“I’m not listening to Papa fucking Roach on the day I kill myself,” Val (Jerrod Carmichael) tells his best friend, Kevin (Christopher Abbott), in On the Count of Three. The two are, in the immortal words of Jacoby Shaddix, contemplating suicide. That makes it way too cheesy, Val reasons, to queue up “Last Resort,” the Y2K self-harm anthem Kevin cranks for mood music.
Still, the song shows up more than once in this bromantic comedy of mutual desperation. And by the time Kevin is belting it alone in the car, channeling all his pain through that iconic chorus (“Nothing’s all right! Nothing is fine!”), it’s moved from punch line to unofficial theme. In this on-the-nose needle drop, one can hear the whole nervy balancing act of the film, the way it teeters between absurdity and sincerity, irreverence and straight-faced commiseration.
On the Count of Three is basically a classic ’80s-type mismatched-buddy movie like Lethal Weapon — complete with racially charged banter and ambling misadventure — where both buddies just happen to be dangling on the precipice of self-destruction. Imagine if Danny Glover’s Murtaugh was as pushed-to-the-edge as Mel Gibson’s Riggs, and you get a sense of the dynamic.
It’s no easy task, pulling laughs from suicidal ideation. But Carmichael, the comedian who directs the film as well as stars in it (this is his dark-humored feature debut), is up to the challenge. His defunct NBC vehicle, The Carmichael Show, often tackled hot-button issues through the conventions of the traditional three-camera sitcom, smuggling provocative conversation onto network TV. As written by that show’s co-creator, Ari Katcher, and by Ryan Welch, On the Count of Three has a similar Trojan horse design. It’s more daring in content than structure.
The movie opens in media res, with its main characters locked and loaded, each facing the other’s barrel, like the enemy brothers of a John Woo picture. What got them both to this place? And will they go through with it? Kevin, we quickly learn, has tried to take his own life before. His latest attempt has landed him in a mental health facility — the kind of place he’s been in and out of since he was a kid. After years of laboring, unsuccessfully, to cheer his pal up, Val has sunk into a deep depression of his own, and started to see some scary logic in Kevin’s death wish. Breaking his buddy out of the hospital in the opening act of the film, he proposes an arrangement: These two childhood companions will shoot each other, dying together in a suicide pact.
Kevin and Val don’t go through with their plan right away. Instead, they decide to carve out a final day for themselves — not to appreciate life’s pleasures (both are pretty far beyond the point where they even believe those exist), but maybe to settle a few scores before they make their exit. For Val, that means meeting with his estranged father, played by a cameoing J.B. Smoove, and trying to drum up a few extra dollars for the mother (Tiffany Haddish) of his child. For Kevin, it’s a much darker reunion, an act of vengeance. Carmichael, who took on America’s gun problem on a controversial episode of his sitcom, here finds grim humor in the way Kevin bemoans a country that would let someone as angry and unstable as him get his hands on a firearm. (Before carrying out their revenge plot, the two hope aloud that they don’t get lumped in with incel mass shooters.)
On the Count of Three has the loose shape of a one-crazy-day farce, but its incidents tend to be unsentimental and anticlimactic. Most of the movie is just the two friends driving around, shooting the shit, occasionally bumbling into trouble. The gags can be mordant: When Val tries to hang himself in the bathroom of the mulch plant where he works, he’s interrupted by a chipper co-worker singing a country song about it being a good day to be alive. Still, Carmichael takes the unhappiness of these men seriously. That’s the precise needle the movie threads: It finds comedy in two people at the very end of their ropes without turning their depression into the butt of the joke.
Abbott, so thrillingly prickly in movies like James White and Black Bear, is the tragicomic heart of the film. Rocking a mop of bleached hair and a thousand-yard stare, he makes Kevin a mess of exposed wires — a man whose untreatable depression has left him trapped in a volatile perma-adolescence. He’s like if one of Seth Rogen’s stoner man-children characters had all his edges sharpened by trauma. And the more we learn about Kevin’s painful past, the more Abbott deepens the character’s sadness. It’s a soulful open-wound performance, anguished and funny — often all at once.
As for Carmichael, he’s more quietly affecting in the role he’s handed himself here, the foil of this depressive duo. In a way, one can see glimmers of the melancholy he showcased in last month’s Rothaniel, the HBO standup special wherein the comic, speaking to a small club audience, unpacked his family’s secrets and publicly came out. Did Carmichael pour some of his real existential discontent into this fictional character, a man who’s lost all touch with his sense of joy and hope? If nothing else, the performance helps underscore the distinction between Val’s sudden impulse to end it all and Kevin’s clarity as someone who gave up a very long time ago on ever getting the help he needs. “We are in two very different situations,” Kevin tells his friend at the end of a lifetime of ineffectual doctors and medications. “You’re in a little bit of a slump.” Whether Val really wants to pull the trigger — and whether he will — is the tension simmering beneath the pair’s ramshackle exploits.
On the Count of Three might have benefited from a few more complications. At just 86 minutes, the film is almost too much of a shaggy lark. Mostly, it gets by on the abrasive chemistry and rat-a-tat gallows humor between its leads — and on a general refusal to devolve into a series of life-is-precious platitudes. Carmichael and his writers aren’t here to deliver affirmations, to tell their audience that everything will be all right in the end. They find value instead in giving voice to those who do feel pushed to their limits, in acknowledging that pain and lending it the shape of withering dark comedy. Laughter may not be the best medicine, but it can be cathartic, like screaming along at the top of your lungs to a California nu metal staple.