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Sundance 2022: Emergency offers some laughs, but still stumbles

emergency

The race and class satire Emergency starts out strong, but its Weekend at Bernie’s homage quickly loses steam.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Festival)

Emergency is a film that starts off as a funny and knowing observation of matters of race and class and ends as a cross between a lukewarm thriller and a racially charged version of Weekend at Bernies. It’s especially frustrating because those opening scenes are so smart and inspired that you hope that Carey Williams’s film will be able to maintain this level throughout, only to find it grow more blandly generic before a conclusion so disappointingly pat that it almost feels like a joke.

Our heroes are two African-American friends who are weeks away from graduating from an unnamed college. Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) is the son of African immigrants, who has just been accepted to a place in a prestigious graduate program at Princeton, while Sean (R.J. Cutler) is a cheerfully heedless stoner more concerned with getting to the next party than in getting cracking on his imminently due thesis. Despite their differences, the two are there for each other and, as the film begins, they’re making plans to take part in an all-night tour of the keg parties raging at the seven major frat houses on campus. If they complete all seven, it will supposedly make them the first African-Americans in the history of the school to accomplish the feat.

These plans get off to a flying stop when they return to the house they share with third roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), a nerdy Latino gamer, to get ready for the festivities when they discover a strange white girl (Maddie Nichols) passed out on their living room floor. The responsible Kunle wants to call 911, but Sean thinks that is a terrible idea. With no plausible explanation for how the stranger could have gotten there, and Carlos having been too engrossed in his game to have noticed her entrance, summoning the cops will only lead to them all getting arrested. Still determined to do the right thing, Kunle convinces the others that they should take her to the hospital. When they are forced to hit the backroads in order to avoid sobriety checkpoints set up around the neighborhood, the already complicated situation threatens to spin entirely out of control with potentially dire consequences for the near-comatose girl, her would-be saviors and, most significantly, the friendship between Kunle and Sean that is already beginning to see them coming to a crossroads.

[The] opening scenes are so smart and inspired…only to grow more blandly generic.

The early scenes in Emergency are easily the best, as Williams (who turned up at Sundance last year with the dire Shakespeare update R#J) and screenwriter K. D. Davilia effectively set up the vague sense of paranoia that will fuel the motivations of its lead characters later. In one especially funny bit, a pretentious lecturer discussing hate speech offers up an obsequious trigger warning before endlessly deploying a certain word rhyming with “trigger” to a class that, save for Kunle and Sean, appears to be entirely lily-white. These scenes also go a long way in helping to establish the otherwise seemingly unlikely friendship between the two young men, though this is due more to the natural rapport between Cutler and Watkins than to anything inherent in the script. 

The trouble is that once they make the choice to hit the road with their passed-out charge, the storyline begins to suffer from a certain degree of contrivance that only grows more pronounced as it goes on (at one point, the girl actually wakes up and the film goes out of its way to knock her out again). At the same time, the complications they encounter along the way—most notably the girl’s sister (Sabrina Carpenter), who is following her via the phone that the guys somehow did not notice was on her—are more silly than tense. In the final scenes, the material takes a more decidedly dramatic turn that clashes with what has preceded it before on an implausibly cheerful wrap up for all involved.

Emergency is a would-be provocation that starts off strong but which unfortunately falters as soon as the plot begins to kick into high gear. It has an interesting premise, some strong performances from the two leads and from Chacon, who does well with an underwritten part, and a few big laughs here and there. It just begins to fizzle out as it fails to live up to the courage of its initial convictions. Remember that lecturer from the classroom scene that I cited? She would probably get a big kick out of this movie.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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