Coming from director/musician Robert Schwartzman (his score for Palo Alto is wildly overlooked), The Argument is an absurdist comedy that observes common relationship spats through a surrealist lens. While the humorous sparring matches render a few promising moments, the end result is a wishy-washy film that doesn’t engage with the substantive conceits of its premise.
The Argument follows Jack (Dan Fogler) and Lisa (Emma Bell), a couple three years into their relationship. After Lisa’s performs her first big play, Jack decides to have a gathering to celebrate, inviting his agent/best friend Brett (Danny Pudi) and his stern partner Sarah (Maggie Q). When Lisa’s flirty co-star Paul (Tyler James Williams) shows up with his girlfriend Trina (Cleopatra Coleman), Jack and Lisa have a fight that ruins the entire night. To find out who was right, the two decide to recreate the night the next evening, driving them down a seemingly endless wormhole of situations.
Pushing its simplistic premise to its zany extremes, The Argument mines some laughs out of its audacious approach. Much of the credit goes to its skilled cast of character actors who sell the bizarre frames with their committed delivery. Maggie Q and Danny Pudi are the standouts of the bunch, with Q’s steely deadpan persona generating uproarious laughs while Pudi throws himself into each gag with reckless abandon (I also loved Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in a surprise third-act role). Zac Stanford’s script operates well at its most unhinged, dreaming up a plethora of creative scenarios for the characters to get lost in (Schwartzman’s direction also makes the most out of the film’s single-setting approach).
The Argument’s creative framework shows promise, which makes its middling execution frustrating to endure. Despite bolstering a likable cast (Dan Fogler has been an affable funnyman throughout his career), the characters here are unlikable in a flat manner. There’s no dimension or humanity to define their shallowness, with Stanford’s screenplay lacking a clear direction in portraying these characters. There also isn’t enough of a satirical edge to fully condemn them either, leaving audiences in a murky middle ground of mediocrity. I wish Stanford’s script showed more balance in its story structure, saving most of its inventive twist for the conclusion while burying the first two acts with a largely repetitive set-up.
Weak characterization is just the start of the script’s problems, as The Argument presents a vapidness that derails the entire endeavor. One would think the film’s high-concept premise would be a gateway to reflect honest truths about relationships, potentially displaying how petty disagreements can manifest into stark reflections of grander issues. Much of Stanford’s script seemingly ignores this nucleus, settling for a mixed bag of laughs that can't compensate for the film’s overwhelming emptiness. I wish Schwartzman stepped in to guide the screenplay more, as his previous features The Unicorn and Dreamland exemplified a steadier tonal balance this film is desperately missing.
While promising in its conception, The Argument’s creative spark can’t compensate for its uneven execution.