Since the raunchy rom-com That Burning Feeling stakes so much of its emotional weight and message on the power of honesty, I feel the need to interject my own sense of candor into this review. On paper, Jason James’ concept sounds terrible: a film that uses gonorrhea to tell a heartwarming story about finding out who you really are. It sounded every bit like a film that I would despise most likely within seconds and one that would coast by on lame puns and easy and supposedly comedic misunderstandings. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of flaccid penile puns and sometimes forced and convenient plot and character developments, but this is actually a really sharp and funny little film. I was so disarmed that I exclaimed almost aloud: “Wow. This is surprisingly NOT shitty.” It might not be a high bar to clear, but it lands decidedly on the high end of where these films usually end up thanks to quirky characters that never outstay their welcome, witty exchanges of dialogue, and some great, committed performances from a great cast.
The story concerns Adam Murphy (Paulo Costanzo), an architectural whiz kid and condo baron under the employ of a cold, distant, egomaniacal boss (John Cho) who has coasted through life without ever living it. Content with being “the guy behind the guy,” shilling for crappy condos, and hooking up with women and then never calling them, Adam one day wakes to discover that it burns when he goes to take a piss. One STD diagnosis and an ill fated, halfway joking, mistakenly sent text message later and Adam is off on a journey to tell the dozen or so partners he’s been with over the past month to get tested. In the process, Adam learns how to be honest to those around him and to himself, opening up to new life possibilities and a potential relationship with a legal advisor (Ingrid Haas) who’s trying to save the community centre his boss wants to raze to build his latest ridiculous concept condo complex.
There are moments of obviousness throughout, but at least Murphy and his co-writers are going the extra mile to make their scenarios actually funny instead of mere retreads of previous comedies in the same vein. The characters are drawn to be quirky, but not oppressively so. They’re written with the kind of idiosyncrasies that seem believably outlandish, especially since Adam stereotypes almost anyone he meets or sleeps with almost instantly to skew the audience opinion of them. The other smart thing Murphy and company do is that they don’t turn Adam into a complete douche-bro. He seems more confused, out of touch, and too obsessed with his job to be obsessed with himself. His hook ups might be played for comedy, but there’s also a sad kind of loneliness that the film is openly confronting that makes things a lot more palatable than they might have been if someone like Todd Phillips had been the head of such a production.
Murphy also gets blessed with a cast that can sell the silliness very well, especially Costanzo who actually makes a great case for his potential status as a leading man. He’s charismatic even when Adam is a shit, but without ever coming across as an inherently awful person. Murphy and Costanzo work together to make sure that the character’s eventual self-actualization and growth are earned rather than tossed off for the sake of a happy conclusion. Costanzo also has spot on chemistry with all of his co-stars, generously ceding the limelight to them when he needs to play the straight man.
Haas is sassy and strong female counterpart that proves the film isn’t some sort of look at one man’s loss of sexuality. Tyler Labine steals his share of scenes as a pervy and creepy out of work neighbour. Emily Hampshire nails the perfect balance of being cute and a sociopath as a former hook up and DMV employee who agrees to help Adam out of a sense of loneliness. Then there’s Cho, who’s clearly relishing the chance to play a Bond-styled villain as the erudite, up-his-own ass “visionary” who can’t even really seem to be bothered to put anyone down because even that would be a waste of his time.
Murphy doesn’t delude himself into thinking he’s making high art, but he’s making a lowbrow comedy the best way he knows how. The results are pretty darn good. It’s essentially just a time waster, but there are far bigger, more bloated, and completely nonsensical wastes of time this weekend. At least I didn’t feel “that sinking feeling.”