International Falls – only international due to a waterfront view of Canada’s industrial side and featuring no waterfalls – is where people go to get trapped. Dee (Rachael Harris) is trapped in work, motherhood, and an unfaithful marriage. Her saving grace is that she is funny and has a dream. She runs the front desk of a hotel that puts on comedy shows. Burnt out standup Tim (Rob Huebel) comes through the hotel, at the end of his rope and comedy circuit, readymade to disrupt her life. The film plays as much as tragedy as comedy, while the two leads reconcile their failing marriages and find momentary reprieve in their shared misery. Adapted from a two-person stage play written by Thomas Ward, the Amber McGinnis directed feature finds much hope in the ability to adapt. It asks one thing of its characters and its audience: try.
The bitter cold of the Minnesotan town is a constant punchline. The actors have their jokes chambered and their chemistry works comedically in a very dour way. Perhaps the funniest thing about Dee is her accent, when pithy jokes spill from her distinct dialect. Everyone in the town talks the same way. Every issue is bottled and shaken as nobody really comes or goes. You know they say, “once you visit International Falls it’s hard to leave,” every townsperson tells Tim. The first time he says, “Well, they said the same thing about Siberia under Stalin, so, we’ll see,” and every time after that he is surer that he’ll never go – ominously foreshadowing his fate.
His standup isn’t very funny. The only genuinely funny person in the film is Dee. He sees that in her, that she wants what he has and has not appreciated having. He’s amid a divorce himself, having just lost custody of his son. So, we understand when he does not want to engage the small hotel audience at his show. They have a fling because they both need what the other has. Their dissections of modern comedy can be funny and well judged. They both do not care for alt-comedy especially – “If we keep making fun of making fun of shit instead of making fun of shit, what are we doing?” In its willingness to understand the metatextual layer of comedy, International Falls achieves more than it sets out to do. It is darkly humorous, sure, but moreover, provides a pensive portrait of the sad comedian.
They amble around the winter landscape. Not quite a Christmas town they decide. It’s too cold for any of that spirit. The locals refer to the place as the icebox of America. Their tryst expands into the corners of the town. At risk, they meet some of the locals together. Dee imagines Western standoffs with the woman her husband is sleeping with, shotgun and Morricone loaded. Tim suggests Dee might run the gal through a woodchipper instead. Fargo style. Has she seen the show? We never find out but everyone in the movie lives the dialect, so they may not need to, would be like watching a mirror. Her husband never really interferes with the affair, despite trying to use her children as a shield to help disrupt the infidelity. He’s played by an emasculated Matthew Glave who should stop leaving his browser open because she has so much comedy about “CFNM” porn and whatever that might stand for (she has a lot of ideas).
Eventually, the film runs into budgetary limitations. There are moments where we wonder if it could have stayed, like the original play format, as two people within a hotel – if not only their hotel room. It may have benefitted from the inclusion although having the romance bubble over in the stark white of the Minnesotan winter provides a super appealing setting. When they are out of confinement, some of the pressure is relieved, and it settles into the trot of a regular romantic comedy. There are clear issues with the sound mixing, too little, too late, that sacrifice the punchiness of many sequences, especially when they’re played over by barely composed music. It is a good thing for the central performances, that they have so much to add and benefit each other. We even get treated to a couple noteworthy additions, with the always funny Kevin Nealon as a bored town cop with too much of an accent and Erik Griffin as a traveling comic.
The clear empathy behind the camera truly propels the film. McGinnis understands comedy and depression in equal measure and keys into something like diet Coen Brothers. There is not much farce here. There are many opportunities for the film to grow and retract appropriately but it wants to tell a linear romantic story. Thankfully it’s a very thoughtful one. The actors play well and the script keeps the center from breaking. With some fine-tuned refinement and especially sound mixing, it could be an independent treat. There is something lovely about a festival watch with such a straightforward, useful message, it just wants people to try. And it succeeds.