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Review: ‘Unplugging’ Makes a Heroic Effort to Be Funny

Review: ‘Unplugging’ Makes a Heroic Effort to Be Funny

There’s nothing worse than watching earnest actors trying really hard to be funny. Unplugging is ninety-four minutes of contrived situations that might have been hilarious to a network TV audience back in 2003 but lands flat in the year 2022. 

The story seems like a five-minute sketch-comedy bit stretched out to be a feature-length film. Unplugging is about high-strung GenX’er Jeanine (Eva Longoria, Desperate Housewives) married to a laid-back Baby Boomer Dan (Matt Walsh, Veep). Based in the affluent Chicago suburbs, they decide to do a digital detox vacation weekend in a rural area. Jeanine works in commercial real estate, and Dan is an adman who no longer works in advertising and makes artisanal hot sauce in a super cute garage converted into a fully equipped kitchen with a huge flat-screen plasma TV.

Unplugging has potential with a talented cast that includes veterans Keith David (Barbershop) and Lea Thompson (Back to the Future) and comedians Al Madrigal (The Daily Show) and Nicole Byer (Grand Crew). The casting directors have placed a mosaic of actors of all ethnicities into the supporting roles of the film, checking all of the boxes to quell anyone from saying that diverse ethnicities aren’t represented, which is great. But the film just isn’t funny. The script is filled with lots of words and very little substance.

Production-designer Candi Guterres (Stargate Origins) does an excellent job with the locations and the sets are quite wonderful. The Chicago suburbs had a lovely 21st century John Hughes film feel to them that made me feel comfortable, and as Jeanine and Dan travel to the rural area, the lodge house was totally yummy. There was a ton of beautiful natural sunlight that the director of photography Federico Cantini (Give or Take) utilized with an expert eye. As the characters were talking on and on and on, my eye would focus on the beauty of the sets and the wonderful use of landscape. The technical aspects of the film are expertly executed. It’s too bad that the script isn’t great. Keith David is always like a cool drink of water on a hot day and breathes life and a little joy into his character. He was the only character who made me laugh in this film.

Eva Longoria’s character Jeanine is so job-focused that she gets on everyone’s nerves. Jeanine is always on her phone, gives unsolicited advice to everyone at all times, and thinks knows everything at all times. Watching such a high-strung character criticize everyone throughout a film is exhausting. By the time the audience learns why Jeanine is so high-strung, it was too late. I couldn’t have cared less. I just was looking forward to the times when this character was off-screen. Longoria’s comic pacing was brilliant in her portrayal of Gabrielle, a former beauty pageant winner with two daughters trying to find her identity in suburbia on Desperate Housewives. Playing this kind of character, she is like a square peg in a round hole.

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But Dan, Matt Walsh’s character, wasn’t any easier to take. Dan is just a basic middle-aged burnt-out white guy who has the means to play video games while his artisanal hot sauce is cooking and his wife is at work. He doesn’t seem to have any friends, other than the UPS guy who visits every day because it’s his job to pick up packages. Matt Walsh played political aide Mike McLintock in Veep perfectly. His earnest liberal optimism in a world filled with political sharks was a really funny contrast in a show filled with extremely mean and unlikeable characters. Walsh is a Chicago native and has had smaller roles in the films Ted, The Hangover, and Old School, and he’s a founding member of the sketch comedy and improv school the Upright Citizens Brigade. Is it just me or does the style of people being cruel to each other with superficial resolution seem dated right now? The paring of Longoria and Walsh is odd; they just don’t match well together and all they do is snipe at each other. 

Unplugging feels very early 2000s. All of the characters are really mean to one another for no reason. Watching the film felt like labor, and the jokes were not funny. There was lots of comic rhythm without satisfying punchlines. So much information was being thrown at the audience, but the writers did not do the job of giving the audience a reason to feel empathy for Dan and Jeanine. If there’s no opportunity to identify with characters as real people, it’s really hard to care about the characters dealing with any conflict. The madcap challenges that come up later on in the film seemed hysterical rather than funny, and there is absolutely no romance in the film. There are a couple of situations where Dan and Jeanine awkwardly attempt a couple of sex acts, and those situations landed as contrived and laden with so much talking they looked fake and were embarrassingly unfunny.

Unplugging felt like a desperate laborious effort based in paranoia that was simply tiresome. But at least they spelled “Jeanine” correctly — I appreciated that. 

Unplugging is in theaters on April 22, 2022, and will be screening on demand, April 29, 2022.

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