Modern Men: HONEST THIEF and SHITHOUSE

I have to get this out of the way: I have no idea why Shithouse is titled Shithouse. I mean, technically I know: The title refers to some kind of frat or residence house on or near a Los Angeles college campus where the movie’s two main characters don’t quite meet. It’s the kind of place where, when Alex (Cooper Raiff) asks about where to find a party on a Friday night, and his asshole roommate Sam (Logan Miller) tells him the big one is at Shithouse, Alex asks if there are any other parties available. There are not. 

Alex is not the kind of guy who particularly wants to go to a place called Shithouse and he’s not the type of guy who would name a movie Shithouse. (This apparently sets him apart from the actor playing him, who wrote and directed the film and likely had at least some input on the title.) Maybe that’s the point, in a movie about Alex trying to get out of both his comfort zone and his freshman-year loneliness (turns out, they may be the same thing). But it’s still a strange gesture for the movie to make, if only because it portends a different, more aggressive and maybe dirtbaggy brand of campus comedy, and Shithouse is one of the most sensitive renderings of college insecurity I’ve ever seen.

It’s not a point that many college movies are eager to bring up, the loneliness of not having any friends during freshman year. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Mistress America touched on it with its early scenes of a young woman adrift in a hostile new world that she thinks everyone else has inexplicably already figured out. Movies about boys in college tend to at least assign them a horndog sidekick; here, that would be Sam, if not for the fact that he and Alex essentially hate each other. Alex is half a year into his freshman year, and has no friends. He cuddles with a childhood stuffed animal in his dorm-room bed, and he actively misses his mom and little sister back home in Texas. He isn’t particularly looking for blackout drunkenness or anonymous hook-ups. Alex, in other words, is the dreaded Nice Guy.

Recent movies about Nice Guys, especially teenage ones, tend to do one of two things: They turn him into a put-upon romantic hero, unambiguously deserving of whatever romantic affection he seeks (or pretends not to seek); or they deconstruct him as a Secret Villain, revealing a sense of entitlement that was hiding in plain sight all along. (For an egregious if non-teenage example of this, see Ruby Sparks, where the Nice Guy is an unpleasant mess from the opening moments of a film that proceeds to spend another 90 minutes explaining that he is, surprise, an unpleasant mess.) Shithouse is unusual because it is a genuinely sensitive portrait of young male sensitivity. Alex’s love for his family isn’t played for cheap laughs. His lonely social awkwardness is palpable, but not something he learns to beat by either being himself or loosening up. At the same time, Raiff’s debut feature doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that can emerge from a perceived moral superiority. 

After the ill-fated Shithouse party, Alex returns to his dorm and has a chance encounter with his RA, sophomore Maggie (Dylan Gelula). They talk awkwardly, she invites him to her room, they try to do what college kids do. And then they talk some more, somewhat less awkwardly. They stay up together, and wind up heading out on an odd, winding errand. Maggie, who is far more socially adjusted at school, speaks what some would probably identify as a Gen-Z affect: rapid-fire yet somehow also hesitant, like an unpunctuated Instagram comment. (Insta figures into the story later, casually and skillfully integrated.) There are some scenes from her point of view, and she’s the more vibrant personality of the two, but the movie’s heart belongs with Alex and his freshman stasis. 

Still, Maggie isn’t exactly positioned as a magical savior. She’s blase and more emotionally closed-off than her new acquaintance, and in their tentative, fumbling ways, the characters form a rom-com connection that wavers between complementary and oppositional. Most of the movie is set over a single weekend, and Raiff has a feel for the rhythms of campus weekends, with their long runways of aimless planning followed by concerted efforts at spontaneity. (Raiff, not too far out of college himself, can probably rely on the clarity of recent memories, but not everyone can translate those to a movie that feels as real as this one.) Raiff directs confidently but without a lot of fuss, making good use of static wide shots when necessary. The obvious structural comparison is Before Sunrise, though another Richard Linklater movie comes to mind, too: Everybody Wants Some!!, a first-weekend-of-college romp that also includes an overnight walk-and-talk date that, like this one, doesn’t take up the full running time. Shithouse holds its own antics at something of a remove, but that’s refreshing, too–when Alex does eventually forge a stronger bond with his roommate, it’s not over a wild, unforgettable night of partying. The movie has as much hangover as it does heedless freedom.

This is also a funny movie, despite all that. Some of its humor comes from cringe-y awkwardness, but Raiff and Gelula also have a charming, amusing rapport–which means their clashes, when they come, sting more. Shithouse’s smallness makes it an uncommonly affecting romantic comedy, and like several of the best recent examples of its genre, it doesn’t quite nail the ending. The movie loosens its timeline restrictions, and the effect is almost transcendent before it turns into something of an overreach. 

