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Review: Is ‘The Climb’ the greatest bromantic comedy ever?

Three people on a ski lift in the movie "The Climb."
Gayle Rankin, left, Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino in the movie “The Climb.”
(Zach Kuperstein / Sony Pictures Classics)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

Cycling uphill in France, lifelong best friends Mike and Kyle come to a crossroads in their relationship when a betrayal involving a woman is unearthed during the opening episode of emerging auteur Michael Angelo Covino’s “The Climb.” The film is a wholehearted and hilarious ode to a fraternal bond more profound and enduring than any romantic attachment.

Penned and performed with deadpan keenness and sincere poignancy by Covino and real-life greatest pal Kyle Marvin — both surely assiduous cinephiles — the exceptionally auspicious first feature defies superfluous bromance movie conventions. Incisively, it tracks these two broken 30-something men — almost brothers — over nearly a dozen, mostly one-take vignettes spotlighting landmark incidents spanning several years.

Gullible and “naturally athletic” Kyle, the pair’s better half, bears the hurt of the inexcusable disloyalty and brokenheartedly tries to move on. That’s until a wretched, overweight and consistently intoxicated Mike reappears. A selfless specimen to a fault, Kyle reopens himself to that foundational friendship, just as he is about to marry his overly assertive fiancée, Marissa (Gayle Rankin). Understated ridiculousness mines the reunion for laughs.

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Covino’s forward-thinking ambition, to exploit the medium beyond run-of-the-mill linear filmmaking, formally distinguishes the piece. In a film imbued with aesthetic panache, the camera gracefully floats through the spaces, concealing information from the characters yet revealing it to us for humor and insight, like an all-seeing eye orchestrated by versatile cinematographer Zach Kuperstein (black–and-white horror flick “The Eyes of My Mother”).

Such an immersive approach to movement reaches peak excellence as an early chapter opens with Kyle putting on an uninhibited and memorable striptease to then glide from an eventful Thanksgiving dinner inside his family home to a melancholic Christmas, with tragedy-struck Mike as unexpected guest, shot from outside the same property looking in through windows. Craftsmanship elevates a familiar premise to new artistic heights.

The imagery’s lyrical quality has a synergy with the musical selections scoring it. An assortment of classic French pop songs — in an already Francophile work featuring actress Judith Godrèche — meets country tracks like Gary Stewart’s “Drinkin’ Thing.” Diegetic interludes with talented cemetery workers and an Eastern European band evocatively singing to the camera add a magical-realist layer to the idiosyncratic brew. This is the work of storytellers who show their admiration for the art form with narrative reinvention.

Standalone segments could very well function as contained short films (the concept was first a 2018 eight-minute project dealing only with the initial Judas kiss). However, in increments, the curated accounts assemble a tapestry of intricate feelings between the co-leads, who are prone to suffer from their inherent and distinctly opposing personality flaws but are nonetheless inseparable. Seamless transitions between a few of the set pieces serve as lovely visual flourishes.

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Their offscreen familiarity enables Covino and Marvin not only to interact with lived-in spontaneity tailored to their fictional alter egos, but for their interactions to have the precise rhythm for the dry and dark jokes to land with quiet potency. They play off of each other, capitalizing on how sharply contrasting their roles are. Mike’s angry outburst against other drivers rings funny, while Kyle’s disappointment toward his comrade resonates with sadness. Covino’s acidity and Marvin’s adorableness mix a bittersweet cocktail that will move you and make you cackle at once.

Hidden in what may appear to be throwaway lines of dialogue are clues like Mike remembering Kyle’s ideal bachelor party. Theirs is a screenplay deftly written to operate in divided form and even more as a complete story brilliantly bookended with a bike-related metaphor. Although testosterone flows heavily here, Rankin, whose character could have been schematically vilified as the force attempting to separate them, gets to explore Marissa’s conflicted motivations for marrying Kyle, especially in a standout church moment.

Guilt-fueled, Mike’s mission becomes rebuilding what his selfish actions damaged. Luckily for Mike, Kyle’s No. 1 rule in their tried and fortified bro code is forgiveness. Misguided but well-intentioned, Mike convinces himself that policing his comrade’s decisions is an act of care, but in realizing that’s not his place, even if Kyle remains unable to stand up for himself, he reaches a new level of introspective self-awareness.

“But he is my friend,” replies Kyle to Marissa’s request that he expel Mike from his life, a statement that denotes how absolutely meaningful their deep connection is for him. Similarly, when Mike later rambles about the complexity and pain associated with loving another person, he’s speaking, even if in a coded manner, of his brotherly affection for Kyle. To have these guy-next-door types profess such sentiment without restraint, and verbally grapple with their unresolved emotions, is an onscreen breakthrough for American men.

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Patently one of the most methodically astute and strikingly genuine cinematic renderings of male friendship ever conceived, “The Climb” bypasses the raunchiness and unemotional banter that dominated tales of heterosexual buds in the 2000s for subtly stirring, comic vulnerability. A masterpiece of bromantic woes, the movie subdues toxic masculinity and makes a case for men’s often dismissed necessity for platonic companionship.

Mike and Kyle are counterparts of an imperfect whole, soulmates in crushing defeat and small triumphs. They know each other’s emotional cadence and pedal in tandem on the fortuitous bends of adult existence. No training wheels can prevent the shattering falls of divorce, grief and identity crises, but the pair can always rescue one another to keep on riding. There’s no hurdle too major, no incline too steep for the duo’s fervent endearment. What they have is messy but unconditional, thus real and everlasting.

‘The Climb’

Rated: R, for language, sexual content, some nudity and brief drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 13, Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry, and in general release where theaters are open


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