DVD Review: Harmony and Me


Harmony and Me DVDIn the middle of Harmony and Me is a very telling line of dialogue. Harmony (Justin Rice) is struggling through a piano lesson, and his teacher (Jeremy Pollet) aptly sums up Harmony's playing style and personality: "You're entangled in your dedication to precision."

Indeed he is. A quintessential Austin indie, Harmony and Me -- available today on DVD and streaming through the movie's website -- is the story of the title character, a less-than-lovable loser who can't let go of his ex-girlfriend, Jessica (Kristen Tucker). His obsession with her has gone from merely pathetic to thoroughly annoying, as he subjects his family, friends, co-workers and anyone else who will listen to his hopeless pining and incessant analyses of the relationship. Despite everyone's gentle suggestions to get over it already, Harmony isn't about to move on.

Then again, Harmony's fixation on the lovely Jessica is may be understandable (albeit completely irritating), given that the rest of his life is a mostly pointless bore. He has a drab job in a drab office, a bullying boss, a grumpy, slightly dysfunctional family and equally bored friends. His only outlet is music, but even this is more of a frustration than an escape. (His lack of any real musical talent doesn't help.) Of course, Harmony might not appreciate happiness even if he found it; he's much too analytical, self-absorbed, and prone to deconstructing everything to relax and enjoy life.

In character-driven, micro-budget indie fashion, not much happens in Harmony and Me. Its ambling, laconic pace will be familiar to fans of two decades' worth of similar films that have come before it, from Slacker to Beeswax. What sets Harmony and Me apart from the others is its astute use of music as both a story element and transitional device between shots and scenes. Harmony and Me uses the music in hilarious ways, from Harmony's halfhearted piano lessons to a very funny wedding sequence featuring Austin musician Bob Schneider as a wedding singer who sings a totally inappropriate song to the very pregnant bride. (The song's most prominent lyric is "I can't change your mind.") The film's musical aspects are often deeply ironic, and none are more so than Harmony's name, for his personal relationships are anything but harmonious.

Harmony and Me is also bitingly funny, with plenty of droll, deadpan humor that rescues what could have been a very unlikeable film about very unlikeable people. The zingers are frequent and deliciously sharp. One of my favorites comes as Harmony's friend Natasha (Allison Latta) leaves his apartment the morning after a night of so-so lovemaking. In response to her complaints about the lackluster sex, Harmony asks, "Are you sure you shouldn't just be thankful that I didn't murder you?" Harmony is no more charitable when questioning the life choices of his career-slacker friend Carlos (Kevin Corrigan): "Is that like an all-you-can-eat low self-esteem buffet?"

Although I enjoyed Harmony and Me, I do question its central premise that Jessica -- an irresistibly cute and bubbly man magnet -- would have given the glum, frumpy Harmony the time of day, much less endured dating him for an entire year. The movie hints that she loves his sense of humor, but would this have been enough to put up with his otherwise completely annoying personality? I don't think so, and while Kristen Tucker (who also produced the film) imbues Jessica with a certain flightiness that might explain her attraction to a nebbish like Harmony, she's mostly miscast in the role. On the other hand, a less appealing and more believable ex-girlfriend might not have inspired the pitiful pining that drives much of the story.

For such a small film, Harmony and Me has talented and experienced actors aplenty. Rice (Funny Ha Ha, Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist) is perfect as Harmony, begging us to like the character but refusing to give us any reason to; his penchant for barbed one-liners make him only slightly less insufferable. Alex Karpovsky (Beeswax, Lovers of Hate) is no more likeable as the aptly named Mean Man Mike, a delightfully arrogant bastard whose insulting attitude toward his long-suffering wife should be the stuff of divorce. (Their marriage makes no more sense than Harmony and Jessica's relationship, but it's good for a few cringing laughs.) Corrigan -- an underappreciated character actor with an amazingly long list of credits -- is suitably useless as the film's requisite jobless friend, Carlos. And writer/director Bob Byington is amusingly clueless as Harmony's befuddled older brother, Jim.

For a film about such charmless people, Harmony and Me is surprisingly charming. It's obviously interesting to Austin film fans, with its unmistakable Austin feel and many glimpses of Austin landmarks such as the Dart Bowl, Texas State Cemetery and the late Wok'n'Roll. (The Wok'n'Roll was on Burnet Road, which has become a sort of back lot for the local film industry.) But the film also has much broader appeal, with a story familiar to anyone who's known a Harmony or a Jessica. And haven't we all?

Extras: Unfortunately, the DVD extras are too brief to add much to the film. The two short deleted scenes are mildly amusing but inconsequential, and it's obvious why they didn't make the final cut.

Making Harmony is a short collection of comments from the cast. The behind-the-scenes insights are interesting, but more of them would have been, well, much more interesting.

Rehearsal is an odd clip of two actors, standing in for Rice and Tucker, rehearsing one of the film's scenes. I assume the clip is an in-joke of some kind, because there is no explanation of who the actors are or why they're rehearsing the scene.

The funniest and best extra is Audience Q&A, in which Byington answers questions from a Wisconsin Film Festival audience. The footage is crudely shot with a very unsteady camera, but worth watching; Byington's quick-witted answers are as funny as any line in the film.

Austin Connections: Harmony and Me was shot around Austin with a mostly local cast and crew. It screened at the 2009 Austin Film Festival. For a different perspective on the film, read Jette's review from the AFF screening.