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‘The Climb’ Review: Caught in a bad bromance

This tale of toxic friendship is funny, but also maybe just a little sad.

Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin riding bikes in 'The Climb.'
(Image: © Sony Pictures Classics)

Our Verdict

'The Climb' is driven by compelling leads who are richly developed and comically engaging.

For

  • 🚴🏻Excellent lead performances.
  • 🚴🏻The cinematographer is just as gifted a comedian.
  • 🚴🏻Ambitious plot structure.

Against

  • 🚴🏻Ambiguous line between comedy and tragedy.
  • 🚴🏻The female characters are too thinly sketched.

The Climb is currently only available to watch in theaters. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recommend checking it out at your local drive-in. If one isn’t available, please be sure to check out state and CDC guidelines before watching in an enclosed space.

The Climb is one of those films that feels so strangely and uniquely itself that it’s hard to ground it in any sort of reference point that makes it immediately relatable what exactly you’re getting into. It’s an idiosyncratic story, co-written by and co-starring Kyle Marvin and director Michael Angelo Covino, that examines friendship in an often unflattering and codependent light, yet is so attuned to a specific shared vision that it’s hard not to imagine some degree of autobiographical inspiration. This makes the intended takeaway for the film somewhat difficult to parse, as it feels at once celebratory and hypercritical, heartwarming yet pitiable. That’s not to say films aren’t allowed ambiguous dimension, but they should hopefully bring more to the table than just questions. Thankfully, The Climb remembers to lean on its offbeat comic sensibilities to make an experience as entertaining as it is baffling.

Set across a number of chapters in two friends’ lives together and apart, The Climb opens on Mike (Covino) confessing to his best friend Kyle (Marvin) that he has been sleeping with his fiancée. As the years pass, Kyle finds himself with a new fiancée, Marissa (GLOW’s Gayle Rankin), just as a drunk and depressed Mike stumbles his way back into his life. The question then becomes whether another relationship can survive Mike’s influence, or if compulsive friendship from having known each other for so long is really worth it when the consequences are so gratingly obvious.

It’s hard to delve much deeper than that story-wise, since the film’s unconventional act structure divides the story into a series of snapshots that play as vignettes in isolation but only come together as an experience when considered through the collective experiences of its leads. Corvino does an excellent job selling himself as a friendless former athlete who peaked in high school and only has Kyle as a lifeline, while Marvin conveys a spineless codependent with the understandable desire to move on to the suburban ideal of a wife, a picket fence, and 2.5 kids. The deadpan, matter-of-fact way in which Mike delivers revelations and self-pity is the stuff of pitch black comedy gold, only to be exacerbated by furniture-destroying physical comedy. Kyle, meanwhile, perfectly embodies the straight-man who no longer wants to be tied to his personal Pagliacci yet is continually drawn in by the self-destructive clown with whom he shares a history. It’s a weird yet weirdly relatable dynamic that blurs the lines of empathy and pity through deprecation and discomfort.

This is complemented heavily by Zach Kuperstein’s playful cinematography, with each act enacted in mostly one long extended take (with some cleverly masked cuts here and there), forcing the camera to be dynamic and reveal absurd details purely through shot composition and movement. Long takes are generally used to convey the passage of real time in film, but here they also emphasize just how singular the portrayed moments are in shaping a story of two men who may or may not be better off without one another in their lives. There are no unnecessary scenes – save for some bizarre musical interludes punctuating chapters – because each builds upon the previous to show a causality and desperate inevitability in the course of single momentous events.

But it’s hard not to keep coming back to how insularly told this story is, and that’s best exemplified by how paper-thin the plot-driving female characters are. There are lots of speaking characters, both men and women, who make up Kyle’s extended family, but the only ones who matter as more that comic mouthpieces are the fiancée Marissa and Kyle’s controlling mother Suzi (Talia Balsam), who surreptitiously steers Mike back into Kyle’s life for self-serving reasons. Though both of these women are the inciting motivators behind Mike and Kyle’s will-they-won’t-they bromance, neither appears to have much of an interior life to drive their own motivations. If anything, their shallowly sketched personalities are just as toxic as Mike and Kyle’s, so the film lacks an external perspective to definitively say where the line between comedy and tragedy lies. Again, that kind of complexity is not necessarily unwelcome, but it’s difficult to tell how intentionally it’s conveyed and how much The Climb is in on its own joke.

At the very least, The Climb is driven by compelling leads who are richly developed and comically engaging. Though there are a few good one-liners, the comedy is largely awkwardly situational and dependent on some expert staging in a manner that is wholly unique and more than a little off-putting. In that sense, the film is a success of low-budget invention and as a showcase for Corvino and Martin’s talent as naturalistic comic actors, but the line between self-deprecation and an unsettling lack of self-awareness is never quite delineated in a satisfactory manner. That might be exactly the point, but the film never quite reaches the level of introspection necessary to give that point any weight. That makes it tangentially reminiscent of another instance of bros making a movie about their friendship, Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero's Best F(r)iends, albeit done here with more technical competence and better comedic material. If we’re going to be asked to awkwardly chuckle our way through The Climb, it might be worth knowing that at least the filmmakers know what’s resting at the peak.

The Climb opens in theaters on November 13, 2020.