'The Gutter' Review: Bowling Comedy Has ’Em Rolling in the Aisles

Laughter strikes from all sides in “The Gutter,” the kind of brash and boisterous broad comedy that has largely been missing from multiplexes in recent years. Directors Yassir and Isaiah Lester seem to share a special ability with their main character Walt (Shameik Moore), who has a habit of hitting the central pin in spite of having a different delivery every time he steps up to the line. The same goes for the filmmaking siblings in this hysterical tale of a bowling alley employee who finds he’s better on the lanes than behind the bar.

Although Walt changes things up from a fast-pitch softball-like windup to simply throwing the bowling ball overhand, you just don’t know where a sight gag or a sharp one-liner will hit you when every part of the frame seems like a ripe opportunity for humor. Nothing seems off limits when Walt takes an offensive stage name featuring the N-word (which becomes a significant part of the plot). The one time the brothers quite explicitly censor themselves for the purposes of him giving a live TV interview, the laughs still come from what you can imagine is being said.

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You worry Walt may be dismissed as a joke before his journey can even begin when “The Gutter” starts with Mozell (Jackée Harry), the world-weary proprietor of Alleycatz, looking over his résumé for a job at the rec center, which has clearly seen better days. When she has more questions about why he’s had so many jobs, and also about the cupcake emojis used for R’s on his application, it doesn’t look good. However, she’s as helpless as the audience becomes when there’s simply no resisting Walt’s goofy grin and irrational confidence. He quickly befriends the barflies he serves from the morning on, a former pro bowler named Skunk (D’Arcy Carden) and Brotha Candy (Rell Battle), a street preacher drawn to the site where he believes Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X (having heard that was shortened from “Malcolm Exuberance”). They have reason to grow even closer when a building inspector shows up not long after Walt does with orders for $200,000 in renovations, or demolition awaits.

It’s a thin clothesline of a plot when Walt realizes he’s the alley’s only hope for survival, but durable enough for all the jokes the Lesters pile on top of it, reminding of the irreverence of early Zucker and Wayans brothers’ comedies to suggest it takes at least two to make something this fleet-footed and funny. Although “The Gutter” instantly joins the subgenre pantheon of bowling comedies “The Big Lebowski” and “Kingpin” (made by those other brothers, of the Coen and Farrelly families), it is less interested in the world of bowling and the eccentric characters it brings out than in the culture around it.

Walt takes to patching his bare chest with PornHub stickers in order to manifest the kinds of sponsorships he’d like once his popularity warrants it. Both he and Skunk (who encourages Walt after her own career went sideways) contend more with racism and sexism than anyone they’re competing against, though both Susan Sarandon and Paul Scheer quite literally have a ball as opponents who could interfere with Walt’s destiny.

When Mozell says at one point she wanted to build a bowling alley just to have fun day in and day out, “The Gutter” appears as if the filmmakers built a playground for the very same purpose. The silliness is inspired when it ranges from the juvenile acronym of the Super League of Bowling (SLoB) to the sophisticated area-appropriate outfits Walt and Skunk start wearing to tournaments across the country, with costume designer Melissa Walker extravagantly dressing them up as two-thirds of TLC.

Just when you think the film could run out of gas, a bird will randomly fly into Skunk’s face or a hilarious non sequitur will have you puzzling over it for the minute that follows, all with Keegan DeWitt’s funky, propulsive score to keep energy high. The Lesters are particularly good at twisting assumptions by leaving something out of context, such that the punchline’s eventual arrival makes you want to slap your head. Still, “The Gutter” is more likely to have you slapping your knees. For all its bawdy humor, it’s good clean fun.

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