The effortlessly engaging “Folk Hero & Funny Guy” begins with the two title characters — a charismatic musician and a struggling stand-up comedian — recalling the same adventure from completely different perspectives. Was it a disaster or a “breakthrough” or a little bit of both?
The answers that writer-director Jeff Grace supplies over the next 90 minutes aren’t exactly surprising, but this is one of those films where the journey is much more important than the destination. And with Grace’s sure hand and the strong work of lead actors Wyatt Russell and Alex Karpovsky, “Folk Hero & Funny Guy” is the kind of road trip movie where it’s a pleasure to ride shotgun.
Paul (Karpovsky) has (mostly) abandoned a successful career in advertising to pursue a dream of performing stand-up comedy. His act, as described by his ex-fiancee, boils down to “categorizing every known flaw in the material world.” But Paul’s spinning his wheels, telling stale jokes (how does he not know that the Evite bit needs to go?) instead of mining more personal material.
Sensing his childhood friend’s malaise, Jason invites him to open for him on an East Coast solo tour of small, intimate venues. A successful folk-rocker (Rolling Stone describes his act as the “good times of Wilco mixed with the authenticity of Bob Dylan,” not terribly accurate either about Jason or Wilco), Jason possesses a confidence that’s difficult to resist. (Dude parties in wigwams with Bon Iver.) So the two pile into Jason’s Volvo, the “Swedish pickup,” and take to the highway.
The dynamic between the cautious, constipated Paul and the freewheeling Jason contains echos of the mismatched friendships in “Sideways” and “Swingers.” But in many ways, the rapport depicted here is more believable in that you can see why these two old friends continue to enjoy each other’s company. Yes, there are lingering resentments, brought to the fore when they meet a lovely singer, Bryn (Meredith Hagner), who ends up joining the tour mostly, for the film’s purposes, to bring out the competition between the men. Of course, with these guys, it’s not exactly a fair fight.
If Hagner’s role is a bit underwritten, she owns a beautiful voice and one of the movie’s many pleasures is to listen to her and Russell singing. Another delight: The presence of Melanie Lynskey and David Cross, each in just one scene (not the same one), each absolutely elevating the film with their genius.
But the movie really succeeds on the chemistry between the leads. Karpovsky you probably know from “Girls,” and he’s every bit as good here, giving Paul a warm, relatable fragility. Russell, the son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, has been quietly building a resume and the versatility and magnetism he shows in “Folk Hero” should lead to bigger things. He’s a star in the making.
‘Folk Hero & Funny Guy’
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: Cinema Los Feliz 3 Cinemas