By PETER DEBRUGE
In the American version of “The Office,” Paul Lieberstein played Toby Flenderson, the world’s least competent HR director, so ineffectual he actually wound up bearing the brunt of his colleagues’ workplace harassment. Like a human Eeyore, or the sad-sack equivalent of a giant shrug, the actor made for an amusing contribution to a well-rounded ensemble, although it’s hard to imagine Lieberstein carrying his own movie. Sure enough, even when serving as writer-director, as he does in “Song of Back and Neck,” the guy frequently seems like the least interesting character on-screen (there are entire scenes where he literally just lies there while funnier actors steal the show).
If this were Tom Cruise we were talking about, that would be a crippling flaw, but Lieberstein designs his eccentric little debut along the lines of “Being John Malkovich,” in which John Cusack and Cameron Diaz had their star power stripped away through dumpy wardrobe and bad wigs until they came off seeming like characters most of us might overlook in the real world. Lieberstein could have cast himself as a self-aggrandizing romantic lead, the way Woody Allen nearly always does, but instead he plays Fred Trolleycar, the kind of guy voted “least likely to succeed” by his high school peers, who grew up to be a middle-aged paralegal at his father’s law firm — a cushy nepotistic job from which he can’t be fired, though it comes with the humiliation of watching ponytailed jerks like Atkins (Clark Duke) make partner while he grabs coffee for the clients.
Because Lieberstein is an inherently likable actor, we identify with his plight, even if it takes a while to realize that he’s essentially brought this situation upon himself. And even though he allows Fred to enjoy a romantic connection with one of the firm’s friendlier clients, Regan Stearns (Rosemarie DeWitt, radiant as always), we never put much hope in a fling between an office loser and the latest person to come through the door seeking help with her divorce. If it were Cruise or an alpha star in the role, Fred would probably come off creepy rather than merely pathetic. Thankfully, Lieberstein is fully conscious of his comedic strengths — which, in this case, also happen to be his physical weaknesses.
Inspired by a personal battle with chronic back pain — and the quacky-sounding book “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection,” by John E. Sarno, that led the director to realize that his suffering might be psychosomatic — “Song” playfully exaggerates a crippling discomfort that Lieberstein himself suffered. The condition (the grand-slam trifecta of a herniated disk along his spine, a pinched nerve, and some kind of neck problem) hurts so much that he’s reduced to a kind of human invertebrate, scootching along the floor of his apartment and trying to get dressed, brush his teeth, and eat his cereal without further aggravating his back.
When the area’s preeminent specialist (Paul Feig, hilariously no help) asks him to rate the pain on a scale of one to 10, Fred goes straight for the 10. “Why are you not screaming?” the doctor asks incredulously — which is the question Sarno’s book poses in its own way, concentrating not on the pain but the repressed emotions and anger most likely responsible. Frustrated by Western medicine, Fred agrees to visit a Chinese acupuncture expert (Raymond Ma), and it is there that Lieberstein’s peculiar comedy takes a gentle surrealist twist: From the moment the first needle touches his skin, his back releases what sounds like a sad whale song.
The acupuncture seems to work miracles, allowing Fred to pursue his ill-advised affair with DeWitt’s character (they have cute chemistry, but we’d have to agree with his co-workers that the relationship is not a good idea — and unethical to boot). On subsequent visits, the Chinese doctor invites his son into the treatment room, allowing him to accompany the strange music emanating from Fred’s back on his cello. Before long, Fred is giving concerts at a local club, appearing on Chinese-language talk shows, and accepting an invitation to perform at Coachella.
Unlike Bruce Robinson’s high-concept “How to Get Ahead in Advertising,” in which a corporate stressball develops an anthropomorphic boil, “Song of Back and Neck” has no grand ambitions for what to do with its wacky premise — suggesting that perhaps Lieberstein ought to have written it as a short film instead. And yet, thin as the film may seem, it does have a certain wisdom to impart, to fellow back-pain sufferers at least, suggesting that sometimes, anger is its own outlet, and keeping it in can have disastrous consequences. With a few more drafts, that insight should have given the film a proper ending, one in which mild-mannered Fred flamboyantly takes out his aggression. But this isn’t that kind of story, and Lieberstein clearly isn’t that kind of guy.
Film Review: 'Song of Back and Neck'
Reviewed at IFC Center, New York, April 17, 2018. (In Tribeca Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 85 MIN.
PRODUCTION: A Starstream Media presentation, in association with Exhibit, Boo Pictures. Producers: Paul Lieberstein, Kim Leadford, Jennifer Prediger. Executive producers: Fouad Mikati, Allen Babakhanloo, Fernando Loureiro, Roberto Vasconcellos, Dan McCarney, Lauren Russell. Co-producer: Megan Huber.
CREW: Director, writer: Paul Lieberstein. Camera (color): Bartosz Nalazek. Editor: Gary Levy. Music: Antonio Andrade.
WITH: Paul Lieberstein, Rosemarie DeWitt, Robert Pine, Brian D’Arcy James, Clark Duke, Sam Anderson, Raymond Ma, Alice Wen.