There are really two movies trapped inside Paul Lieberstein’s Song of Back and Neck. Both are about healing, the one literal, the other figurative. One is a charming romantic comedy with beats you could hit in your sleep. The other is a journey of self-discovery that dashes every expectation imaginable. One is almost self-consciously clichéd, the other effortless unpredictable. Usually films at war with themselves disintegrate, but through some unknown wizardry the two sides of Song compliment each other, creating something new and special. It is a feat of mad cinematic alchemy. This will be my fourth year covering the Tribeca Film Festival, and it is by far the most fascinating film I have seen in that whole time. I may have seen other Tribeca films that were more daring, more experimental, and more socially conscious. But none have lodged themselves more deeply in my mind. Here is the kind of film that makes braving the trenches of smaller festivals worth it, the films too odd or niche for the major European festivals and too immediately unmarketable for the North American ones. It is, in short, the kind of film that makes me love going to the movies.
The first film follows Fred (Lieberstein), a sad schmuck wasting his middle age working as a paralegal in his father’s law firm. He has no ambitions, no desires, no real purpose in life other than some instinctive need to fill everyone else with his brand of monotone misery. But when the firm lands a young heiress looking for a divorce named Regan (Rosemarie DeWitt), he falls in love, woos her, and begins an extremely ill-advised affair. They have an effortless chemistry—her knowing sarcasm perfectly matches his resigned nihilism. Unlike many movie couples who fall in love because the script tells them to, we can see these two human beings feel genuine interest in and affection for each other. And yet there’s an artificial lightness to their romance. Never mind that lawyers in powerful firms usually have little to no time for personal lives; Fred has a seemingly endless string of sunny afternoons to court Regan. Everything feels a little too neat, a little too perfect to seem completely credible. Even their first lovemaking is shown as an incidental part of a montage of them on a series of dates that seem ripped from a life insurance commercial. But if the romance seems suspiciously contrived, Fred doesn’t seem to care. For the first time in years, he starts smiling.
The second film also follows Fred, still a sad schmuck wasting his middle age, but this time wasting it in debilitating pain. Such is his agony that he spends long stretches of his day, particularly his morning routine, splayed out on the floor on his back, sliding himself forwards with only his legs to steer him. Following an appointment with an eerily glib doctor stunt-casted by Paul Feig, he discovers that he has the fabled trifecta of neck and back pain: sciatica, a herniated vertebrae, and a pinched neck nerve. Each would require a surgery to fix. The combined time for recovery would be ten years. And even then there’s no proof that the surgeries would actually work. Desperate for any kind of treatment, Fred visits Dr. Kuhang (Raymond Ma), an acupuncturist recommended by Regan. During his first session, Dr. Kuhang makes a tremendous discovery: any needle inserted into Fred’s back vibrates so intensely that it “sings.” When his whole back is prickled with needles, it lets out a haunting diminished chord that sounds not unlike a cross between a pipe organ and wind chimes.
Fred is nonplussed by this phenomenon—the treatments work temporarily and that’s good enough for him. But it makes him a celebrity in certain circles, especially after Dr. Kuhang convinces Fred to let him play a “duet” with his nephew who plays the cello. He appears on Chinese talk shows, gets roped into performing with an indie band, and even gets offered a slot at Coachella. Every single time this story tugs our attention away from his romance with Regan, we find it impossible to guess what will happen next. Conventional wisdom dictates that he eventually suffers an embarrassing moment of stage fright where the needles stop singing in the middle of an important gig. But no, they never do. In another movie Fred might learn to control the pitches of the needles so he can play simple melodies, but here he never does. Fred bears his newfound gift not as a blessing but an additional burden to be tolerated. And while these scenes can be occasionally very, very funny—one of them contains one of the single funniest instances of unexpected text messaging auto-correction I’ve ever seen—they aspire for something different: beauty. These scenes of Fred’s back singing are genuinely, breathtakingly beautiful. They exist for us to luxuriate in, creating just enough breathing room in the narrative where we can pause and realize just how lovely and absurd and meaningful and meaningless life truly is.
By the last third of the movie, the two different parts of the film have woven together to create a harrowing portrait of a man self-destructing but unwilling to admit it. With almost surgical precision the flimsy remnants of his life shatter, most importantly his relationship with Regan and his fleeting attempts to treat his chronic pain. The madness builds and builds until it climaxes with one of the most cathartic bursts of emotion I’ve ever seen in any movie. It’s possibly the only time I’ve ever seen Puccini’s Nessun Dorma used in any form of visual media that cheapens neither the film itself nor the legendary aria.
So why does Song of Back and Neck work? Very little of it seems like it should on paper. I suppose most of the credit must go to Lieberstein who, during his tenure as show runner for the American remake of The Office, gained an intuitive sense for how to successfully blend comedy, absurdity, and romance. Additionally, his performance as Fred is a masterwork of comedic detachment that grounds the film’s odd fluctuations in tone and its more fanciful plot developments. But there’s something deeper and more subtle to the film than can be accredited to any single individual. It’s something to do with its synthesis of beauty and anger, of comedy and tragedy, of self-denial and self-discovery. It’s that ineffable something that can only be found in the realm of pure cinema where the images and the sounds blend together perfectly to create something shocking, daring, and unexpected.