Comedian Jerrod Carmichael is officially a triple threat. The writer and performer can now add director to his bio, making his debut with the pitch-black suicide comedy “On the Count of Three,” in which he co-stars opposite Christopher Abbott. The film, which Carmichael directed from a script written by “The Carmichael Show” writer Ari Katcher, who co-wrote with Ryan Welch, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It arrives in theaters on the heels of his revealing and intimate comedy special, “Rothaniel,” which recently bowed on HBO Max, as well as a stint hosting one of the weirder episodes of “Saturday Night Live” in recent memory. “On the Count of Three” announces Carmichael as a filmmaker to watch, with a distinct point of view and a willingness to dive into the darker parts of the psyche, using comedy as a conduit to access those painful places.
The film opens in medias res, with lifelong best friends Kevin (Abbott) and Val (Carmichael) about to shoot each other in the head outside of a strip club at 10 in the morning. Rewinding a few hours, we come to find out how these best friends found themselves there, which begins with Val getting a promotion at the Feed & Seed shop where he works, and attempting to hang himself in the bathroom while his co-worker sings Travis Tritt’s “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” at the urinal. Val’s failure leads him to break Kevin out of the psychiatric hospital where he’s been committed for attempting suicide himself, because Val thinks the only way to get it right is for the best friends to do it together. However, Kevin, a newly freed man, blanches. He wants one last day.
So begins the darkly demented “This is Your Life” journey upon with Kevin and Val embark, driving around town in a yellow Jeep. They run into Kevin’s school bully, pay a visit to their favorite boss at the dirt bike track, and pop in on Val’s abusive, absentee father (J.B. Smoove) to collect an outstanding debt. Val tries to make amends with his ex (Tiffany Haddish), and Kevin cooks up a plan to exert justice on his abuser, a child psychologist named Dr. Brenner (Henry Winkler). Along the way, they will rob a gas station, listen to Papa Roach and enjoy the feeling of life’s shackles evaporating during their last day on Earth.
While it’s a lot of action for a single day, “On the Count of Three” is a fairly simple, resonant story about the power of friendship, rendered with a bleakly absurdist humor. The film is very funny and very dark, illustrating the power of comedic catharsis that can offer relief from inner torment. The deadpan Val is dry as a bone, juxtaposed against the tightly coiled live-wire that is Kevin. Abbott, cut from the ‘70s character actor mold, is riveting embodying Kevin’s high-strung unpredictable energy, while Carmichael holds the screen as the somber Val.
Carmichael’s direction is confident, and “On the Count of Three” is tautly paced and efficient, energized with the use of music and editing for comedic effect. Cinematographer Marshall Adams animates the dreary suburban landscape with saturated colors and unique compositions. This is a definitive statement of what Carmichael can do as a director, helming a tight, well-crafted film that has a distinctive look and style, and ultimately transcends the small scope of the film into something grander and more epic.
The only flaw of “On the Count of Three” is that, like Kevin, it waffles right at the end. Backed into an impossible situation, the script betrays the brutally nihilist foundation on which it has been built, jettisoning that tone for a pat happy ending. What would have been truly bold would be to remain in the darkness, the friendship between Val and Kevin the source of love and light that was always present.
‘ON THE COUNT OF THREE’
3 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for violence, suicide, pervasive language and some sexual references)
Running time: 1:26
How to watch: In theaters and on digital Friday