Raiff may have made a semi-autobiographical movie about what he was up to freshman year, but his treatment of masculinity is surprisingly nuanced, and not especially self-glorifying beyond the fact that Alex, like Raiff, is quite good-looking, the bastard. Which brings me, as so many things do, to the late-period films of Liam Neeson. As endlessly recounted in many movie reviews, often published in January, Neeson’s career took a surprising turn when his Luc Besson-produced action thriller Taken was saved from a possible direct-to-DVD fate in the United States and became a major hit. That was nearly 12 years ago, and Neeson works too steadily to characterize everything he’s done since then as a Taken knock-off. But most of his big studio movies have been action/thrillers that capitalize on his angry-middle-aged-man persona. 

Some of his non-Taken B-movies have been quite good, though the box office has been diminishing for a few years now, and with Honest Thief, his newest movie, he arrives at what feels like a stopping point. More than anything else he’s starred in over the past decade, this movie feels like a direct-to-VOD title; it’s opening exclusively in theaters during a global pandemic that’s scared off all of the big studios. (Open Road, the distributor here, was once a joint venture between theater chains AMC and Regal, though it’s changed ownership a few times since then.) Taken came out when a movie thought to be potentially direct-to-DVD-quality could still make a box office killing with a great trailer; Honest Thief arrives at a time when it takes a pandemic to make an adult-oriented thriller a weekend’s major release. 

There is something comforting about the growly-yet-tony tones of Neeson’s suppressed Irish accent, speaking boilerplate dialogue in a B-picture about an honorable master thief who has reasons for his impeccably executed bank robberies, and can only be apprehended if he decides to turn himself again. That’s what Neeson’s Tom decides to do when he meets Annie (Kate Walsh): He proposes a deal to the FBI where he returns his stolen nest egg in exchange for a plea deal with minimal prison time, so he can make a guilt-free life with Annie post-prison.

It’s the kind of Dude Plan that sounds great until said dude is explaining it to any thinking woman. Tom has to explain it at an especially bad time; Annie turns up just as some crooked FBI agents are turning on him, deciding they’d rather off the thief and take the money for themselves. This makes Neeson angry, though not as angry as when harm comes to Annie; Honest Thief, for all of its initially enjoyable B-minus cable-watch trappings, regrettably becomes the kind of movie where some dude’s loved ones have to be threatened to activate his masculine rage.

In his better thrillers, Neeson does masculine rage better than most, because it so often seems to be directed inward. He’s often cast as a negligent parent, bad husband, or destructive alcoholic, and when he barks threats into cell phones, he’s kind of pissed at himself, too. Honest Thief takes its title too seriously, painfully elucidating all the ways that Neeson really is a good guy, right down to him apparently not spending a single penny of his ill-gotten gains. He’s in it for the principle, not the principal. (Little dad joke there for all the dads who want to know what’s up with their guy Neeson.) His particular set of skills no longer includes self-loathing; just demolitions, because of course Tom is a former Marine. (Neeson is better when he plays guys who would lie about being former Marines.) 

Yet just as Neeson’s work ethic and personal tragedies sometimes seem to lend a genuine sorrow and gravitas to some ludicrous thrillers, there is an undercurrent of melancholy regret, albeit not in its usual place. Here it’s the peripheral characters who seem to all be grappling with the challenges of marriage. Non-corrupt Agent Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan) is recently divorced, toting around a little dog that he’s keeping from his ex-wife out of half-hearted spite (she chose the house). Agent Hall (Anthony Ramos), the more conflicted of the two bad-guy agents, can be manipulated by his partner because he wants to provide for his family; you can tell his home life is important because his wife is played by Jasmine Cephas Jones, though it’s not important enough to keep in whatever scenes she presumably filmed in addition to her 45 seconds of screen time. And Tom feels very strongly that Annie is his absolute last chance at a decent life.

The most compelling thing about Honest Thief, then, is the pervasive sense that doing mid-to-low-budget genre thrillers isn’t cutting it anymore, for anyone involved. At times, Neeson seems to be complaining about his own vehicle: When he must confess to the FBI that he’s the guy they’ve referred to as the “In and Out Bandit,” he grouses repeatedly that he never liked that nickname. It sounds low-rent, he explains, as if giving notes on the screenplay. He’s right: It does sound low-rent, and Honest Thief looks it. It’s not a heist thriller, but it’s not really an action movie, either. It’s an expression of maleness, barging ahead and going through the motions, secretly wondering what the hell these rituals are all for.