What if your childhood friend called you up out of the blue after years, maybe decades, of not being in touch? What if this friend was the same person who once convinced you to wear your sister's wig to school because it made you look like the guy on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive? And was the person responsible for coining an unfortunate nickname that it took you years to shake? That friend is Alby (Matt McGrath), the 35-year-old little boy lost in David Munro's feature film debut, Full Grown Men. The person on the receiving end of that call (and numerous childhood pranks) is Elias (Judah Friedlander), who has since grown up to become a gifted special ed teacher.
At the start of the film, as scrawled illustrations on torn-out notebook paper float through a fluffy white cloud and an off-kilter tune is plonked out on toy piano, a wistful Alby fondly remembers his boyhood. "If I could live in the past, I'd be on a plane tomorrow," he says, as though the past were a place that he can somehow still visit, given the right directions. Very much like a child, Alby doesn't seem to understand how time works, that people grow and change as the years pass. He lives in an eternal present, but seen from a perspective frozen sometime around the age of 12 or 13.
In Alby's actual present, he has walked out on his wife and son and returned to his childhood home to live with his wisp of a mother, whose medicated grasp on the present is also tenuous at best. How will he celebrate losing, his wife asks, "the best thing that ever happened to him?" With a trip to Diggityland, an aging amusement park somewhere in Florida, that's how. Hence the phone call to Elias and a hastily conceived road trip.
Like numerous Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell characters before him, Alby is a boy trapped in a man's body. But unlike those characters (and actors), who mine arrested development for manic pratfalls and warp the world to conform to their vision of it, Alby, as played by Matt McGrath, is scarily believable. Perhaps it's the way McGrath folds his body into a little ball, looking sad, small and vulnerable, or the expression on his face as he tells a van-full of special needs kids an incredibly inappropriate story.
We all know this guy. He's the life of the party who lacks the facility to understand that the party is over and everyone else has long gone. As someone who has resisted becoming a "grown up" well into my fourth decade, I certainly understand Alby, and probably know a few borderline Albys, but I still have to wonder -- where do these guys come from? Perhaps these types of men were born without the filter that most of us possess, or have developed, that tells us when a joke is about to go too far, or that we're about to hurt feelings or reveal bad parts of ourselves that should remain hidden. Sadly, the fact that most have this filter means we HAVE become the dreaded grown-ups we've tried so hard to avoid.
It's a risky gambit to make a film around as uncomfortable a character as Alby, who spends his time slowly working the last nerve of just about anyone he encounters. When he is ejected from his home or his friend's car or pretty much anywhere he goes, we root not for him, but for the people who kick him to the curb. Does Alby understand what he's doing to the people around him? Or is it that, as Amy Sedaris says in her brief cameo, some people think they're funny when they're really not?
What's great about Full Grown Men, other than the dreamy saturated colors and quirky fifties modern buildings and roadside attractions, is how it turns the buddy movie/road picture on its side. Maybe Alby isn't the hero, perhaps the film belongs more to the sidekick, Elias, who has become self-aware enough to know when a trap is a trap, and that Alby is his own special trap. Does Alby learn anything? Even though he eventually gives up his baggage -- a suitcase full of action figures -- it's unclear whether his strange journey has taught him anything that he can use back in the real world.
Full Grown Men opens in San Francisco Friday, July 25, 2008.