When comedian Michael Malone talks about his new film Bethlehem, he is like a giddy kid on Christmas morning. He certainly acts more excited than the characters in the holiday comedy.
Malone co-wrote, directed and stars in the film, which revolves around a dysfunctional family on Christmas Eve. Now living in Los Angeles, he’s eager to bring Bethlehem back home to Indiana. It will play for one night only this weekend at the Strand Theatre in Shelbyville.
When I met Malone to talk about the film, he shivered with exuberance on the couch in the green room of Morty’s Comedy Joint, where he first started carving out his comedy career. Being on stage isn’t nearly as anxiety-inducing for him as the thought of sitting in the audience during his film.
“When I’m up on stage and something’s not working, I can just switch to another joke. But if something doesn’t work on screen, you can’t change it. It’s exciting and terrifying,” Malone said.
Malone is most anxious to see co-writer Joshua Hull’s reaction. “It’s like a big brother thing. I want to take him to the theater and go, ‘Look what I did! Isn’t this cool?’” Malone said.
“To star and step into directing with very little prep time was a huge leap of faith,” Hull said. “Michael took it by the horns.”
Hull directed Malone in the locally-made slasher comedy Chopping Block and handed him the reins to direct Bethlehem. A first-time filmmaker, Malone shot the 75-page script in just four days. But it’s hardly a rushed production; this is a labor of love for him and Hull.
The film had an interesting evolution from their minds to the screen. Between takes on Chopping Block, Hull and Malone found themselves chatting about their childhoods and tossing around ideas for comedies following quirky families like their own. The first one was a story about a wedding reception gone awry. As they developed this and talked about the tension of family gatherings, they found themselves slowly infected by a holiday spirit.
“When the idea came up about a family getting together, I was like, ‘It has to be Christmas. That’s when all the chaos happens,’” Malone said.
From there, Malone and Hull didn’t hold back, diving into the dark side of the holiday season.
“We wanted to make a Christmas movie with no kids, no singing, none of that bullshit. Just alcohol and hating your family,” Malone said.
“We told people we were basically trying to do a Judd Apatow version of Christmas Vacation,” Hull added.
The film focuses on two troubled thirtysomethings (Malone and Melissa Revels) as they try — and fail — to put on happy faces for their mom (Cindy Maples) and 26-year-old brother Bobby (Mike Dobrzelecki), who can’t shake the childlike cheer surrounding the holiday season. Dobrzelecki’s outlandish yet tender performance sets the tone for the film.
Bethlehem has some wonderfully wacky scenes involving karate, “dick cookies” and the ugliest Christmas sweater of all time. But like Hull’s other films and Malone’s stand-up, it sneaks up and floors you with warmly familiar, heartfelt moments. They create characters that are wildly funny but also real, raw and recognizable.
“When we first started telling people about the characters in Bethlehem, every single person said, ‘That’s my family!’” Malone exclaimed with a hearty laugh. “Everybody has somebody in their family who’s hiding a divorce or has an addiction or is in and out of trouble.”
Malone said the cast members — himself included — were surprised by how much they related to their characters, often growing genuinely emotional as scenes played out. Their problems are often amusing but ultimately serious and borderline heartbreaking. The film explores how the holidays can intensify those problems and also bring a sense of hope in the midst of harrowing situations.
I immediately enjoyed the ideas behind Bethlehem. But my enthusiasm for the film really skyrocketed when Malone said it took stylistic cues from Roseanne — my all-time favorite sitcom. Like that show, it’s rude and crude but also bathed in a warm light, as if filmed through a haze of nostalgia.
“I wanted it to feel like a throwback, a nod to Roseanne and those great John Hughes comedies that are so absurd and funny yet have so much heart to them,” Malone said. “I just watched Planes, Trains & Automobiles last night, and it’s perfect. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you think. It’s beautiful. I’m not saying Bethlehem is close to that though,” he said with a bashful laugh. It’s much closer than he thinks.
Like the comedies to which it pays homage, Bethlehem is at once cringe-inducing and comforting — like the feeling you get when you see a reflection of yourself and your loved ones on screen.