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‘The Gutter’ Review: Susan Sarandon and Shameik Moore Face Off in a Boisterous Bowling Comedy

AlleyCatz, an unassuming bowling alley in a fictional California town, isn’t compelling to passersby or potential customers from the outside. The venue run by Mozell (Sister Sister’s Jackée Harry) has a drab brick exterior, a monument to the sad architecture of suburban shopping centers. It doesn’t offer much when you walk inside either. The lanes need waxing, the bar requires tending and the equipment is in various stages of disrepair. Some people might take one look at AlleyCatz and run, but Walt (Shameik Moore), the silly protagonist of Yassir and Isaiah Lester’s boisterous directorial debut The Gutter, doesn’t have a choice. He needs a job.

The young man, who prefers to live life without a shirt, has been fired from more gigs than he can count. In a particularly amusing early sequence, Walt recounts his shoddy employment history to Mozell, whose face becomes increasingly disturbed with each revelation. But like Walt, Mozell has no options. AlleyCatz is falling apart and the intrepid entrepreneur needs help. Compelled by glimmers of Walt’s charm and her own desperation, Mozell hires him to tend the bar and de-roach the bowling shoes.

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The Gutter, an exciting feature that premiered at SXSW, is a nervy comedy that follows Walt as he goes from tending the AlleyCatz bar to breaking records as a dynamite bowler. The film is a passion project that riffs on different comedic genres — satire, physical and sketch — to create an absurdist adventure. Even when the narrative falters, demanding more than the screenplay (written by Yassir) can offer in a brisk 89 minutes, The Gutter’s humor rarely misses. The Lester brothers deploy jokes with precision, taking aim at everything and everyone. Their plucky abrasiveness might rub against mainstream sensibilities, but The Gutter — like an early Paul Beatty novel — seems destined to be a cult classic.

On his first day, Walt meets a set of characters that make one wonder if The Gutter might have worked better as a sitcom. Stationed at the bar is Skunk (D’Arcy Carden), a former pro-bowler champion whose alcoholism has all but tanked her legacy. Brotha Candy (Rell Battle), a smarmy “hotep” pulled right of The Boondocks, has made a camp outside, where he spews conspiratorial ideas through a megaphone. And in his brief appearance as a city health inspector, Adam Brody trades his slick-talking producer persona from American Fiction for a more Seth Cohen-coded deadpan.

Just as Walt gets comfortable with his newfound employment, which might help him and his mother Vicki (Kim Fields) keep the lights on, he finds out AlleyCatz is at risk of permanent closure. That visit from Brody’s character, who goes unnamed, was a grim sign. If AlleyCatz doesn’t clean up its act and meet the health code, the city will shut down the venue. The transition from this disappointing news to Skunk’s outrageous plan happens in a blink of an eye, and it’s one of a handful of moments in the film that can feel overly pat.

After Skunk witnesses Walt’s impressive bowling skills — no matter how he releases the ball down the lane, he bowls a perfect strike — she convinces him to play competitively. The money he wins from each game, she insists, can help Mozell with the AlleyCatz repairs. It’s a sound plan that, against the film’s own logic, Lester sidelines for whatever funny antics demand attention.

This isn’t a problem at first. Walt and Skunk hit the road, participating in competitions that yield some of The Gutter’s funniest jokes. Their success rate catches the attention of Angelo Powers (an ace Paul Reiser), a ratings-obsessed new anchor and a hater. He launches a segment called BLM (Bowl Lives Matter), which simultaneously capitalizes on Walt’s increased fame and denigrates the former bartender. Walt’s record-shattering wins also brings bowling champion Linda Curson (an equally sharp Susan Sarandon) back from retirement. Meanwhile, Walt’s friends and family (played by Langston Kerman and Jay Ellis) cheer him on.

The Gutter is strongest and most refreshing tracing the early part of Walt’s success. Getting the job at AlleyCatz, winning his first games and scoring a series of hilarious sponsorships fuel the film’s humor and our investment in these characters. But the narrative loses some steam when it’s faced with fulfilling the emotional stakes. Just as Walt is most unstoppable, his winning streak comes to a mysterious end. Here, The Gutter requires a few dramatic turns that the performers struggle to land. The film doesn’t navigate the fallout between Skunk and Walt and other subsequent revelations with the same confidence as it does establishing Walt’s world. This shortcoming doesn’t undo the fine work of these promising filmmakers, but it does mean that The Gutter doesn’t quite hit all the pins.

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