'The Big Chill'-Esque 'The Intervention' Is Sharp-Tongued & Smart [Review]

This is a reprint of our review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

The Intervention” looks on its surface like a comprehensive Sundance bingo movie. A set of four couples, tied together by family, blood, and friendship, gather at a house in Georgia where three couples plan to ambush the fourth with advice (presumably unwelcome) for divorce. The cast is attractive and youngish, peppered with known names and comedy stars, while the soundtrack features indie pop and new music from Sara Quin, of Tegan and Sara.

Don’t overlook this film, however, as “The Intervention” is a sharp-tongued and smart observational comedy that marks the feature directorial debut of Clea DuVall, who also writes and co-stars. This nicely-pitched relationship film begins with a question — is there any point to meddling in the relationships of friends and family? — and escalates into a deftly staged indie farce in which the problems nearly every character is trying to avoid are brought to light. That plot construction is pretty familiar (“The Big Chill” feels like a major touchstone) but Duvall and the expert ensemble cast inject a particular comic vitality.

Melanie Lynskey, who seems like she can enliven just about anything with deadpan comic energy, plays Annie, who with her fiancé Matt (Jason Ritter) organizes the getaway weekend as an excuse to confront Ruby and Peter (Cobie Smulders and Vincent Piazza) about their toxic marriage. Along for the very awkward ride are Jessie and Sarah (DuVall and Natasha Lyonne) and Jack (Ben Schwartz), who has his current fling, 22-year old free spirit Lola (Alia Shawkat) in tow.

Lynskey’s Annie is formidably persuasive, and determined enough to gather a bunch of potential disinterested people in one place, if not entirely possessed of an iron backbone. She’s a sponge for alcohol, making the role as ringleader of this ambush a very precarious position for her to be in.

The cast works well as an ensemble; there are just enough complementary personalities to reinforce the plausibility of the mixed “family and friends” setup, but more than enough conflict to keep the film moving forward at a steady clip. DuVall’s direction is crisp and smart, always with an eye on keeping the story together but a willingness to make space for gags.

Aided and abetted by cinematographer Polly Morgan and editor Tamara Meem, DuVall allows scenes to play out with just a bit of free space, typically ready to make room for a great reaction shot from Lynskey but never adorning scenes with clutter. In fact, every cast member gets in a few good eye-rolls and quietly-mouthed “WTF?” reactions, which keep the rhythm lively and also help guide our understanding of the family/friendship dynamics (which are only breezily established) and unraveling situation.

There is little doubt whether or not specific things are going to happen — from moment one we can bet, for example, that the barely-dressed Lola is going to hook up with someone other than her boyfriend —  but to a great degree that certainty exists because the characters, from page to performance, are fully recognizable very quickly.

DuVall wastes no time setting up not only the relationships, but all the cracks in each one, so that much of “The Intervention” can devote time to what happens when all these messed-up people put themselves in a mild cooker. The shenanigans that follow, from weird make-out sessions to awkward sex-free nights, are never quite predictable. DuVall and the cast juke left and right through the field of possible relationship pitfalls and combinations to find as much of a new combination as is possible with this scenario.

Unlike Sundance 2015 entry “The Overnight,” also a well-made comic deconstruction of relationships, “The Intervention” doesn’t do a cannonball into the vulgar comedy deep end. (No buttonhole paintings or prosthetics here.) Not that this film is chaste, but it has relatively little interest in visual shock. There is enough sexual tension and anxious uncertainty to keep the movie charged through the arguments and reveals, with a couple of on-target emotional speeches for good measure.

DuVall’s confident choices leaves us ready to see her next feature. And this is the latest project that should be a launch pad for Lynskey, who has tremendously good comic timing and works so well with an ensemble that she could seemingly be an asset to any comedy production. “The Intervention” may not offer many new experiences, but its combination of tart and sweet is satisfying. [B+]