The scene that kicks off The Climb is by far the best thing in the entire movie, but don’t hold that against the picture — the rest of it is pretty great, too. Michael Angelo Covino’s comedy-drama is built around a series of occasionally hilarious long-take vignettes charting the turbulent relationship of two best friends, and the opening salvo is a precisely choreographed, cringefully funny single-shot bike ride in the south of France during which Mike (played by Covino himself) confesses to the about-to-be-married Kyle (played by co-writer Kyle Marvin) that he has slept with the man’s fiancée. This shocking revelation comes casually, and its emotionally brutal aftermath is interwoven with bicycling fanatic Mike’s assorted exhortations to his less cycling-savvy pal. (“Switch gears, you need to pedal at a higher cadence.” “Fuck you, Mike! You’re like a real-life Judas.”)
That might sound ridiculous, and it sort of is, but that’s also why the scene works so well: Covino embraces the absurdity of the moment and carries it to its logical, twisted extremes. (“It happened, I don’t know. There’s something about her, like, she’s smart, and she’s interesting. She does this thing with her hips that I’ve never—” “The hip thing? She’s my fiancée! You don’t think I know about the hip thing?”) As the scene progresses, we learn a lot about these two men simply from the way they react to one another.
The next time we see the two friends, they’re in the hospital, where Kyle’s aforementioned fiancée, Ava (Judith Godrèche), comes to visit them and winds up in an unexpected embrace with Mike. The next time we see them after that … is at Ava’s funeral, where the distraught Mike (who wound up marrying her) gets in a fight with some unionized gravediggers and the estranged Kyle rushes to his aid, only for the two of them to start going at it.
That’s how the movie proceeds. Each new vignette catches up with the two men some weeks or months or years later. The emotional dynamics between them shift during both the gaps in between scenes and the scenes themselves. The vignettes themselves are touching, troubling, humiliating, veering from sincere drama to cringe comedy to broad slapstick. (The sheer number of times people and things come crashing to the ground in this film is truly impressive.)
The Climb is a very funny movie about some very serious things — it’s probably funnier than it is moving, which might be a mild knock against it — but it also works the same parts of our brains that mysteries do: Thanks to the lengthy intervals in between scenes, we spend at least some time figuring out just what exactly has happened to Mike and Kyle in the intervening period. New loves are forged. New loves are compromised. Mike becomes a raging alcoholic then seems to clean up his act. The past never goes away: Mike, we learn, was practically raised by Kyle’s family, and his high-school football paraphernalia is still in the basement of their home. That makes the two men’s bond somewhat unbreakable, even during those periods when they can’t stand each other.
Tales of male friendship, at least in the movies, usually turn on dependability and integrity. No matter how much two guys screw things up between them, the laws of cinema dictate that ultimately they will prove to be honest and loyal to one another — indeed, more often than not, they will be the only ones who are honest and loyal to one another. The Climb borrows the outlines of that particular subgenre, if not the actual philosophy. Mike tries to intervene in Kyle’s life in unlikely ways that suggest he’s cutting through the mundane, duplicitous bullshit of the world to save his friend from making bad decisions. But he is as insightful as he is toxic, and his willingness to blow up Kyle’s life is driven less by altruism and more by narcissism and self-destructiveness: He clearly defines his own worth by his ability to take up space in Kyle’s universe, and the worse his own life becomes, the more he wants to take his pal down with him.
That should make him a monster, but The Climb is ultimately too smart and too sweet to condemn anybody. It suggests that we all have Mikes in our lives, and maybe we have all at some point been someone else’s Mike. The push-pull of friendship — competitive, corrosive, loving, redemptive — is ultimately too messy to ever be defined by any one thing. Not unlike people.
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