Farce is hard, but when the players in a given story are all artifice and image to begin with the job it just becomes a matter of actually making the comedy somewhat funny. Thankfully, Aram Rappaport’s adaptation of Max Barry’s cutting novel Syrup gets the ratio of flavour to water just right. In what could have easily been a top heavy and tough to sit through send up of modern marketing culture, it’s instead a fast paced, stylish, well acted, and strangely humane piece of work built around some inherently unethical people.
Scat (Shiloh Fernandez) is an unfortunately self-monikered budding marketing executive in desperate need of a job. In a fit of inspiration he comes up the concept of a new energy drink named Fukk, which is completely centered around the image it conveys and not even remotely about the product inside. The potential million dollar idea gets the attention of soda company marketer 6 (Amber Heard), who not only tries to snake the deal from beneath Scat, but also ends up getting screwed over by Scat’s conniving and mute roommate Sneaky Pete (Kellan Lutz). Together the duo conspires to come up with ways to claw back to the top of the sugary drink game.
Syrup has a low budget for a film about skewering image conscious consumerism set in New York City, but it doesn’t harm the material or what Rappaport and Barry – who adapts his own work for the screen here – are doing with it. It seems that part of the appeal of Syrup is for everything to move so fast that the artifice becomes substance. There’s a craftiness that comes into play with Barry’s screenplay even in the somewhat forced bits of narration. He’s like a magician pulling back the sleeve to show the audience all the cards up it, but he’s keeping the other sleeve hidden for the final trick. Even the bits that feel like a lecture are ultimately in service of the film’s deliberately off kilter structure. It works and while some of the punchlines are a bit on the nose and telegraphed from quite a ways off, the amusement and energy level rarely flags.
A lot of that has to do with the excellent casting of the two leads. Fernandez does some fine work a uniquely naive Type-A personality. He has the strength of his convictions and a cocky swagger indicative of potential for success, but he also has a massive amount of faith in people that alternatively needs to be crushed and that those around him can learn from. He brings the humanity the film needs to succeed and stay grounded, or else the who endeavour would come across as just being mean and bitchy for 90 minutes regardless of Rappaport’s tight direction.
Heard, on the other hand, delivers another noteworthy performance as a character that’s even more of a cipher than Scat. He entire role hinges on beats and calculation. There isn’t a single angle that she hasn’t already thought of moments before someone gets around to their point. It makes her the smartest and often most deceptive person in the room, but on the rare occasions when she’s outsmarted, Heard makes 6 act like something deeply traumatic just happened, cowering slightly and getting flustered to the point where she seems incapable of work. Her chemistry with Fernandez is splendid, with both cipher-like characters learning a lot from each other along the way, acting as perfect romantic and professional foils.
Overall there is some unattainable ambition to Syrup, but given the subject matter and its source material, it’s kind of a wonder it could even get made in the first place. Some of the jokes fall flat, but overall it sticks together nicely. Those looking for its specific brand of humour – sarcastic and misanthropic without being overly hateful and demeaning outside of skewering how the world is so screwed that it doesn’t need any help in that respect – should find this easy to swallow.