“Deidra and Laney Rob a Train” is comedy without enough tragedy to make it funny. That’s not to say that a comedy needs real, emotional struggle to be successful; the recent television predominance of mundanity-driven comedies such as “The Office” derive humor from the repressed depressions of modern, white collar life through caricatured characters who don’t demand much in the way of depth.
This film, the sophomore feature by director Sydney Freeland and Netflix’s most recent release, does invoke tragedy as it’s basis for humor. Starring Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow as Deidra and Laney in parts that are sure to be stepping stones to bigger rolls, it chronicles the larcenous adventures of two sisters who resort to good ol’ fashioned train robbery when their single mother is incarcerated for “domestic terrorism” after a meltdown in a “Good Buy” store.
If the premise seems unlikely, the characters are even more so. Murray and Crow, despite the decade-age difference between them, authentically portray the mix of affection and tension that marks sibling relationships. But the cast built around them, from ex-felon father Chet (David Sullivan) to school guidance counselor and crime-complicant accomplice Ms. Spencer (Sasheer Zamata of SNL) to Pacific Western Rail detective Truman (Tim Blake Nelson), exists only as a set of comedic talk-boxes with which to exchange bite-sized morsels of one-liner dialogue.
Worst of all is the girls’ mother, Marigold (Danielle Nicolet), who is given not a single line of realistic dialogue to ground her character in reality. She is faced with the fact that she’s in jail while her three kids live in poverty, unable to pay the bills and buy food. Deidra’s college dreams seem dashed, and Laney and younger brother Jet are on the cusp of being removed for foster care by child protective services. Yet her reaction to all this, when her children come to visit her in jail? “You guys know what’s great about being in here? I get to choose between kitchen or laundry. One or the other.”
Despite having premiered at Sundance in the Avant-Garde dominated “NEXT” category, the film can’t shake its “Disney Channel” feel, a feel driven both by the impossibly low stakes — we never believe the girls are actually in any danger — and by the way that the very real issues of race, poverty and incarcerated parents are not really given any emotional weight in the script.
It’s not that the film needs to be “heavier.” But with the exception of isolated jokes, the film falls short comedically because the counterpointing tragedy doesn’t feel real. The sequence introducing PWR detective Truman places him at center frame on a tinted palette, looking appropriately evil and silly as he takes a deep pull off a vape. It’s a shot that directly evokes Wes Anderson, and other subtle moments in “Deidra and Laney” do as well, but the comparison is ill advised; Anderson is the perfect example of how a set of silly, exaggerated characters can still hold emotional weight in a story.
What makes films such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Moonrise Kingdom” great is that they are built up from characters with motivations and desires that make sense, and their reactions to the zany, convoluted story arcs that Anderson puts them through feel consistent with the internal rules of the worlds he creates.
In contrast, “Deidra and Laney Rob a Train” feels like it was written story first, character second, with the actual texture of Deidra and Laney’s personalities added in as an afterthought. The film is still funny, with several memorable one liners: “I am Pacific Western Railroad’s top investigator. I don’t partner with local PD,” Truman scoffs at one point, to which local PD officer McMillan replies, “I never babysit rent-a-cops; new experience for both of us I guess.”
But isolated moments can’t make up for a film without solid legs to stand on emotionally. It’s breezy and not unenjoyable, but ultimately, forgettable.