Lousy Carter

Lousy Carter (2023)

Lousy Carter has its UK première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2024

Writer/director Bob Byington’s latest feature Lousy Carter opens with its protagonist (David Krumholtz) explaining his unusual nickname to his Jungian analyst (Stephen Root). We never learn Lousy’s real forename, but ever since, back in high school (where he was a “brutal nerd”), he started being called Lousy owing to his abject incompetence on the golf team, the name has stuck ever since as a badge of his identity and quality as a human being. 

Lousy lives up to his name. For he is a failed, one-time semi-celebrated animator, a recovering alcoholic and a literature professor who only ever teaches the one book – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby (1925, or is it 1924?) – and even that not well. He is a schlub, a loser, something of an arsehole, and a guy who is treated with undisguised disdain by his ex Candela (Olivia Thirlby), his ‘best friend’ and university colleague Herschel Kaminsky (Martin Starr, essentially playing an adult version of his Russian literature-loving character from Adventureland), his Provost (Randy E. Aguebor), his doctor’s receptionist (Shelby Surdam), his students, his estranged sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn), and even – indeed especially – his own mother (Mona Lee Fultz). Only his current lover – and Herschel’s wife – Olivia (Jocelyn DeBoer) and his old schoolfriend Dick Anthony (Macon Blair) seem to like him in any way, although even their admiration and approval come heavily qualified. Everyone thinks he is lousy, and would barely even notice or care if he were dead.

As the film’s opening in an analyst’s office – to which we regularly return – suggests, Lousy Carter is a droll character study, carefully getting to the bottom of its protagonist’s psyche. Like the antihero of Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid (2023), Lousy is an arrested manchild crippled by an obsession with his unloving mother and anxious about his own mortality – and the latter anxiety is amplified by news from his doctor (Jack Marshall) that he has only months to live. Where others might decide to turn themselves around, make amends or do some good, Lousy keeps his condition quiet while resurrecting an old, neglected animation project – an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s early novel Laugher in the Dark (1932), about a middle-aged man’s relationship with an underage girl. Lousy does this not as a way of bringing completion to his life’s work so much as a means to getting inappropriately close to his new student Gail (Luxy Banner), whom he recruits to help him. 

Yet Gail is way too smart to be objectified – and as Lousy himself finally admits of his own film, with a reflexive irony that applies equally to Byington’s feature: “No one wants to see a film about a paedophile creeping on a young woman.” Fortunately Lousy Carter is something else – a drily funny, wryly understated comedy of cringe about those of us who never live up to our potential or who barely contribute in any meaningful way to others or indeed to the world. This is the human condition exposed at its most pathetic, selfish and worthless – yet viewers will find themselves sharing Herschel’s view of Lousy: “You and I are friends because of your professional and moral failings, not despite them.” Sure Carter is lousy, but the lousier he is, the funnier and more endearing – and like The Great Gatsby, but also like its deadpan, deglamorised antithesis, this is a shabby summation, if never a celebration, of a life misspent, cut short and readily forgotten.

strap: In Bob Byington’s bleakly hilarious comedy of cringe , a deadly diagnosis catches a schlubby professor between Nabokov and Fitzgerald

© Anton Bitel