest spur at the gay rodeo ("I'm an actor! I don't pretend to be someone else for money!").
Bu things look up when Blaine befriends Xander (David Loren) in an online chat room, soon followed up by a six-hour phone conversation that gives both men the warm and fuzzies. A southern gentleman and aspiring musician fresh off the bus to Los Angeles, he's one of the good ones. The only problem? Seems Cameron had previously logged into the chat room on Blaine's laptop, but failed to log out...so Xander thinks Blaine looks like Cameron. Yes, it's all a little two Three's Company for me, too--as is the lame "overhearing and misinterpreting a conversation in another room" scene that will have you rolling your eyes further into your head.
Getting past these sitcom scenarios may be the biggest challenge in accepting Is It Just Me?, which reaches its lowest point when Blaine--made aware of the photo snafu--decides to challenge Cameron to a duel: "You think that Xander would pick your looks over our soul connection?" Back to the coffee shop we head for the film's most awkward scene, where Cameron (pretending to be Blaine) brings roommate Blaine (pretending to be Cameron) to his date with the unaware and apparently clueless Xander--who apparently can't match the right voice to the six-hour phone conversation.
Not only does this shenanigan go against everything Blaine stands for (you know, like trust and honesty in a relationship), it's also choreographed poorly by Calciano--the presence of "Cameron" doesn't seem odd to Xander, while Blaine's odd exit to get coffee--and subsequent tantrum at a turn of events he is solely responsible for--further distance us from the increasingly annoying lead character. The scenario doesn't make any sense and the scene's dialogue doesn't flow; it's one big head-scratcher, but the film seems to think it needs this hook.
Blaine soon finds himself deeper and deeper in deception, constantly confiding in jogging bud Michelle--who appears completely disinterested before the script finally wises up and humanizes her in the second half. Blaine is unable to tell the truth to Xander--who knows he's attracted to the person he spoke with on the phone but finds himself confused at the indifference by Cameron (who he thinks is Blaine...wow, this is exhausting!). Xander confides in his older roommate Ernie (Bruce Gray), a nosy Nellie who clearly has a crush on his young tenant. The wisecracker is by his own admission a "living cliché", perhaps the most out-of-place piece of the cast: "Did I ever tell you I once had a layover in Tennessee? And by 'Tennessee' I mean 'Williams'!" (Hiyo!)
He competes for that honor with Blaine's stoner editor Bob (Bob Rumnock), an excitable and scatterbrained caricature (don't get me started on secretary Ronnie, a bitter waste of space) who manages to have a few surprising moments of depth--including an observation I'll remember forever: "Writers! When they're alone, they're prophetic. When they're with people, they're pathetic!" That proves true as the film progresses and Blain's behavior makes it harder and harder to warm up to him (the chili powder...really?!). If you had the misfortune of seeing Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, you could sometimes liken Blaine to Topher Grace's Pete, a character we're supposed to root for despite the film's efforts to make that difficult.
I know it sounds like I'm down on Is It Just Me?, but maybe I've just turned as bitter as Blaine after seeing so many of these films. The truth is, if you can get by the few isolated scenes that ask you to accept a lot, the other scenes make up for it. That's thanks to the cast, who manages to rise above the wacky premise to deliver many moments of truth and tenderness, taking their characters seriously and never resorting to an easy laugh (at least in the scenes that truly matter) or an easy cry. They're all relatable and likable enough, making us care about them even though we're familiar with the material. Yes, that also includes Blaine--to Downs' credit, you can see and feel him trying to rationalize the situation. Despite his "woe is me" outlook, Blaine is still someone we want to see find happiness.
Huss gets the most glamorous role and the easiest one, but even though he's forced to say some lame one-liners ("We role-played King Arthur, and you should have seen the way he knelt before Excalibur!" is a ditty from the deleted scenes) and prance around without his shirt on (hey, I'm certainly not complaining about that), the actor has a few surprises in store. I love how he refuses to let Cameron become the bad guy here, which would have been very easy (he never turns down a chance to set the record straight on who created this big mess). He proves to be a much better friend to Blaine than you might expect, handling the situation about as well as anyone could hope for (something the script thankfully gets right). He's a likable meathead, and Huss certainly has charm.
