Written by Zac Platt. Reviewed as part of the 2014 Audi Festival of German Films. Click HERE for the festival schedule and to purchase tickets.
Oh Boy is a day in the life Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling), a jobless college dropout living a directionless life in the city of Berlin. Writer/Director Jan Ole Gerster lobs this one firmly at the hipster demographic, giving us an 83-minute black and white slice-of-life flick that alternates between being a comedy about the quirky frustrations of Niko’s world and a somber contemplation on the aimless and the lonely. It’s about as unoriginal a concept as you can get and it loses a lot of steam by not spreading the humour and melancholy more evenly throughout the film. Luckily, the tone and relatability of Niko are enough to ensure Oh Boy isn’t a total write off, and some well-crafted moments make for a relaxed meditation for those willing to sit back and let it wash over.
To call Oh Boy decompressed would be an understatement. With perhaps one pivotal exception, this is a film that trades on the eccentric minutiae of Niko’s bohemian world. Though it doesn’t quite hold up when the film tries to become more ponderous, this tight focus does allow for some fun dry comedy whenever urban life decides to bat Niko around. The jokes can be a little easy and contrived, but the situations are muted enough that you can look past it and have fun. The real problem with the comedy is that it mostly seems to be stuffed into the first half of the film, leaving long stretches of Niko dully drifting from scene to scene. Though the tonal shift is subtle to occur, it’s blinding in retrospect. By not effectively balancing the comedy and drama, Oh Boy instead betrays the tone that first engages you for something gloomy and alien.
The bigger problem though, is how poorly drawn a character Niko turns out to be. Gerster banks on familiarity and rarely allows his lead a moment to define himself in any way. It’s not just the unoriginality of his design, but rather that he adds nothing to any situation the film puts him in. A perpetual straight-man, Niko simply bounces from moment to moment as bad luck makes sport of him and the surrounding cast converse and bicker. That aside, Tom Schilling does come off as authentic and gives what he can to an underwritten character. Add to that some decent comedic timing where the movie permits and Schilling allows you to forgive his inconsequential character.
The greater cast do generally have more going for them in terms of personality, but they can feel a little half-baked at times. This is partly because their stories rarely see any form of resolution and partly because subtext and exposition get blurted out in place of more natural dialogue. But Oh Boy sort of gets away with it by making them either genuinely fun and goofy sides, or sobering reflections of the film’s thesis. It is in the latter that earns Oh Boy its most valuable asset.
Throughout the wackiness of Niko’s day we are treated to quiet moments with the other forgotten denizens of Berlin. Each one is a tragic portrait of solitude hidden behind an insecure smile and gratitude for being noticed. Though manifested differently in each subject, there is an unmistakable camaraderie between the lonely that defines the world of Oh Boy as something more than other films on mid-twenties musing.
Though I’m hesitant to say Oh Boy is a story rooted in its setting, its tale of urban isolation definitely benefits from the looming shadow of Nazi Germany which is alluded to at a few key points in the film. There’s a sense that Gerster perhaps intended to use this history to make a film more about Germany’s modern identity than the character piece it is at its surface, but it doesn’t come together as poignantly as one would hope. There is something interesting being said here, but it can be a little hard to dig out among the sparseness of the script and the inconsistent tone. But if you can handle something a little quieter and decompressed, Oh Boy is a perfect film for any lonely urbanite looking to unwind.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10