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Review: Jerrod Carmichael’s directorial debut ‘On the Count of Three’ looks for comedy in a dark place

UPDATED: Thu., May 12, 2022

Christopher Abbott and Jerrod Carmichael in “On the Count of Three.”  (Albert Camicioli/Annapurna Pictures/Orion Pictures)
Christopher Abbott and Jerrod Carmichael in “On the Count of Three.” (Albert Camicioli/Annapurna Pictures/Orion Pictures)
By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

In the suicide-centric dramedy “On the Count of Three” – the directorial debut of Jerrod Carmichael – the buzzy comic and actor runs headlong into the film’s thematic taboos, which also include child sexual abuse, mental illness and murder. I can’t recall the last time I received an email confirming a review screening link that came with a literal trigger warning and the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. But we are living in complicated times.

“On the Count of Three” opens as childhood friends Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott) are preparing to shoot each other in the head, as the title suggests, on the count of three.

A gunshot is heard off-screen, and then the film backtracks, by way of exposition, to earlier that morning – with Kevin in a psychiatric facility after an overdose of pills three days ago, and Val attempting to hang himself with his belt in a bathroom stall of the landscaping supply company where he shovels mulch for a living.

That’s quite a metaphor for two dead-end lives, but the scenes, side by side, aren’t so much funny, or even funny-adjacent, as they are three doors down from funny.

That’s also about as close to a yuk-fest as the film ever gets in its journey to a dark, dark denouement, after the protagonists decide to delay their demise for a few hours so they can assassinate the psychiatrist (Henry Winkler) who molested Kevin as a child.

“Three” was co-written by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch (co-creators and, along with Carmichael, executive producers of “Ramy”). As with that series, laughs maybe aren’t the goal here, so much as half-smiles of rueful recognition.

One example of a “joke,” after Kevin takes note of the incongruity of their chosen method of death: “It’s hard not to feel like a hypocrite with all the gun control … I post online.” Another, after Kevin discovers the pleasures of the gun range, where he and Val pause to sharpen their shooting skills: “This is better than Zoloft.”

It’s dark, but not exactly comedy. The film features other comic actors: Tiffany Haddish as Val’s pregnant ex-girlfriend, J.B. Smoove as Val’s deadbeat dad, and Lavell Crawford as the proprietor of the motocross park where Kevin and Val hung out as teenagers.

Each character provides Kevin and Val a reason to go on living – reconciliation, retribution, recreation – if only for a minute or two. The acting is strong throughout.

There’s plenty of food for thought here, too, and Carmichael clearly hasn’t set out to trivialize a serious subject. But the film may inadvertently end up doing that, by delivering a message that can be boiled down to a platitude: Live every day as if it is your last.

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