SXSW 2024: ‘I Don’t Understand You’ Pushes the Limits of Believability

Abe Friedtanzer reviews I Don’t Understand You, which premiered at the 2024 SXSW Film Festival, and stars Nick Kroll and Andrew Rannells.
User Rating: 5

All storytelling is rooted in truth, even if it purports to be entirely fictional. There can also be inspiration for a made-up story from actual events, imagined in a way where things could have gone in a very different direction. That’s the setup of I Don’t Understand You, conceived from the anniversary trip taken to Italy by its married directors as they await news of being approved to adopt a baby. While their story ended very happily, in this film, it’s the start of a series of unfortunate events that become less and less believable as they go on.

Dom (Nick Kroll) and Cole (Andrew Rannells) desperately want a baby, and they’re first seen trying to record a video to encourage a pregnant woman to choose them. To distract themselves, they opt to travel to Italy for their anniversary, a trip that starts idyllically enough but soon begins to resemble a horror movie. A well-meaning offer from Dom’s family friend Daniele (Paolo Romano) to have an unforgettable dinner in the country in the legendary kitchen of Zia Luciana (Nunzia Schiano) gets derailed by bad weather and poor navigation on Dom’s part, and that’s only the beginning of their regrettable hijinks.

Writer-director duo Brian Crano and David Craig are indeed married and undertook a similarly lengthy and arduous journey to have a baby. They also went to Italy, but that’s about where things diverge. What could have been a hilarious exploration of just how badly everything could have gone wrong is, instead, a less effective follow-up to a strong start. Watching Kroll and Rannells play a nervous couple trying to prepare for what feels like the impossibility of being parents is entertaining enough, and the absurdity that follows can’t quite match the genuine nature of what earlier more closely mirrors reality.

Kroll and Rannells have good chemistry, and watching them respond so quickly and cleverly to each other is fun. Dom and Cole have their own particularities and neuroses, and they alternate between being very panicked and far too reassured despite the seriousness of their situation, which gradually worsens as they make bad choices after nature deals them bad hands. Kroll is generally the calmer of the two, but their rapport is relatively evenhanded and allows them to switch off in terms of control, which one of them feels like they can come close to, steering them clear of more danger and misfortune.

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The film’s title comes into play strongly when Dom and Cole make it to Zia Luciana’s home and Dom’s Duolingo prep proves insufficient. Their attempts at basic Italian are grim and almost purposely inadequate, and their hostess regales them with long-winded stories whose translatable words don’t even register to her befuddled guests. Such inability to communicate shouldn’t lead to what then ensues, but the lackluster joke here might be more about how people respond to their shortcomings rather than sincerely trying to find ways to truly understand each other.

Enjoyment of I Don’t Understand You’s second half depends entirely on suspension of disbelief since taking any piece of the storyline seriously won’t lead to a positive experience. The comedy comes from how Dom and Cole respond to the increasingly more ridiculous events that befall them and how they look back at the mistakes they made that got them there. It’s the kind of film best experienced with a large audience that might find many moments funnier than they actually are. Over-the-top is the goal, and this film definitely achieves that.

Those who watch I Don’t Understand You should emerge with a sense of relief that they’re sitting comfortably in a theater or at home and not trying to figure out how to dig themselves out of an ever-widening metaphorical hole. Laughing at their misery is both fun and stressful, and the actors are all game for their parts, including Morgan Spector with a thick fake Italian accent and the actually Italian cast members whose fluency in their native language was described by the directors at the SXSW premiere as an asset since they don’t even need subtitles to be funny. There’s certainly something to enjoy for everyone in I Don’t Understand You, but how long it all remains fun and endearing will depend greatly on each viewer’s tolerance for exaggeration. 

Abe Friedtanzer’s Rating for I Don’t Understand You: 5 out of 10

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