Dr. Ron Knight is a hypnotherapist and (self-published) author who promises that in just three semi-conscious sessions, you can fix whatever is wrong with your life. He is the sort of hypnotherapist who advertises on city benches. He tucks flyers under windshields; he is armed with a toupee, a healing fountain, and an 800 number. He is not, in other words, the kind of person you seek out when your life is going real well.
If this sounds like a bleak premise – sad people seeking possibly fraudulent self-help out of desperation – you would be correct, though if you have ever stared up at that subway ad for the School of Practical Philosophy and thought, maybe, it’s also a relatable one. A Better You, directed by Matt Walsh (UCB, Veep) and improvised by an all-star cast of comedy staples including Brian Huskey as Ron, plus Horatio Sanz, Morgan Walsh, Andy Daly, Natasha Leggero, and more, is a sad movie. It’s not that it evokes sadness. It’s that, at its core, it’s a comedy about sadness, about why people are sad and what they’ll do to stop being sad.
For Dr. Ron’s patients, what they’ll do is go to him. “I saw your ad at a bus stop,” says Patrick (Matt Walsh), a failing car salesman who wants to quit smoking. The fact that they keep coming back is simultaneously an act of faith and desperation: faith, because there’s no discernable evidence that their treatment is working (Patrick smokes after his appointments), and desperation, because they want it to enough that they’ve decided to ignore this particular detail. But while Ron generally suffers from an inflated sense of his own importance, he is right about one thing: his business is booming. A lot of people are sad.
The joke, of course, is that Ron is in worse shape than any of them, even if, for the first two-thirds of the movie, he’s too drunk on his own Kool-Aide to realize it. He’s decided what should be true — his marriage should be salvageable; he should have a full head of hair — and then acts as though it is, even when there’s overwhelming evidence that his interpretation of the world bears very little resemblance to reality. He can’t see that his toupee is bad and he can’t see that his wife is gone, and the problem with these blind spots isn’t so much that they make Ron wrong as that they make him alone.
A Better You isn’t a big movie, even by indie sad com (melancomedy?) standards. The plot is familiar. Nothing happens that’s sweeping or crazy or laugh-out-loud hilarious. And while the organic pacing — not slow, but leisurely, with breathing room — is ultimately one of the movie’s strengths, it’s also one of the things that makes it feel unshowy, and it’s easy to mistake unshowy for unspecial. But the story exists mainly as scaffolding; the people, who are nuanced and complicated and fragile and weird, are the point.
At the core of the movie is Ron’s relationship with Hugo (Horatio Sanz), an affable handyman he hires from a hardware store parking lot and then clumsily tries to befriend. But where Ron sees their moments of communion as evidence of budding friendship, Hugo sees Ron as an object of pity, an employer, not a pal, though it’s not until Ron is standing outside Hugo’s house holding a deeply misguided bag of churros that he realizes it. (Ron also attempts disastrous drinks with the bullyingly friendly head of his homeowners’ association [Daly, a highlight] in a scene that confirms one of life’s greatest truths: you can be lonely, and your loneliness can be your fault, but that doesn’t mean other people aren’t still awful.)
It would be easy for A Better You to cultivate a mean streak, and we could laugh because Ron is pathetic and maybe delusional, because he’s embarrassingly oblivious to his surroundings, because his toupee is bad. Instead, it’s fundamentally compassionate, to Ron and to everyone else. Where it could be broad, A Better You is spectacularly specific. The comedy comes less from capital-J Jokes than from the emotional depth of these particular characters, who don’t so much subvert their types as lean into them until they’re not really types at all. They’re real, human people who are doing their best, which, as for most of us, is always just a little bit less than they’d hoped.