But the film belongs to Loren, whose smile, sincerity and charisma provide the heart and soul of the story. He has the most likable character, but he also does a lot with it (and thankfully we spend enough time with him away from Blaine). My favorite moment comes when Xander leans in to kiss Cameron (thinking he's Blaine), a move that's rebuffed--giving the actor a quick yet meaningful moment to roll with the punch as his heart is broken. It may not seem like much, but it allows Loren to say so much with few words. Having been in that situation, I know how awkward and uncomfortable it is...and the actor nails it with grace. Also watch when the real Blaine gets a little close with a CD booklet; little touches like Loren's reaction are the true beauty of the film. It's moments like this that keep the film grounded, showing it doesn't have to resort to any stunts. Oh, Is It Just Me?...I just can't seem to quit you after all!
The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer isn't particularly detailed, sharp or colorful, but it gets the job done. The picture is a little too dim and dark, and the apparent lighting limitations make themselves known. But for a low-budget indie, it still works.
You can select 2.0 or 5.1 tracks; I opted for the latter, although outside of some chirping birds there aren't a lot of details to the effort. I was particularly struck at how dang low the track is...I had to crank it up pretty high to get to an acceptable listening level, and even then the dialogue wasn't always distinct. Optional English subtitles are available.
"In the beginning of the movie you movie you may assume that they're stereotypes...the vapid Go-Go boy and everything. But you start to realize as you watch the movie, there's depth to the characters and they're not who you thought they would be at the beginning of the film."
- J.C. Calciano
Leading the way is the audio commentary with director J.C. Calciano and actor Nicholas Downs (the box and menu proclaim "director and cast", but we only get one actor). It's an enjoyable track that focuses on the craft of small movie making, from calling in friends for help to filming locally to taking advantage of sponsors to a few technical tricks and cheats. You can feel the joy from Calciano, and the two play off each other nicely. "I'm such a pushover in this movie," observes the actor early on, prompting the director to concur about the character who lives in the shadows: "You don't fight for yourself; you're a defeatist and you expect the worst," says Calciano. "He always takes the negative side of it...he sees life as the glass is half empty."
The director points out where he deleted some material, delves into some character motivations, talks about how he intentionally shifted emotional moods with edits, points out props and also shares a few small touches along the way that might escape viewers (trying to draw parallels between the two leads; a scene that was meant to imply that Blaine and Cameron sounded similar on the phone; his own silhouette as the killer in Death Camp Massacre), and also talks about how he tried to visually open the movie to give it more space and make it feel bigger. We get some thoughts on the cast (Adam Huss isn't a dick in real life...he just plays one here!), which was solidified after a "chemistry read". I wish we heard more about them (and that more of them were present), and I also wish the duo delved a little more into the inspiration for the work and choices made in the script/story (we learn that the film Socket inspired him to do his own film, but don't find out much else). But inspired thoughts and observations creep in every so often, providing for a nice listen.
Next up is a set of six interviews (14:36) with the cast: Nicholas Downs, Bob Rumnock, Bruce Gray, Michelle Laurent, Adam Huss and David Loren briefly talk about the film and their characters (sadly, no Calciano here). It's a short but enjoyable collection that includes Downs' strategy for pulling off Blaine's motivations and behavior (it's good to hear that he made an effort to address this important issue) and offers a few laughs as well (Gray notes "I've spent a lifetime playing republicans in suits...").
Nine deleted scenes (25:02) are more like extended scenes, the bulk of the material actually already in the film; we get more of Cameron's moaning and joking ("If you really think that that head of yours can compete with this head of mine," he says while pointing somewhere special, "you're in for a very sad lesson, my friend!"), more indifference from Michelle ("If you were to compete in the Stupid Olympics, you'd win the gold!") and another reminder of Blaine's sad self worth ("It's not about being happy in life, it's about being less miserable") in a wisely deleted scene where a pot-induced Bob goes way over the top.
Audition footage (12:45, in full frame) features Loren reading for the role of Blaine (sans his super cute Xander accent); Laurent reading for Michelle; and both of the actors in separate readings with Nicholas Downs. The dating advice (2:42) sequence features Downs, Loren and Huss in character as they answer questions like "How is the dating scene?" It's like a promo/trailer, and doesn't offer much memorable. The film's trailer and trailers for other TLA releases round it out.
Like so many small gay-themed indies before it, Is It Just Me? chronicles the sometimes tough, sometimes tragic search for Mr. Right. While the film's slant on online dating, unattainable ideals and the media's apparent fascination with exploiting and promoting misery are nothing new, the performances here--particularly that of the engaging David Loren, who gives the film true heart and soul--are strong enough to overcome the film's few shortcomings, primarily a protagonist who's a little too "woe is me" for his own good. There are some genuinely endearing moments here if you can get beyond the crazy premise, resulting in an ultimately enjoyable watch. Rent It.