The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Digital] - THE OAK ROOM | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Digital] - THE OAK ROOM

the oak room review
A man walks into a bar...

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Cody Calahan

Starring: RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge, Ari Millen, Nicholas Campbell, Martin Roach

the oak room poster

A man walks into a bar…

So begins a thousand stories, including not just the central setup of director Cody Calahan's The Oak Room but a shaggy dog story within its main story. There are two bars featured here, and several men walk into them. And what bars they are, those classic North American walk-downs (think Cheers) with just enough lighting to illuminate the bottle of beer and shot glass in front of you, and a jukebox filled with country tunes humming away in the corner (at time of writing the pubs in my country are still on lockdown, which made this an almost nostalgic experience). This is set in Canada, and the falling snow outside the window just makes it all the more cosy. As Liz Lemon might say, I want to go to there.

the oak room review

The first man to walk into a bar is Steve (Joaquin Phoenix lookalike RJ Mitte), a college dropout who has returned to his hometown after an unexplained three year absence. The bartender, Paul (Peter Outerbridge), is none too pleased to see him. Not just because he's about to lock up, but because when Steve's father passed away Paul was left to pay for the funeral. Steve wants to pick up his father's ashes, having been absent from the funeral, but Paul insists he will only hand them over upon if Steve reimburses the expenses.

When Steve offers a story in lieu of payment, Paul gets even angrier and phones another local owed money by Steve. Hoping his storytelling skills will win over Paul before his debtor arrives, Steve begins telling a tale of another man walking into a bar, this time the titular Oak Room, a similarly snug bar in the next town over. In the story, a well-dressed city slicker (Martin Roach) similarly disrupts a barman (Ari Millen) as he's about to close up. Echoing the aggressive rapport between Steve and Paul, the stranger and the barman don’t exactly hit it off, but the latter decides to tell a story of his own…

the oak room review

The Oak Room is a movie in love with the very concept of storytelling. There are stories within stories within stories here, and we begin to wonder if the many layers aren't about to fold into themselves. We're kept on edge throughout by the ambiguity of Steve's tale, and the fact that Calahan has cast two actors in Mitte and Millen who look so much alike makes us wonder if there's a connection between Steve and the protagonist of his tale.

Most of the stories told here don’t really deliver when they reach their punchlines, but there's something authentic about this. After all, how many times have you listened to some old geezer ramble on in a bar with what seems like a great story, only for it to peter out to a underwhelming climax? But if the old geezer is a good storyteller, it doesn't matter how the tale ends – it's all in the telling.

the oak room review

Adapted from his stage play by writer Peter Genoway, The Oak Room rarely moves away from its theatrical roots. I would normally frown upon this sort of adaptation, but in the case of The Oak Room, Calahan has assembled a cast of actors who know how to spin a good yarn. They're all given lengthy monologues, and they all bring something different to the table. Particularly impressive is Nicholas Campbell as Steve's late father Gordy, who gets to tell a story within another story, recalling a sinister experience he had while hitch-hiking as a younger man, but which now makes sense to him as an old man whose life hasn't turned out the way he hoped. Campbell is only on screen for five minutes, but we feel like we've been exposed to his entire disappointing life by the time he finishes his brief story.

A story is to a storyteller as a standard is to a jazz musician. We may have heard the melody a thousand times before, but a talented storyteller will add their own riffs, their own distinct pauses, maybe add an unexpected solo to catch us off guard. Laid out on paper, The Oak Room may not spin the most original story, but in Calahan, Genoway and their grizzled ensemble of motormouths, we're treated to a captivating spin on some old standards.

The Oak Room
 is on UK/ROI Digital from April 26th.

2021 movie reviews