'The Wave' Review: Justin Long Takes One Strange Trip [Fantastic Fest 2019]

Gille Klabin's The Wave starts off seeming like the most annoying bro comedy in recent memory – but don't be deterred. After that bumpy start, The Wave rolls into something far more engaging, even charming: a fairly clever, trippy saga with its heart in the right place. It's ultimately a story about coming to terms with your own mortality, and learning to not be a complete a**hole in the process – and who among us couldn't stand to be reminded of that?

Frank (Justin Long) is a lawyer, and not just any lawyer – he's the type of corporate lawyer that works for a big, soulless company that loves to profit from other people's suffering. When we first meet Frank, his six years at his firm have already sapped the life out of him and turned him into a drone – but a highly effective drone. Thanks to his due diligence, he's been able to find a loophole that will deny a huge life insurance policy to the family of a dead firefighter. Doing so will increase his firm's profits, and make him an executive. It's everything he could possibly hope for...at least, that's what he thinks. Because that's what he's been conditioned to think.

Frank's worldview goes through some serious changes after he agrees to a night of celebratory drinking with his friend and coworker Jeff (Donald Faison). The two end up at a dive bar where they encounter two women, Natalie (Katia Winter) and Theresa (Sheila Vand). Frank is instantly taken with Theresa, especially in light of his seemingly loveless marriage. As the night churns on, Frank, Jeff, Natalie, and Theresa end up at a rowdy house party, where Frank and Theresa end up partaking in a mysterious hallucinogenic drug offered by a menacing dealer (Tommy Flanagan).

The drug sends Frank on a strange trip – literally. He's apparently able to jump through time now, as well as suffer from horrifying hallucinations that make him feel as if he's losing his damn mind. On top of all that, Theresa has disappeared, and Frank recruits Jeff and Natalie to help him find her. From there, The Wave never lets up, violently jumping from one wild scene to the next, sweeping us up in its journey. Klabin's direction is kinetic, heightened by a steady stream of eye-popping visual effects that look quite impressive for what is likely a meagerly budgeted movie.

Long's performance is essential to making this all work, and it's not an easy task. He has to play Frank as a complete a**hole, but an a**hole that we can eventually sympathize with. We have to be able to believe Frank can change his ways, and Long's panicked, jittery work here sells Frank's ever-changing mental state and world outlook. Sadly, the rest of the cast doesn't have much else to do. Vand, who played the skateboarding vampire in A Girl Walks Home at Night, makes an impression, but her character is woefully underwritten and presented as more of an object than a person. And Faison and Winter are relegated to mostly reacting to Long's increasingly unhinged state. Ronnie Gene Blevins gets to have some fun as another drug dealer character who turns up late in the film, but he's written as more of a collection of quirks and tics rather than someone believable.

Carl W. Lucas's script is never quite as smart or profound as it thinks it is, but it does manage to tap into an inherent sweetness – an underlying sense of humanity and acceptance that counter-balances all the chaos and occasional bursts of violence. The ultimate conclusion The Wave is building toward could've easily come off as manipulative, and even unearned. But the many threads come together, and the many set-ups pay off. Of all the films playing at Fantastic Fest this year, The Wave might be the most pleasant surprise./Film Rating: 7 out of 10