On the US version of The Office, the small role of HR Representative Toby proved to be the perfect foil for Michael Scott. So eager to avoid conflict, he allowed Michael to walk over him nearly every week, sometimes thrown out of meetings for making innocent jokes, only enacting revenge with a sly smile to the camera or comeback under his breath. Toby’s tolerance of Michael, almost emotionless at times, only made Michael’s hatred for Toby grow to absurd levels.
Writer Paul Lieberstein may not have been an actor by trade when he played Toby, but he has excellent deadpan comic timing and infused the character with humanity, despite his relatively little screen time. Yet his decision to star in his feature film debut (which he also wrote, directed, and produced) Song of Back and Neck could have easily felt like someone taking on too much or a show of vanity. Rather Lieberstein blossoms as an actor while showing a natural talent as a filmmaker. From high concept premise, he easily turns the film into something of an existential dramedy, with a main character you quickly latch onto.
Lieberstein’s Fred is introduced by literally falling to the floor due to his long battle with crippling back and neck pain. His mornings are spent doing as many tasks as possible in the prone position (dressing, eating, and even showering) before venturing to his father’s law firm where he works as a paralegal. We immediately realize Fred isn’t a person stressed by his career ambition. His pain comes from something deeper and ultimately sadder; a lifetime being stuck, loneliness, and most debilitating…a complete inability to express the anger and resentment he feels.
And it all manifests in his back and neck, creating a sound which can be heard when he goes to an acupuncturist on the advice of a client played by Rosemarie Dewitt (a fellow neck pain sufferer). As needles are placed in his body a song of sadness can be heard coming from him. It amazes his doctor (and everyone who hears it) but the physical release of this lifetime of repression also makes him feel better. He leaves the appointments feeling better than ever, and goes to DeWitt’s home to thank her (and flirt), developing an almost absurdly cliché romantic relationship. The audience watches as a man once crumpled to the ground first thing in the morning now kayaks and rollerblades because the power of love has revived him.
It’s a ridiculous image made all the more ridiculous when personal challenges arrive causing the pain to return. His father retires leaving him without a single friendly face at work. DeWitt’s divorce may not be definite, making his charmed romance into something secretive and dirty. And the back pain has come back worse than ever, although he still refuses to yell out in pain or frustration (even when unable to walk to a bathroom). The only thing that can offer some relief is acupuncture, although his doctor now wants to tour with him as an attraction.
While Lieberstein uses an absurd premise and rom-com clichés to tell his story, he’s clearly more interested in dealing with some big ideas and does so in a surprisingly profound manner. We are told over and over that living with anger will shorten our lives, but could trying to live without it do the same? Will it simply manifest in our bodies, stored up until we scream in pain…and holding even that in, will the body find other ways to release the pressure. The film has universal themes and the film proves to have an effective emotional core. But the film also feels like something deeply personal for Lieberstein, an expression he needed to put out to the world, which ultimately benefits from his playing the role of Fred.
He may not be the predictable leading man, but he’s easy to connect with as the everyman and surrounds himself with strong performers. He has real chemistry with DeWitt, an actress too often underused. And Duke, Brian D’Arcy James, and Paul Feig (excellent in a small role) prove to be perfect foils for him to play off of. As a director, Lieberstein has a confident touch which makes the film ultimately feel appropriately low key. There are moments of big laughs and visual experimentation, but most of it remains clearly rooted in a desire for the realism of a main stuck; both physically and emotionally. The film is low-key, but clearly by desire.
It’s hard to predict the success a film like Song of Back and Neck will have upon release. It has big laughs, but long periods of drama. It’s a high-concept comedy with themes you’d find in a self-help book, wrapped in a workplace/romantic comedy. And yet, it doesn’t feel like a film that fractures when stretched in so many directions. Somehow the film all works together, becoming something which feels more substantial than most comedies we get in theaters nowadays.