Who’s to say whether the dark Dickensian introspections of It’s a Wonderful Life necessarily needed a methamphetamine kick for a modern audience? But it’s what’s offered up by The Wave, in which director Gille Klabin’s vividly rendered scenes of psychotropic freakouts prop up the been-there, ripped-that bong-hit philosophizing of Carl W. Lucas’s screenplay.
Frank (Justin Long) is an ambitious lawyer at a firm that specializes in screwing people over on life-insurance claims. He’s spent six years there perfecting the art of assholery — like not only following emails with immediate phone calls, but telling people he’s going to do that in the email. The liveliest conversations in Frank’s loveless marriage concern covering the note on Hot Springs vacations and 4K TVs through three-card monte with mortgage money. But Frank is also on the verge of a professional coronation, which entails endangering the livelihood of a dead firefighter’s family.
Throwing caution to the wind for a Tuesday-night celebration, Frank and coworker pal Jeff (Donald Faison) head out for shots, brews and bumps. The wee hours find them at a house party, where Frank meets a dealer (Tommy Flanagan) that promises the ultimate high from a mysterious drug — but only if Frank receives it via French kiss from Theresa (Sheila Vand), an alluring woman Frank met earlier in the night. Mere seconds after ingesting the drug, it’s daylight, Theresa has disappeared, Jeff has bailed and Frank’s wallet is gone. What starts as Frank’s scramble to make his big meeting turns into harrowing, hallucinatory time slips that threaten to upend the concept of life as he knows it.
Persuasively realized on a pinched-penny budget, Frank’s kaleidoscopic and often sinister visions are an unquestionable standout in The Wave — pitched between rotoscoped nightmare and stained-glass windows in a church the parishioners have chosen to set ablaze while they’re still inside. In particular, Frank’s boardroom encounter with the bigwigs offers a legitimately unnerving bridge from The Wave’s light bro-comedy first act to shadings of horror and science-fiction as Frank’s panic, and peril, deepens. There is also a more placid counterpoint in the moments during which Frank converses with Theresa in a pastoral setting that might just be the nexus of the universe. Making his feature-length debut after directing several music videos for DJ Steve Aoki, Klabin effectively establishes his captivating, caffeinated visual bonafides.
Too bad that script too often feels like the demo of a half-baked prog-rock concept album crossed with the dark-alley comedy of The Hangover. Rather than embracing the pervasive paranoia of After Hours or the unexpectedly radiant humanity of Something Wild, Lucas instead becomes enamored with goofy karmic narrative gotchas related to largely offscreen events. One character literally advises Frank that the universe is trying to tell him something if he would only pay attention. And the less said of Long and Faison’s sweaty exaggerations as things turn violent, the better.
However, Faison still wrestles laughs from lawyer motor-mouthing in one sticky situation, and Long again channels his rat-a-tat energy into an eventually likable character who seems like he’s rifling through options to (at least eventually) find the most reasonable one. Debi Kierst also shines in a small role as Helen, an administrative assistant who points Frank in the right direction at his lowest point. At least Lucas understands such folks are the saints and saviors of office life everywhere.
The Wave is never a bad trip — just one you wish would go a little more far out, man.