Ode to Joy

Ode to Joy is about a man with a disease that causes him to pass out whenever he experiences pleasure. He'd be safe seeing this movie. Romantic-comedies are notoriously difficult to pull off because they require intelligence. Without that, they tend to fall into forced cutesiness. The premise here is fragile enough to begin with; treating it as a punchline only ensures ninety-seven minutes of the movie practically poking you in the ribs to make you notice how clever it thinks it is.

Charlie (Martin Freeman) suffers from cataplexy, a form of narcolepsy that makes him fall asleep whenever he feels strong emotions. Happiness is a particular challenge for him. The opening scene finds him passing out at his sister's wedding, right in front of all the horrified guests. (Of course it does.) He works as a librarian, presumably because working in a library offers no potential for intense feelings of any sort.

A few minutes into the film, Charlie has a requisite “meet cute” with Francesca (Morena Baccarin). Her boyfriend brings her to the library to break up with her, she stands on a table and screams at him, and Charlie defuses the situation. The two are attracted to one another, soon going on a date. As he starts to fall for her, though, the realization hits that he'll probably never be conscious if they actually get together.

Ode to Joy has what the late film critic Gene Siskel used to call “the Idiot Plot” – a plot that would be resolved in five minutes were all the characters not idiots. Rather than dealing with his issue or being open with Francesca about his fears, Charlie instead convinces her to date his brother Cooper (Jake Lacy) instead. That way, he can still be around her, but also unhappy enough that he won't pass out. The downside to this less-than-genius plan is that he must continually try to prevent them from having sex, because that would bring a whole other level of unhappiness.

Are you rolling your eyes yet?

An interesting movie could be made on the subject of cataplexy. This one chooses to be contrived and corny. The Charlie/Francesca/Cooper scenario rings false. It's a way of avoiding depth. Treat cataplexy like the set-up for a joke and you don't have to address how someone inflicted with it might really feel. The disease is present in Ode to Joy simply so it can put Charlie into situations where he passes out for a laugh or mutters things like “Syria” and “Bill Cosby” to himself in order to avoid fainting.

The characters populating the story don't feel like real people; they feel like inventions of a script that's trying way too hard to be witty. Charlie, for example, decides to date Bethany (Melissa Rauch), a woman who's bland and mousy. The right approach would be to make her shy or reserved. Ode to Joy turns her into a full-fledged weirdo who obsesses over knitting and sings “Zombie” by The Cranberries while playing the cello.

Everything in Ode to Joy plays at that insipid level. It gets worse the longer it goes on. As you can probably guess, there has to be a Big Moment in the third act where Charlie comes to his senses. The dramatic scene we get is so absurd, so manipulative that I groaned "Oh, brother!" out loud.

The message of Ode to Joy appears to be that love rises above all problems. Maybe it does. The film, however, does not rise above its insultingly dim-witted screenplay.

out of four

Ode to Joy is rated R for some language and sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.