Michael (Charlie Tahan), the nebbishy hero of DRUNK BUS, needs no metaphor to describe his life in 2006. He is living it. After four years of driving the endless loop that is the overnight campus bus route at the Kent Institute of Technology his whole exitance has become a treadmill. What started as a part-time job while he was in school is now threatening to be his life’s work, stuck as he is in a numbing depression after Amy (Sarah Mezzanotte) his girlfriend since high school, dumped him in favor of a glamorous life in New York City. It’s been nine months, but he hasn’t snapped out of it, to the bemusement of his two bus-riding pals aspiring art curator Kat (Kara Hayward) and nursing student Justin (Tonatiuh). All that is about to change for two reasons, otherwise there’d be no movie.
The first is a new co-worker on the bus route after the endless tedium of passengers that are obnoxious or vomiting or both is broken one evening when one of them gets physical. The next night, Michael is surprised by Pineapple (Pineapple Tangaroa), a massive, and massively tattooed/pierced, Samoan hired by the university as security. But Pineapple is more than a deterrent, soft-spoken and uncannily focused, he also possesses the ability to size people up, and then help them out, be it avoiding a fight or showing a nebbish when it’s time to strike a blow. When he nails Michael as a virgin, despite that long-term relationship, Michael finds himself the unwilling disciple of a life-coach determined to get him out of his rut, starting with getting him high and then proceeding to involve him in all the stupid things and stunts that he should have enjoyed while matriculating.
The second is Amy herself, who has been texting Michael about her impending visit home, and Michael’s obsessing over the particular emoji she used. The action is punctuated with their texts back and forth, mostly with Michael writing them and then deleting rather than sending.
Co-writers John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke use a very dry deadpan humor to lay out the soul-crushing ennui of Michael’s repetitive days and nights. They accent it by the dreary cheeriness of his supervisor, Fred (Will Forte), heard only over the bus radio, as he rambles on to Michael about his own life of quiet desperation. A life that doesn’t prevent him also extolling the wonders Michael will possess by coming on full-time and one day rising to Fred’s position. Never has the word protégé taken on such menace.
Over the course of several very snowy nights, Michael learns not only that he can throw caution to the wind, but also that he has been longing to do so, from ditching work to go to a party that will have a twist, to taking sweet revenge on the frat boys who have been throwing trash at his bus for four years. Never has an egging been more righteous.
Tahan and Tangaroa have a mystical chemistry that makes this more than an odd-couple buddy picture. The former twitchy, tentative and a walking coma, the latter impassive, self-assured, but with a palpable twinkle in his eye, they look wrong together, but click almost immediately with each other and with us. The motley crew of supporting characters provide a piquant framework to the misadventures and existential soul searching: Devo Ted (Dave Hill), the vivid mess of a squirrely drug dealer obsessed with a bite-sized snack food; Josh (Zach Cherry), the teddy bear of a nightmare roommate; and Martin Pfefferkorn as the ornery gaffer in a wheelchair who is Michael’s nightly test of decency.
DRUNK BUS has a wicked sense of humor tempered with the melancholy of a life on hold. Be prepared to cheer for the underdog, even when he makes bad choices. Actually, especially when he does.