This review is part of our Sundance 2021 coverage.
The Pitch: Longtime best buddies Val (Jerrod Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott) love each other about as much as they hate living. The latter is in a mental institution after his latest in a lifetime of attempts to kill himself; the former is deeply depressed, with a dead-end job and a fractious relationship with girlfriend Tasha (Tiffany Haddish). After Val breaks Kevin out of the joint, they hatch a scheme: live one last day to the fullest, finish their business, then shoot each other at the same time with a pair of handguns Val picked up. It’s a murder-suicide pact born of a lifetime of trauma and love, and that bond will be tested in more ways than one by the time the day is done.
It’s a Great Day to Be Alive: Director-star Carmichael, already a comedy fixture with roles in Neighbors and his semi-autobiographic NBC sitcom The Carmichael Show, pivots confidently to the kind of murky dramedy On the Count of Three requires, and the results are as curiously effective as you’d expect. The concept of a bromance movie centered on mental illness and suicide requires a deft command of tone and a willingness to swing for the fences, and Carmichael certainly brings that boldness to the table.
Carmichael’s no stranger to uncomfortable silences and awkward discussions of difficult topics (see any of his stand-up specials for evidence), and he leverages the script by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch — who worked with him on Carmichael Show and Ramy, respectively — to wobble on that tightrope between comedy and tragedy. Early attempts to do the deed fail in spectacular fashion, and later attempts at catharsis from people who’ve wronged them ring with grimly comic notes (like a Big Mouth Billy Bass singing a jaunty tune as Val shakes down his absentee father (JB Smoove) for money he’s owed).
Cinematographer Marshall Adams (El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story) shoots Val and Kevin’s Thelma and Louise moments with appropriately grainy, overcast grit, but occasionally lets slip some Sundance-ier flourishes like the painterly fall of snow or patient zooms in or out of characters deep in contemplation.
Quitting is Great: For all the cynicism and glibness the concept can engender, there’s a surprising amount of affection suffused throughout Count of Three, nailed in Carmichael and Abbott’s perfectly-calibrated performances. Carmichael, befitting his comic persona, is the more muted of the two, playing Val with all the world-weariness of a man who’s got it all figured out and calculating that the world he lives in is just too tragic and malformed to keep living in.
That gives Abbott plenty of room to go wild as Kevin, and he’s a delight to watch, decked out in frosted tips and garish streetwear like he’s cosplaying as Robert Pattinson from Good Time, bounding from scene to scene with manic abandon. He’s eccentric, but he’s not too much, and Abbott knows exactly when to pull back and reveal the sting of Kevin’s pain from decades of trauma (including implied molestation from a child psychiatrist (Henry Winkler) whose demise he puts on his final day bucket list).
The only times Kevin doesn’t feel like shit are when he’s with Val, and Abbott allows us to revel in the strangely-transcendent moments of peace he recreates with his childhood friend. His poor taste in rap-rock climaxes in one of the film’s most achingly fantastic gags, as Kevin scream-sings Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” in the car with all the tragic liberation of a man who says every word like it’s gospel truth.
This Is My Last Resort: Again, much of On the Count of Three relies on Carmichael’s balancing act of tones, and occasionally he fumbles enough to give you pause. Racial and homophobic slurs are trotted out unabashedly, only to walk them back through assurances that “it’s the intention of the word” or half-hearted expressions of white guilt. The latter works better than the former, especially given the entertaining dissonance between Kevin’s white-ally wokeness and the murderous intentions of his final hours on Earth: a running gag revolves around the cathartic joy Kevin gets from waving a gun around, despite being morally opposed to them (“It’s my right to bear this arm for some reason!” he shouts back at a gas station attendee he just held up).
But apart from those occasional scenes, the experiential differences between a white and Black best friend feel largely ignored, when they would have been an intriguing minefield to plumb for two friends airing out all their final thoughts at the end of their lives. Much as they claim they know each other better than anyone else, there’s always a frustrating disconnect in performance and experience that still make them feel like they’re in their own worlds. And that might be the point.
The Verdict: While the third act devolves into some broader swings that the rest of the movie doesn’t successfully build to, there’s a lot about On the Count of Three that will charm, particularly if you’ve struggled with similarly self-destructive friendships. There’s always that one person in your life who you can’t get rid of, no matter how self-destructive they’re being, because you know and love that person so much their pain reflects in yours. Even as On the Count of Three tumbles toward an ending as unpredictable as it is slightly unearned, the bones of its central performances and unabashed embrace of its concept keep you glued to the screen. Carmichael’s got something really special here, and it’ll be intriguing to see what a second feature bodes for him now that he’s really gotten his feet wet.