In the typical romantic comedy, boy meets girl, and then it is simply a matter of just how soon they will fall in love. "Ode to Joy" takes the same trajectory, but there is nothing typical about the warmly romantic and pleasingly funny look at a different kind of relationship.
Charlie (Martin Freeman) is a man who can be knocked off his feet by love – literally. He can also be knocked off his feet by a happy baby, beautiful sunrise, great meal or funny joke. That's because Charlie has a neurological disorder that sends him into bouts of narcolepsy when he experiences a deep emotion. To avoid passing out, Charlie has designed his world to make sure his emotions stay at a safely flat level.
That changes when Francesca (Morena Baccarin) swoops into the library where Charlie works. She's both an emotional powder keg and the kind of woman who would make a person swoon even if they didn't have a brain disorder. The boy-meets-girl part of the romantic comedy happens immediately, and the rest of the film is Charlie trying to find a way to be near the woman he loves without passing out every 10 seconds.
The key element to making a good romantic comedy is finding the right couple. Unless the audience is willing to become so invested in the pair they want a wedding invitation, the production slumps into a massive pile of meaningless moments. Director Jason Winer found two people so likable and lovable anything short of romantic bliss would feel wrong.
Freeman continues to show his versatility, going from massive special effects movies like "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" and "Black Panther" to this intimate love story without missing a beat. There's a long list of actors who can pull off starring in a romantic comedy, but very few could handle the physical nature of the character's medical situation with such believability. When emotions overcome the character, with Freeman it never comes across as some cheesy pratfall.
There is also something about Freeman that allows him to play a character who keeps a tight rein on his emotions without letting the character slip into a melancholy that would have made the movie a downer. He's an everyman who makes the audience sympathize with him both for the medical woes and the struggle he's facing with his heart.
But no matter how good Freeman is, the film would make an audience go to sleep if his love interest weren't so right for the part. Baccarin has always brought stunning beauty to roles from "Firefly" to "Gotham." So much of her work has been in the science fiction world that she's never been able to show her equally beautiful emotional side.
Baccarin plays Francesca with a joy for life that is a proper counterbalance to the dower nature Freeman has to portray. The balance they have makes both characters stronger and gives "Ode to Joy" romantic strength to grab our hearts. There's a moment near the end with a merry-go-round that visually captures the romance, joy and limitations of the couple.
The other big surprise is the performance by Melissa Rauch as the mousy woman who looks to be the safe person for Charlie to date. After watching Rauch play the boisterous Bernadette on "The Big Bang Theory" for so many years, it's a nice surprise.
Much of Winer's directing has been television comedies like "Modern Family" and "Life in Pieces." He shows some of that half-hour comedy style with "Ode to Joy" with the way he mixes and matches characters, sets the tempo of a scene and uses plenty of close-ups. That style fits here because "Ode to Joy" is a small story dressed up in a big package. That's not a bad thing because keeping the tale tight translates into a relatable work.
'ODE TO JOY'
Cast: Martin Freeman, Morena Baccarin, Melissa Rauch, Jake Lacy, Jane Curtin, Shannon Woodward, Adam Shapiro.
Director: Jason Winer.
Rated: R for language, sexual situations.
Running time: 97 minutes.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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