It’s impressive that improvisational comedy exists at all and that people can be talented and funny enough to warrant keeping the genre alive. While a lot of improvisational comedy only lives up to half its name, every once in a while a group of performers comes together to improvise something remarkable. High Road is that something. For lovers of cinematic improvisation, this film is a must-see. Glenn ‘”Fitz” Fitzgerald (James F. Pumphrey) is a career pot smoker and the neighborhood dealer. He has a girlfriend, Monica (Abby Elliott) and he’s living his dream as a musician with his friends Tommy (Zach Woods) and Richie (Matt L. Jones) in a band called Tor Eagle. Unfortunately, Fitz’s hazy paradise begins to unravel when his band mates leave to pursue more ambitious goals, he finds out his girlfriend is pregnant and potentially cheating on him, and he’s wanted by the police for selling drugs. So he goes on the lam, complicating matters by taking a neighborhood kid (Dylan O’Brien) with him. The goal is to get to Oakland and meet up with Fitz’s estranged father, but with guns, chases, hookers and a nicotine gum overdose in his way, Fitz will also learn a few valuable life lessons too.
Audiences who understand that the film is almost entirely improvised may be surprised at how coherent High Road is. Those who don’t know the movie is improvised probably won’t notice a difference. From beginning to end High Road feels like a traditional film with hilarious scripted lines and direction, which is a testament to the talent of this very funny cast. It’s impressive that no one stutters, misspeaks or takes the scene in a bad direction. It’s also impressive that no one breaks character and starts laughing at their own jokes. There are a few scenes, however, that definitely feel like a theater game and don’t really do much to push the plot forward or reveal more about the characters. For instance, Fitz runs into a rude hooker who propositions him and consequently makes disparaging assumptions about Fitz’s sexual orientation when he turns her down. The theater game of two characters with opposite goals who are forced into conversation with each other is almost obvious. Scenes like this will definitely make audiences laugh, but are completely extraneous. On the other hand, they also contain the charm of the film and are where the improvisation shines most. The entire cast does such a great job that it’s hard to say that anyone really stands out. For what it’s worth, all of the actors breathe life into their characters and they are all appropriately absurd. Pumphrey and Elliot ground the film by playing their characters straight – more or less. Lizzy Caplan and Zach Woods raise the stakes as Sheila – a spacey new-age true believer – and Tommy – an insensitive prick who knows a million different nicknames for vagina. Taking the stakes and burning them on a pyre of absurdity are Ed Helms as Barry – a dorky, workplace sexual predator – and Joe Lo Truglio as Officer Fogerty – a man who takes police work a little too seriously. The entire cast comes together to tell a satisfying and truly funny story.
High Road isn’t perfect, of course. A few scenes fall flat, like Kyle Gass’ cameo, which feels like a wasted opportunity. Also, audiences who don’t appreciate or understand improvisation may get annoyed at the meandering dialogue. For instance, Monica and Tommy get into an argument over which character in Jerry MaGuire best represents Tommy. It’s funny, but it’s also a blatantly transparent attempt at being so. Overall, however, these nitpicky criticisms are barely a distraction from this otherwise well put together film. Matt Walsh has done a remarkable job with his cinematic directorial debut. He’s managed to bring his years of improvisational comedy experience and network of talented improv actors to the big screen and picked up the mantle that Christopher Guest and his mockumentaries shed years ago. If High Road is any indication of what’s to come from Walsh, then there will be very happy audiences to welcome his films in the future.