AFI Film Festival Review: ‘Mr. Roosevelt’ Charms Even As It Plays By The Books

Indie filmmaking has gone from a style of financing to a genre all its own. It now boasts its own conventions, iconographies, stereotypes and self-parodying elements. One such cliche is that it often starts as a springboard for a comic actor to write and direct their own work. Such is the case for “Master of None” standout Noel Wells, who writes, directs and stars in her first feature, “Mr. Roosevelt.”

For those worried about a possible biopic, one must clarify the “Mr. Roosevelt” in the title is a cat, rather than a former US President. Yes, the movie is going to be that quirky, going so far as to feature a rant about the sexism behind the word quirky. While some of these finer points signal a more standard indie fare, Wells’ ability to write three-dimensional characters salvages the film from its predilections to overdose on hipster-ness.

Emily Martin (Noel Wells) appears to be your average struggling LA comedian barely able to support both her mental and physical well being. Yet, upon learning her beloved cat, Mr. Roosevelt, is gravely ill in Austin with her ex-boyfriend, Eric (Nick Thune), Emily is summoned back to Texas. As she learns of Mr. Roosevelt’s passing, Emily is confronted by another grieving woman, Eric’s new girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower). Celeste insists Emily stay with them in the newly remodeled home while they wait for the ashes. The home happens to be the same home Emily used to live in with Eric. Emily compares herself less and less favorably to this new girlfriend who is “a Pinterest board come to life.” This leads her to confide in a new local friend, Jen (Daniella Pineda), a liberated waitress without a care in the world.

“Master of None” showed us how talented, funny and observant Noel Wells can be. She brings the same level of complicated charm to make Kate a lovable loser we root for. However, the true discovery here is Wells as a character writer. Very quickly from each characters’ introduction, we have a clear picture of who they are as humans. An early Emily audition involves a spot on impression of Holly Hunter at a yard sale that I won’t be able to get out of my head for a while.

Even better are the elements of Celeste that we are introduced to immediately that make her simultaneously unthreatening and unobtainable. She awkwardly cries in the veterinarian’s office. Yet, she composes herself well enough to invite Kate to a fancy French restaurant on a double date. Each faux stylish accent on her redecorated home’s wall helps craft an even stronger and sharper portrait of this “too perfect” woman. Yet, the movie learns to not vilify, but cherish the character for her ability to have her life and priorities together.

The evolution of Emily’s version of Eric to Celeste’s version is one of the trickier, but more interesting elements. With Emily, Eric dreams of being a successful musician, wears absurd amounts of flannel and dons an unkempt beard. Immediately, we are supposed to hate Celeste for turning Eric into a mature, upstanding man who eats less gluten and “actually has more energy because of it.” While there is a great deal of spot-on jabs (and many others we’ve heard before) on the goop-type yuppie, we see how Eric might also welcome this adult change. It’s a winning dynamic that helps the movie go beyond a one-joke wonder.

Romantic triangles in indie films have a familiar structure to them. It would be correct to assume that “Mr. Roosevelt” hews quite closely to this. However, the surprise and delight come from the subtle ways the characters don’t get the pat resolution we usually see. Wells understands a third act breakdown followed by a well-rehearsed apology monologue doesn’t solve one’s problems. Like many, once we solve one problem, we are faced with another. This leads to a cliff of uncertainty that often times we fail to deal with. From the characters to the situations they are placed in, “Mr. Roosevelt” updates just enough to separate itself from the pack.

“Mr. Roosevelt,” distributed by Paladin, opens in limited release on Nov. 17.

GRADE: (★★★)