Of all the difficult topics that you’d rarely find in the context of comedy, suicide is at or near the top of the list. It’s nearly impossible to find the light side of something that is the result of extreme mental anguish, and which causes much harm and guilt to those who knew and loved the person who died by suicide.
That’s what makes the balance found by director/star Jerrod Carmichael in On the Count of Three so remarkable. The film opens with friends Kevin (Christopher Abbott) and Val (Carmichael) pointing guns at each other’s heads in a dual murder/suicide moment, a scene so dark that it would seem impossible for there to be any humor in the film at all.
And yet Carmichael, working from a script by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, manages to do just that. The film jumps back in time to Kevin in a mental health facility after an earlier suicide attempt. Val sneaks Kevin out of the facility, and they decide to give themselves a one-day reprieve to wrap up loose ends. With the knowledge they won’t be around the next day, they each engage in behavior that they’d never considered before.
To be clear, the film is not a straight-up comedy. Any funny moments that arise come because of the type of bond that Kevin and Val are shown to have. Through the dialogue between the two and some knowing looks they exchange, the depth of their friendship becomes quickly apparent. And because they are so close, the fact that neither can see any other solution to their individual problems is especially gut-wrenching.
Carmichael calls upon a variety of actors normally known for their comedic work, including Tiffany Haddish, JB Smoove, Henry Winkler, and Lavell Crawford, to play dramatic supporting roles, a canny move that pays dividends. In addition to giving Val’s life some needed extra dimensions, it offers the actors opportunities they don’t often get, and each one of them takes full advantage of that opportunity.
Still, the film’s subject matter makes for some tough viewing, and by the end of the film it’s not clear that the filmmakers have a full handle on the message they want to impart. The choices the two characters make along the way are ones that should make anyone pause, especially since they’re not presented as mere “entertainment.” The mental health crisis in the United States is an epidemic, and the commentary this film is making on that feels only skin deep.
Paired with his recent Netflix special, Rothaniel, and hosting appearance on Saturday Night Live, this film looks to be part of a reinvention for Carmichael. He’s obviously going for more than just laughs in his new work, and even if the message is slightly muddled, his talent behind the camera and on screen is evident. Abbott is also compelling, offering up a character that’s at odds with some of his other roles.
On the Count of Three neither glamorizes nor condemns the idea of suicide. While the fact that the events take place over just one day constrains the film’s message, the depiction of the friendship between Kevin and Val makes the film eminently watchable, even if it’s through your fingers.
On the Count of Three opened in Austin at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar on May 13. It is also available for rental at home via digital outlets.