Let’s Guess Which Five Sundance Comedies Are Actually Going to Be Good

Will Ferrell on a road trip. John Early trapped in the pandemic. A satire of the ‘magical negro’ trope. Here are the movies premiering in Park City we hope are hilarious
Let’s Guess Which Five Sundance Comedies Are Actually Going to Be Good

On Wednesday, the Sundance Film Festival gets underway. It’s always the new year’s first big showcase for upcoming movies, often serving as a launchpad for films that could have an impact on Oscar season months later. (Past Lives premiered in Park City in 2023, and CODA won Best Picture in 2022.) Serious dramas frequently dominate Sundance, but the festival also takes care to include comedies, whether it’s Napoleon Dynamite or Little Miss Sunshine. From heartwarming documentaries (Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie) to irreverent action-comedies (Polite Society), Sundance has a little of everything. 

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I haven’t seen anything in advance this year, so I’m going into Park City with an open mind and lots of curiosity. It’s so hard to judge a movie by a brief description in a program guide, but sight unseen, I’m going out on a limb and picking five comedies premiering in Sundance that I think might actually be good. Two have been picked up for distribution already, which is often an encouraging sign. A reliable comic star can also make a movie look promising. Which seems like as good a place to start as any…

The American Society of Magical Negroes

Every festival has a premiere that you can’t wait to attend because you want to see if the filmmakers are able to pull off their audacious premise. At this year’s Sundance, that movie is the feature debut of writer-director Kobi Libii, an actor and comedian who’s taking a big swing with his first film.  

The American Society of Magical Negroes draws inspiration from the tiresome cinematic trope of the “magical negro” — the wise, kind Black character who exists in a movie simply to help the white character achieve whatever dream he has. (Remember Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance? Or Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile? I’m talking about characters like that.) In Libii’s film, which is billed as a fantasy-comedy, Justice Smith plays an ordinary guy who’s recruited to be part of a secret society that works to ensure that white people’s lives are pleasant. The reasoning: The happier white people are, the less Black people suffer as a result.

Focus will release The American Society of Magical Negroes on March 22nd, and it co-stars David Alan Grier, Nicole Byer and Michaela Watkins. I have no idea if the movie’s good, but I imagine there will be a wide range of reactions to an edgy satire that takes aim at racism in mainstream entertainment. It’s very possible the Online Discourse could be the end of us all.

My Old Ass

Aubrey Plaza is arguably the queen of indie cinema, not just acting in tons of low-budget films but also producing them. (Her 2022 thriller Emily the Criminal, which Plaza backed, gave her one of her all-time best film roles.) She’s not producing My Old Ass, but Margot Robbie is, and while no one is expecting this comedy to do Barbie numbers, Robbie’s growing Hollywood clout will help bring the film plenty of attention.

My Old Ass stars Maisy Stella as Elliott, who shortly before heading off to college does mushrooms — while she’s tripping, she meets her older self (Plaza), who warns her against falling in love. Apparently, the younger Elliott doesn’t take that advice. The film is billed as a coming-of-age comedy, which is written and directed by Megan Park, whose directorial debut was The Fallout, about teenagers coping in the wake of a deadly school shooting. That superb movie wasn’t meant to be funny — her follow-up definitely feels like it is.

A Real Pain

It’s rare to find a comedy about the traumas of the Holocaust, but Jesse Eisenberg seems to be trying something in that vein with his second movie as a writer-director. (He previously made the dark comedy When You Finish Saving the World, which starred Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard.) Not that A Real Pain sounds like it’s going to be uproarious or irreverent — but it’s definitely going to be walking a tricky tonal tightrope.

The film stars Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin as estranged cousins who travel to Poland after the death of their beloved grandmother, wanting to honor her by learning more about their family’s painful history, eventually joining a Holocaust tour. A Real Pain is supposedly semi-autobiographical and will chronicle the funny, difficult emotional journey these two cousins go on. Culkin just completed an Emmy-nominated run as the noxious Roman in Succession, so I’m excited to see him and Eisenberg lock horns in a movie that could fall flat if it doesn’t work.

Stress Positions

Is there anything funny to say about the pandemic? Writer-director Theda Hammel thinks so: Her feature debut is set during the height of lockdown, when a young man named Terry is going through a divorce, still living in the house owned by his ex-husband while he’s overseas. Terry nurses his broken heart, but he also has to take care of his teenage nephew, a model who’s in a cast and requires constant attention. 

The festival plot description gives me the impression that Stress Positions will be an “everything that can go wrong will go wrong” manic comedy, with Terry dealing with one disaster after disaster. Terry is played by John Early, a comic’s comic who has yet to have the sort of major breakthrough role that catapults him to mainstream stardom. (Look, I loved Search Party, too, but you know what I mean.) Early is reteaming with Hammel after being in her buzzy short My Trip to Spain, and Stress Positions will be released through Neon, one of the hippest indie studios around. You can impress your cool friends by being aware of this movie long before it comes out later this year. 

Will & Harper

You know the Will of the title: That’s Will Ferrell. But Harper? That’s Harper Steele, who has been pals with Ferrell for 30 years. After Harper announces that she is coming out as a trans woman, the lifelong pals go on a road trip to reconnect and process this development — and they bring along a documentary crew to film the whole thing.

Will & Harper has the potential to be this Sundance’s most moving buddy comedy. It’s directed by Josh Greenbaum, who last made the cult hit Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. (He’s also the man behind documentaries like Too Funny to Fail, about the short-lived but revered Dana Carvey Show.) Ferrell has done the occasional drama, but I’m wondering if we’ll see a more emotional, realer side to him in this film than he’s ever allowed before. You tend not to need to bring hankies to his movies, but with Will & Harper, a story of friendship and trans identity, that might be advised.


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