There’s a pretty big ask at the heart of The Big Ask, and the answers will provide an inquisitive if tonally awkward look at grief, mental illness, and the need for human connection. Like Lynn Shelton’s brilliant Humpday crossed with Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, the ensemble film dutifully explores deep psychological questions by wrapping them in the promise of unusual sexual hijinks, and while the answers co-directors Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman come up with don’t amount to much, the honest performances of the cast provide sufficient emotional truth.
David Krumholtz, at his most schlubby, plays Andrew, a man adrift in life after the sudden death of his mother. Along with his concerned wife Hannah (the ever brilliant Melanie Lynskey), Andrew invites fellow couples and best friends Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Zoe (Ahna O’Reilly) and Owen (Jason Ritter) and Emily (Gillian Jacobs) to a desert retreat for some mental relaxation and bonding time. Or at least that’s what they think the trip is for, only to arrive and find out that Andrew’s real motive is to sleep with all of the women there in one big orgy. The reason, or so he puts it, is to experience a wave of love that will basically wash the depression he feels away.
It’s a ridiculous idea, and to the film’s credit the premise is treated as such, but in the most realistic way as possible. The reactions to Andrew’s request hit the entire spectrum. Hannah is embarrassed and unsure of Andrew’s mental state, Zoe wants to skip town immediately, while Emily seems sort of open to the idea, a fact which drives Owen to start exploring other salacious options. While these longtime friends ponder whether Andrew is being genuine or just trying to get laid, the close confines force them reevaluate the strength of their own relationships. Adversity affects them all in different ways, with Zoe and Dave contemplating a move towards marriage while others see it as a doorway to potential infidelity. The small moments, the quiet contemplation of the path to be taken, are where the film finds greatest purchase, strengthened by a cast that is always fully in touch with their characters. Krumholtz plays it close to the vest to maintain the mystery of Andrew’s sanity and authenticity, while Lynskey perfectly captures Hannah’s desperate edge. The picturesque southwest locale and tight-knit cast add a real sense of friendship and camaraderie, which makes the personal betrayals all the more effective.
Where Beatty, who took a solo pass at the screenplay, goes wrong is in attempts to force humor and meaning in a situation that’s already pretty far out. When the guys order up a couple of hookers for Andrew it predictably goes awry, and lame side plots involving a missing dog and a distressed drunk (Dale Dickey) are of little value. There’s a struggle to maintain the already-sluggish momentum and the story meanders with no direction for far too long, becoming an issue when Beatty tries to tie up every thread in a slapdash final act. As a result, some of the decisions made are simple and unjustified, disappointing given the strong character work The Big Ask has to offer.