It isn’t too much of a knock on Dealin’ With Idiots to concede that this mild comedy from co-writer, director, and star Jeff Garlin really isn’t much of a movie. The script, such as it is, will not be studied alongside Chinatown as a model of plotting and construction in screenwriting classes, nor will Garlin’s super-casual approach to direction be analyzed on a frame-by-frame basis by future scholars. Dealin’ With Idiots is so lackadaisical in its storytelling that it seems possible, even likely, that the filmmakers were nearly done with shooting before they realized their wispy slip of a film lacked even the faintest semblance of a plot, so at the last minute, they threw together the laziest one imaginable.
Yet Dealin’ With Idiots mostly succeeds despite its flimsiness. Like Garlin’s charming 2006 feature directorial debut, I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With, the film makes a virtue of modesty. All Garlin aspires to do here is glean some honest chuckles from his funny friends improvising in a baseball-themed setting. He succeeds in part because he sets the bar so low, but also because he’s packed his team with comic stars who play to his strengths as a droll straight man. As a filmmaker and actor, Garlin is always willing to recede into the background and set other people up for big laughs: As his career-making turn on Curb Your Enthusiasm proves, he’s more interested in racking up assists than scoring points himself. Garlin makes for a sturdy rhythm section, pounding out a steady beat to facilitate the accomplished solos of performers like comedian Natasha Leggero. (She steals scenes as “Tipsy Jessica,” a branding-obsessed ditz who has trouble drunkenly navigating the divide between between real life and a virtual world of Twitter, Facebook, and podcasting.)
In a role as comfortable as a pair of old grey sweatpants, Garlin plays Max Morris, a successful, suspiciously Jeff Garlin-like comedian morbidly fascinated by the colorful aggregation of oddballs and obsessives who gather around his son’s Little League team. Bob Odenkirk plays a coach with some unusual ideas about the perils of swimming before games and a tragic backstory involving his locksmith brother. The always-welcome Fred Willard plays an easily distracted politician who utters windy platitudes on and off the campaign trail. And Gina Gershon and Kerry Kenney-Silver co-star as an aggressive lesbian couple who alternately defy and embody stereotypes.
The film’s paper-thin premise, unsurprisingly inspired by Garlin’s own experiences with his son’s Little League team, finds Max visiting the parents of his son’s teammates in order to satisfy his curiosity about the home lives of his ostensible peers—and to get comedy material. The parents have their own ideas of what his character’s theoretical movie should be and what role they should play in its creation, while Max himself only has a fuzzy notion of what he’s attempting to accomplish.
Dealin’ With Idiots sometimes recalls the FX comedy The League, which is also interested in sports primarily as a prism for satirizing human behavior, such as the ego and aggression of adults who devolve into bratty overgrown children when faced with winner-takes-all competitiveness. The film isn’t particularly interested in the mechanics of baseball, or in the game at all, other than as an excuse to bring together a bunch of entertaining goofballs. Dealin’ With Idiots taps into a distinctly Southern Californian vein of genial lunacy that finds its funniest and most potent expression in a “compound,” masterminded by J.B. Smoove, that functions as a cross between a half-assed cult, a therapy group, a bitch session, and a 12-year old’s dream clubhouse.
As the title suggests, Dealin’ With Idiots is about a sane man driven more than a little nutty by an insane world and the lunatics who populate it. Max’s fellow parents push him to his breaking point and beyond, but the plot, when it finally does arrive, feels like an afterthought, and the protagonist’s climactic explosion is desperate and strained, a self-consciously big moment in an otherwise winningly small film. Dealin’ With Idiots is at its strongest when it forgets about plot and character development altogether (which is most of the time) and gives itself over to the laid-back pleasure of improvisation among veteran professionals finding and exploring a good groove together.