Come As You Are Review
The story of disability rights activist Asta Philpot has clearly struck a chord with filmmakers. The US-born Brit, who suffers from arthrogryposis, a condition which severely impairs his ability to move, started advocating for the right of people with disabilities to enjoy an active sex life – paying for it if necessary – after visiting a licenced brothel in Spain. His return there, with two other disabled men, was the subject of a 2007 BBC documentary, before a film loosely based on his experiences – Hasta La Vista – was made in Belgium in 2011. It was remade in the Netherlands five years later (as Adios Amigos), and this American version is its third screen iteration in under a decade.
Come As You Are arrives at something of a delicate moment for US remakes of European comedies; Downhill (Hollywood's take on Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s sublime Force Majeure) and The Upside (France’s Untouchable with added Kevin Hart) having both been released in the last couple of years, only to be critically pilloried. But Richard Wong’s first feature as director since 2012's Yes, We're Open bucks that trend and is actually a step-up from the original movie. Disappointingly, however, it does share Hasta La Vista's baffling decision to cast non-disabled actors in its three main roles.
Big-mouth Scotty (Grant Rosenmeyer) and former-boxer Matt (The Edge Of Seventeen's Hayden Szeto) are wheeclchair users, their older friend Mo (Ravi Patel) is visually-impaired. Frustrated at still being virgins well into adulthood, they formulate a plan (“Operation Copulation”) to travel 2,000 miles to a brothel in Canada that caters to the disabled community (Philpot gets a cameo as its owner, complete with outrageous French accent). Without telling their parents – including Scotty’s mum, Liz (Janeane Garofalo) – the three set off in a minivan driven by Sam (Gabourey Sidibe), their spectacularly grumpy nurse, herself a diabetic.
Very much in the tradition of other road-trip buddy movies, there are highs and lows, arguments and meltdowns, triumphs and tragedies along the way, the whole thing propelled by some strong performances, a tight script and a musically omnivorous soundtrack. Learning, hugs, and life-affirming moments are, mercifully, indulged nowhere near as much as you might fear.
In Rosenmeyer’s Scotty (who shares Philpot’s condition but I suspect little else), Wong has a genuinely compelling lead and something quite rare – a character with disabilities who is also an antihero of sorts. On the surface, Scotty is a mouthy wiseacre but, underneath, there's a desperately unhappy young man fighting a losing battle against bitterness. His frustration hangs so thick in the air at times, you could eat it with a spoon; whether he’s playing it for laughs (“I happen to live at tit level”) or when filled with genuine anguish (“Come talk to me when you can’t take a shit by yourself”).
It is little wonder he occasionally appears to have a “rancid personality” (as Sam calls it), and there are times during the trip when the rest of the group appears to wish he was somewhere – anywhere – else. The fact he fancies himself a rapper could be a set-up for easy laughs at his expense, but Scotty's rhymes articulately and directly address his condition ("Everybody's looking but nobody can see me/It's like God just gave me this body to tease me"), providing some of the film’s most powerful moments.
Although there are certainly dramatic interludes, Come As You Are is far more of an out-and-out comedy than Hasta La Vista ever was. It is broader, ruder and far funnier, Wong and screenwriter Erik Linthorst delivering several smart comic set-pieces. I particularly enjoyed Mo being pressed into driving the minivan to escape an unexpected encounter with Matt and Scotty's parents (“Most people drive like they're blind anyway, so you've got this in the bag”), and Matt’s horror at having to shave Scotty’s genitals on the eve of their trip to the brothel. This kind of knockabout, men-behaving-badly stuff has been pretty much a staple of US comedy from National Lampoon's Animal House to Superbad, but feels fresh because we are so unused to seeing disabled characters letting loose in such a way.
Often, films about people with disabilities focus on how they triumph over adversity to achieve something extraordinary – just think of some of the most famous ones: Children of a Lesser God, My Left Foot, and The Theory of Everything (all three earning acting Oscars for their stars, the latter two non-disabled men). But it’s as if the disabled are only worth making films about if they are outstanding in some way – outstandingly clever, outstandingly resilient, outstandingly creative. What I like most about Come As You Are is that Scotty, Matt and Mo aren't extraordinary and what they want shouldn't be either.
For most non-disabled men (and women) having sex is a right of passage, taken for granted even. For our three protagonists, though, it may as well be a journey to the Moon, let alone Canada. If the film gets anything right, it is how sex can make people with disabilities feel even more marginalised in society than they do already. It's just one more obstacle to overcome and mostly because the non-disabled can't accept the disabled have precisely the same sexual needs as they do.
To that end, Matt and Scotty's parents are the inadvertent villains of the piece (Mo's mum gives the trip her blessing). These are adult men forced to devise an elaborate "black ops" mission in order to gain any sort of independence from people who infantilise them and can't imagine how their sons could possibly undertake a trip on their own. Liz, in particular, has become so used to having to do everything for Scotty, she seems to have forgotten that he is a grown-up (she even calls him 'Bug' and speaks to him as if he were a child). If Matt and Scotty are prisoners of their own bodies, the pair's parents – who never seem to have considered the possibility their sons' sexual needs might be the same as everybody else's – are too often their well-meaning jailers.
While Come As You Are builds to a satisfying finale, complete with a big set-piece that manages to be ridiculous, hilarious and genuinely quite moving, there are a few issues sharp zingers and heartfelt sentiment really can't shrug off. The casting feels like a box-ticking exercise – one Caucasian, one African-American, one Indian-American, one Asian-American. I get that Wong is saying ‘people of all colours and creeds suffer with these disabilities and conditions', but it nevertheless feels clumsy.
Worse still, the casting of non-disabled actors undermines the film's message of empowerment and independence. Without wanting to take anything away from Rosenmeyer, Szeto, and Patel – who all turn in sterling work – I find it utterly baffling that a movie surely tailor-made for the casting of disabled actors in lead roles should pass them over in such a way. For all the good work Come As You Are does in its portrayals of these characters, I suspect it will be ultimately defined by those areas in which it comes up short.
Come As You Are is available to VoD from Friday July 17th