An unthinkably self-indulgent sequel whose primary comic conceit is that it’s an unthinkably self-indulgent sequel, “Uncle Kent 2″ — or “Uncle Kent 2!” onscreen — is such an inside joke that it’s difficult to imagine an audience for it beyond an enabling circle of friends. The grating solipsism is, of course, central to the ostensible humor of Todd Rohal’s slapdash sci-fi comedy, a follow-up to Joe Swanberg’s 2011 indie that finds Kent Osborne (who is credited as the writer and stars as a version of himself) facing an imminent apocalypse at a San Diego comic convention. While “Uncle Kent 2″ ekes out a few funny moments over its brief running time, the movie is far less formally accomplished than Richard Kelly’s similar end-of-the-world chronicles — or even the guerrilla Disney World/Disneyland production “Escape From Tomorrow,” which it sometimes recalls. A bow at SXSW, whose attendees might have a higher-than-average fluency with the Swanberg-verse, makes sense, but the movie is likely to confront a B.O. black hole anywhere else.
Stylistically, the film bears little resemblance to “Uncle Kent,” conceivably the laziest picture that the prolific Swanberg has yet made. Still, the humor in the new pic assumes at least some familiarity with the earlier one, a hefty presumption considering that the original barely played. Swanberg helms only the first 12 minutes of this installment; the real auteur is Rohal, the absurdist behind “The Catechism Cataclysm,” a farrago of non sequiturs and shaggy-dog plotting that offers an indication of the cult-courting approach he takes here.
The first film observes the storyboard artist Osborne, a Swanberg collaborator, as he spends a weekend with a journalist (Jennifer Prediger) he meets on Chatroulette. She has a boyfriend, but seems keen to spend her time in L.A. at Kent’s home, questioning him about his masturbatory habits and eventually participating in a threesome with him and a free spirit (Josephine Decker, who isn’t present for the new outing). Built from rambling improvisations, that prurient movie might, with considerable charity, be categorized as a portrait of emotional reticence that looks forward to Swanberg’s deft and delicate “Drinking Buddies.”
“Uncle Kent 2″ begins with an excerpt from its predecessor; we soon see that an undies-clad Osborne is watching it on his laptop. He’s working on writing part two (“We open with Kent on porch, weed” — a line immediately enacted in the film). At a party, Osborne pitches the idea to Swanberg, who decries Hollywood’s sequel culture and complains that making a follow-up to a movie like the no-budget “Uncle Kent” is “even worse.” But he soon gives his him his blessing to seek another director for the project, at which point “Uncle Kent 2″ itself jumps into its opening credits and switches to Rohal’s hands (and from 1.33:1 to a standard frame).
At his cat-paraphernalia-adorned home, Kent awakes every morning with a different pop song in his head. A doctor (Steve Little, who starred in “Cataclysm”) performs a series of tests, during which Kent perceives the physician’s shirt color to change. The doctor advises him to see a neurologist immediately, but our hero takes the train to San Diego anyway. Outre happenings continue en route — Swing Out Sister’s “Breakout,” the movie’s unlistenable anthem, goes on and off in his head as he opens and closes a book — and ramp up once he arrives.
“Uncle Kent 2″ was filmed at Comic-Con, whose logos aren’t particularly obscured. Kent spends a night on the town with a colleague, Suzy (Kate Herman), and discusses his suspicion that the world around them is not real but a massive simulation. This theory gains credence when Kent meets Miriam (Lyndsay Hailey), a megafan dressed as his signature Cat Agent character, with whom he witnesses a cyclist take a splatterific fall. Characters disappear in staticky puffs, like vanquished bad guys in a videogame. There is a cosplaying couple (the ubiquitous Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine) and a cameo by an accordion-toting “Weird Al” Yankovic. Prediger shows up late in the game as herself to egg on the movie’s literally onanistic finale.
Osborne’s maladroit text messages to his former co-star constitute one of the better running gags, but he is not such a hapless figure that an entire movie can be built around jokes at his — or Swanberg’s — expense. (Judging from the sequel’s premise, one gathers that even those involved with the first “Uncle Kent” now regard it as barely more than a tossed-off jape.) What’s left are Rohal’s cheeky sci-fi and meta touches, which don’t amount to much and which we’ve seen before from filmmakers with better chops.
Giving the film a faintly professional sheen, the director tricks out the proceedings with some animation and low-grade special effects, including a “Donnie Darko”-esque dissolving mirror. He resourcefully conjures the apocalypse with fiery lighting and some stray helicopter noise. Down to the tinny sound, the production values in Swanberg’s segment are closer to those in “Uncle Kent” than in his lovely recent Sundance premiere, “Digging for Fire.” Blu-ray projection at the screening attended contributed to the overall sense of proud disinvestment.
SXSW Film Review: ‘Uncle Kent 2’
Reviewed at Magno Review 2, New York, March 6, 2015. (In SXSW Film Festival — Visions.) Running time: 73 MIN.
A Lodger Films presentation in association with Easy Open Prods., Arts+Labor. Produced by Georg Kallert, Peter J. Nieves, Rob Schroeder, Mel Eslyn, Gareth Upton. Executive producers, Kent Osborne, Joe Swanberg, Ian Keiser, Leigh Jones.
Directed, edited by Todd Rohal. Screenplay, Kent Osborne. Camera (color, HD), Nathan M. Miller; music, Kev, Ryder McNair; music supervisor, Rob Lowry; art director, Brian Mayfield; sound, Eric Friend; re-recording mixer, Friend; visual effects, Stefan Scherperel.
Kent Osborne, Lyndsay Hailey, Jennifer Prediger, Kate Herman, Joe Swanberg, Steve Little, Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine.