Atlanta Film Festival: CONGRATULATIONS! Finds Laughs in the Anti-Procedural

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(I’m helping to cover the Atlanta Film Festival for ATLRetro, but for movies without a retro angle, the reviews are going to live over here. Enjoy!)

We all know the beats of this story. A child is missing, the parents are frantic, and the police walk into the home full of questions and grim determination. No matter what, they will find this boy. Congratulations!, a new film by Mike Brune and local Atlanta group Fake Wood Wallpaper, sets up these familiar story beats, but then turns them inside out. In this surrealist spoof of a procedural, police work is the very last thing on the film’s agenda. Instead, the movie tilts off into unusual and unexpected directions, creating something funny and fresh, equal parts weirdly exhilarating and exhilaratingly weird.

A little boy named Paul vanishes from his own living room, and Detective Skok (John Curran) leads a team charged with cracking the case. But none of Skok’s efforts get him any closer to Paul. Actually, none of Skok’s efforts even make sense. The script acts as an anti-procedural, gleefully turned in on itself. Paul went missing at home, so the police focus their efforts there, plastering the house with posters and searching every room dozens of times. A hundred times, whatever it takes! Skok leaves no stone, rock, or clothes hamper unturned. As the weeks drag on, the police become part of the family, pitching in on household chores and learning the weekly schedule while occasionally continuing their efforts to find Paul, mostly by looking around and shouting his name.

The film’s premise seems designed for a lean single comedy sketch, but Brune finds surprising legs in the concept, dragging laughs out of the material long after the audience gets the joke. Most of the laughs come from the film’s deadly straight-faced tone, as the actors treat every ridiculous incident and line of dialogue as if it were all that matters in the world. “We will never stop looking for your son,” Skok promises. “They say ‘never say never.’ Well, we say it all the time.”

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Skok is the key to the film. Played by Curran as a lonely man married to the job, Skok is Dirty Harry by way of Andy Sipowicz by way of Sledge Hammer!, a gritty man so obsessed, he’s willing to stay in the house long after the rest of the force has given up hope and gone home. His single-minded devotion to such a silly search anchors the film and keeps the audience invested through a story that, by definition, never really expands or changes at all.

Congratulations! is a film to see with an audience. The sold-out crowd around me laughed hysterically at all the right beats, but the laughs gave way eventually to a different kind of vibe. If you see enough movies, occasionally you catch one where the comedy on the screen feels dangerous and subversive, and the people sitting around me seemed overjoyed at the film’s audacity to choose such a non-story, shoot it with such love and care, and cast so many talented actors to portray it. The film feels like a trick being played on the movies, and the experience of watching it is like seeing Brune and Fake Wood Wallpaper get away with something in real time.

Congratulations! drags a bit towards the end, but never quite wears out its welcome and earns its running time with a hilarious finale and a pitch-perfect final shot. Those exhausted from decades of Law and Order and CSI’s neat little mysteries and tidy solutions will enjoy this movie, which proposes the joy of the mystery isn’t in the destination, it’s in the pleasures of not getting there.

The AFF has added a second chance to see CONGRATULATIONS! on the screen. It will now play on Sunday night, March 24, at 9:00 pm in the Plaza’s upstairs theatre.

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