Directed by Michael Larnell, CRONIES is an interesting spin on the HANGOVER type of movie where a group of friends experience a series of misadventures in the course of one evening. The objective is to have a good time. But something, a proverbial monkey wrench perhaps, gets thrown into the mix that threatens to derail their amusement. But CRONIES has a lot more on its mind than just being a comedy (or in the HANGOVER series case, a dark comedy). It also happens to be a canny exploration into African American male identity and a deconstruction of the kind of friendships that exist between men. And that is the most relatable aspect of Larnell’s film. The idea that you can love your buddy like he’s your own brother but with that comes the petty jealously and one-upmanship dynamic usually associated with loving partners. Larnell explores the parallels there (the dynamic between two best friends versus that of a couple in a relationship) and how as individuals we move beyond it.
In a lesser written, lesser directed and lesser acted movie, Jack would be an African-American take on the Zack Galifianakis character in THE HANGOVER. A more or less anti-social man child who is one part comedic relief one part agent provocateur. An almost sociopath who’s antics are the source of much frustration for the other characters involved. He’s the “crazy one” of the group. In some films he’s the “asshole friend.” In others he’s the party animal that refuses to grow up. The kind of character John Belushi practically invented for 1978’s ANIMAL HOUSE. And a certain suspension of disbelief sets in – depending on how successful each actor is in portraying this character – where you have to accept that everyone else is willing to hang out with this individual even though in real life he probably wouldn’t be tolerated by anyone. But in CRONIES, Jack’s history with Louis is rooted deeply in their childhood and in how one life-changing event turned their friendship into an obligation. Not only that, but Jack’s character was formed from the socio-political environment both he and Louis were raised in. Which brings us to the present tense of CRONIES: the stability of Louis’ and Jack’s relationship hinges on one character’s decision to grow beyond the environment that forged their friendship in the first place.
Louis is the father of his girlfriend’s child. And it’s no coincidence that the movie takes place on his daughter’s birthday. But Louis is on the tip of that ethical balance where he has to decide what kind of “man” he wants to be when he grows up. He knows he needs a change and he makes his move by taking on a full time job so that he can give his daughter the proper upbringing she deserves. Jack on the other hand persists in living out his gangsta persona. The idea of taking on a full time job is anathema to him and is an activity best left up to white people. He’s also a peacock: full of bluster and hubris, he’s constantly reminding Louis of the “badass” favor he did for him many years ago. Women to him are “bitches” and deserve to be treated like dirt. And he expresses contempt for Louis’ bid at being more responsible. To further complicate matters, another character enters the scene threatening to destabilize their friendship even further. Andrew is a work colleague of Louis’. They happen to get along. And today represents the first opportunity they get to hangout together. This catches Jack by surprise – he wasn’t invited. And how dare this person assume the role of a new friend, a person Louis has never brought up to Jack until now, a person who is nothing like Jack least of all because he is white.
That’s the set up. Jack forces himself onto Louis’ and Andrew’s evening plans. And for a while things play out somewhat predictably. Jack is intentionally obstructive when it comes to what Louis and Andrew originally had in store. Andrew is immediately put off by Jack’s behavior. And Louis is caught in between: he knows Jack is being a killjoy and yet his loyalty to their friendship prevents him from finally cutting Jack off. And Jack… Jack is jealous. To the point of being self-destructive.
Larnell introduces little clues as to how CRONIES might play out. Jack boasts about the gun he carries foreshadowing possible tragedy that could happen later on. Their brush with criminal elements leads one to believe that CRONIES will be another variation on urban mythmaking when it comes to the unfortunate, common representation of African American males in film. That eventually, Jack’s jealously will boil over into enough of a rage thus leaving his companions in a fatefully compromised position.
But it doesn’t go there. Because Larnell is more interested in exploring the dynamic that develops between the three men and the presumptions that exists when it comes to race. His conclusions are a lot more optimistic than you would expect. And it makes CRONIES all the more refreshing for that. For example, the boys take a detour by visiting one of Andrew’s friends, a financially successful white hipster type who makes money on the side selling drugs. And this person’s lifestyle – the house, the girlfriend who sunbathes topless in their presence without a care in the world – is fascinating to Jack because it confounds his preconception of that kind of thing. Because that preconception is an embodiment Jack has been striving to aspire to. Or when Andrew’s Jeep is stolen after having indulged in illegal gambling with some of Jack’s cronies, the immediate assumption on Andrew’s part is that Jack himself is responsible. Jack’s response to this is both surprising and unsurprising… for both himself and the others involved. Unsurprising in how he doesn’t challenge that accusation. But very surprising in what he’s willing to do about it.
Adding to this, each character is the subject of a documentary being produced for a radio show. This is a technique that allows Louis, Jack and Andrew to express a point of view that otherwise could not have been expressed to each other. The documentarian is voiced off-camera by Larnell himself. And the doc itself focuses on that life-changing event alluded to earlier (this I will not spoil). It’s an interesting approach. More so in how it’s left up to us as viewers to decide when these interviews were actually recorded. Did they happen before or after the events that take up the bulk of the movie? By the time we might get an answer to that, we reach a better understanding of all three characters just as they acquire a better understanding of themselves.
CRONIES is reminiscent of some of Spike Lee’s earlier work. Which is not entirely coincidental as he is the executive producer of this film. However, Michael Larnell has a strong enough voice that allows CRONIES to stand out as one of the better, more original independent features to have come out in awhile. Aided by the black and white cinematography of Federico Cesca (which reveals spurts of color towards the end, a possible visual metaphor as to how Louis, Jack and Andrew relate to each other by the film’s conclusion) and excellent performances by George Sample III as Louis, Zurich Buckner as Jack and Brian Kowalski as Andrew. In fact, all the principals create enough of an impression that I hope to see more work from them later on especially Larnell’s work as a director.