On-screen male friendship is well-tread material in revealing the exploits of compulsively bad men. In Husbands, John Cassavettes detailed toxic male behavior to spiritually and physically exhaustive extent, mining deep pathologies about how men goad and bolster their worst impulses in the name of friendship. Todd Phillips’ The Hangover series reflected all of the misogyny and violence of the very worst kind of bro-y male bonds, and aggressively condoned them. The problem with The Climb, Michael Angelo Covino’s debut feature, is that it thinks it’s the former with the dry wit, but it’s actually the latter with a straight face.
Co-starring and co-written by Covino and Kyle Marvin, The Climb opens as long-time buddies Mike and Kyle (Covino and Marvin, respectively, dully daring us to call the film autobiographical) on a bachelor party bike trek. Mike confesses to sleeping with Kyle’s fiance, ending both the friendship and the engagement. Soon after, Mike becomes a grieving widower from the affair as Kyle is newly engaged to his former high school girlfriend Marissa (Gayle Rankin). Over the next few years, the two are pulled back into the orbit of their bond, happy to fester together again in their cliche duo where one is the puppydog screwup and the other is a good-natured doormat.
The Climb is mostly as shallow as its characters, and almost always as frustrating. The film accepts male camaraderie as cyclically destructive and self-perpetuated in ways that become predictable early and only sparsely interesting. For the audience, their inability to evolve is bleak, but the filmmakers ultimately find their definitive co-dependence charming. Mike and Kyle are exhausting, and the film is overly labored in trying to suss out their inner motivations. The Climb’s attempt at understanding, its blind conviction in their depth, registers as pretension instead of compassion given how banal their bad behavior is. You could give the film more credit if it accepted the simplest and more honest truth: these guys are just shitty.
Bookended with cycling sequences, the film also grates for how it misses the error in its own metaphor. Its sentimental concluding message is told in overly literal terms: when we fall, we have to get back on the bike, regardless of whether we embrace falling again or fear it. If anything, The Climb shows us people who need to stop getting on the damn bike. Or maybe get a new bike, take up roller blading, something. The film spends over ninety minutes disproving its own final thesis.
What might most quickly trick viewers into confusing The Climb as wise is the work of cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, who previously delivered genius work in genre films The Eyes of My Mother and the still unreleased The Vigil. Here he shoots the film in long takes that transform the emotional textures of the scenes, finding tension in the distance between the camera and the characters that’s more intuitive than Covino and Marvin’s script. The dizzying dexterity of Kuperstein’s lensing is often very impressive, but the film leans into it to feign a gravitas for the characters that doesn’t otherwise exist.
A rather well-made and assured debut mired in the codswallop of insufferable people, The Climb moreso makes the case for the future careers of Covino and Marvin than it does for itself. There is a sense of unique comic point of view, filtered through a dry euro-cinematic lens, that begs for a less flimsy foundation. But with its casual misogyny and empty examination of male psychology, The Climb is more like a phase to be dealt with and gotten over than what we can hope their careers will become.