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‘I Don’t Understand You’ Review: Nick Kroll and Andrew Rannells’ Gay Italian Vacay Takes a Demented Turn

Swanning around Italy like side characters from the second season of “The White Lotus,” well-to-do gay couple Dom (Nick Kroll) and Cole (Andrew Rannells) have decided the world is against them. As Americans, they live at a time in a country when they can legally get married, adopt and do pretty much everything straight people can — but they’re also old enough to remember when that wasn’t the case, and so they anticipate rejection and homophobia at every turn. They’re prepared for the worst, and somehow they attract it.

Loosely inspired by filmmakers Brian Crano and David Craig’s bumpy road to fatherhood, catty black comedy “I Don’t Understand You” depicts a stretch in Dom and Cole’s relationship when everything seems to be going their way … until suddenly it doesn’t. While celebrating their anniversary in Italy, the pair get the news that the baby they’ve been so desperately trying to manifest (one adoption already fell through) is about to be delivered. An old family friend arranges for them to have an exclusive meal at an out-of-the-way restaurant. And so on. La vita è bella.

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As the vacation unfolds, what began as a sunny “Eat, Gay, Love” story takes a series of dark turns. Suddenly, dead bodies are piling up and the couple can’t tell if they’ve dodged a hate crime or perpetrated one on their hosts, who could hardly be nicer. And yet, they stab the air with knives and say things like, “You’re going to be dey-ud.” If you’ve been persecuted your entire life (as Dom and Cole feel they have), it’s easy to misinterpret such signals. And because they’re oblivious to the local culture and language, things have a way of escalating awfully fast.

Objectively speaking, Dom and Cole are terrible people (in ways it would spoil the film to reveal here). In any case, “I Don’t Understand You” isn’t concerned with how these two might be judged in a court of law. Kroll and Rannells play the couple with a kind of us-against-the-world conviction that brings the audience over to their side, even when it’s not always clear whether their panic attacks and little public displays of affection are intended to seem cute or cringey.

Like their protagonists, the writer-directors are also married, which means the underlying anxieties are presumably autobiographical, albeit exaggerated. That’s one reason the movie works: Things spiral wildly out of control for Dom and Cole, but the foundation feels real. These imperfect future parents want a baby more than anything in the world. That motivation preempts everything else the world throws at them, from misunderstandings they choose to read as microaggressions — like the hotel clerk who can’t process why they’ve booked the honeymoon suite, and proceeds to make a big show of separating the beds — to more explicit threats.

En route to their dinner reservation, the couple steer the rental car down a private driveway, getting stuck in a ditch. When the surly landowner shows up with a shotgun, they assume the worst. It doesn’t help that they didn’t learn Italian (Dom gave Duolingo a try, but he can hardly communicate). From the looks on their faces, we can tell what these two are thinking: They’ve come this close to being fathers, and now they’re going to wind up dead or deliveranced in some Italian backwater.

Fortunately, before the alarmist pair have time to take action, the brusque stranger drops them off at the restaurant. Maybe the locals aren’t as hostile as they’d imagined. At this point, co-directors Crano and Craig calibrate the tension so things could go either way. Dom and Cole are immediately charmed by the rustic restaurateur, Francesca (“White Lotus” veteran Eleonora Romandini), though their imaginations start to get the better of them, misinterpreting their knife-wielding host and her macho son (Morgan Spector) as potential threats.

Tonally, “I Don’t Understand You” has the twisted, expect-the-worst vibe of classic Danny DeVito movies (“Ruthless People” and “The War of the Roses” come to mind). But the script’s cynicism is mostly superficial. After all, a pregnant stranger (Amanda Seyfried, who also starred in Crano’s short “Dog Food,” appearing here through a series of video calls) generously plans to gift them her fetus. And Francesca seems wildly enthusiastic to be hosting a gay couple, who represent a happiness her own son never experienced. If only Dom and Cole could speak her language — or read the subtitles that show audiences what they’re missing.

Instead, their fears kick in. This part of the movie, in which cross-cultural miscommunication devolves into mayhem, doesn’t really work. The filmmakers recognize the way gays raised in less accepting times carry a certain wariness wherever they go, like a form of PTSD. But the farce feels forced, to the extent that a less extreme account of the directors’ Italian anniversary trip — one without the body count — might have been more effective. The movie frames the couple’s actions as a sign of how badly they want to be parents. That they’re allowed to be not just imperfect but downright deranged is a sign of how far things have come.

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