Many an actor and filmmaker has done something similar over the years at the Sundance Film Festival. Writer/director/star Paul Lieberstein went to the Tribeca Film Festival, but the feel is the same. There’s a little bit of Zach Braff to be found in Lieberstein’s filmmaking debut. If you’re not reminded of “Garden State” at least a little bit, you’re not paying attention. The plots may not have much in common with each other, but the vibes are similar.
“Song of Back and Neck” confidently fluctuates between comedy and dramedy. There is a dedication to the comedy bits, the sad sack elements, and low key romance. No one genre is put to the forefront, so even some of the most painful moments have a tinge of humor. At times things can get a little ridiculous, but they always come back down to Earth before long. In that way, you always know that this is the real world that the characters are living in. The situations may end up extreme, but it’s still a reality. That goes a long way towards making the protagonist so sympathetic. You care for this man, which is part of Lieberstein’s best accomplishment here.
Our introduction to Fred (Lieberstein) immediately sets up his situation. As soon as he gets out of bed, he’s hit with debilitating back and neck pain. It’s bad enough that he literally lays on the floor and scoots from one room to the next, showering and eating breakfast on the floor. A trip to a specialist (Paul Feig) reveals that he has a bad enough condition that nothing will help. Pain pills? He’d have to take so much he’d be in a fog, not to mention addicting. Surgery? No likelihood of success. Fred, for lack of a better word, is screwed. At work, he’s a paralegal for the firm where his father (Robert Pine) is a partner. Fred’s rut seems permanent, at least until a new client in Regan (Rosemarie DeWitt) walks in.
Fred’s condition catches Regan’s attention and she recommends a special acupuncturist (Raymond Ma). He’s skeptical, but visits. Not only does it help, but the doctor discovers that the pins, when inserted into Fred’s back, make beautiful music. His body is literally crying out. Fred goes to thank Regan, leading to a friendship/romance. This is problematic for members of the firm, which sets into motion an unexpectedly somber third act. Where Fred ends up isn’t where you might expect, but it’s also probably where he belongs.
Paul Lieberstein put himself in front of the camera for “Song of Back and Neck,” a decision which proves beneficial to the production. He looks the part of this character. Fred is the low key sad sack with wise-ass qualities, something Lieberstein aces. His chemistry with Rosemarie DeWitt is also really strong, especially as they’re getting to know each other. DeWitt gives the character a distinct personality. Ike Barinholtz and Brian d’Arcy James are wasted in tiny parts, while Clark Duke is under served playing Fred’s nemesis. This is all about DeWitt and Lieberstein, which is also where the film is on the firmest footing.
Behind the camera, Lieberstein showcases a great handle on tone. Things in “Song of Back and Neck” move deftly between the absurd and the serious, between comedy and drama. That’s a lot of where the previously mentioned “Garden State” comparison comes into play. Lieberstein is best known for writing and playing a part on “The Office,” but this gives him his own style to play with. He chooses a divisive place to end the movie, though it’s one that’s true to the characters he’s created. In that way, his feature debut shows off a potential for him to craft something amazing the next time around. This is good stuff, but his follow up could be great.
If you like quirk, “Song of Back and Neck” could very well be up your alley. It never goes overboard into farce, but it does mix some genuinely moving drama with some ridiculous comedy. This may not be for everyone, due to the shifts in tone, but they’re handled so well the majority of audience members will appreciate the movement. If you’re curious to see Lieberstein spread his wings on the big screen, this won’t let you down.
“SONG OF NECK AND BACK” IS DISTRIBUTED BY THE ORCHARD AND OPENS IN THEATERS ON NOV. 30.