I can certainly understand why young actor Jay Baruchel would be, for many, an acquired taste. He's a bit goofy and neurotic, and up until yesterday I would have called him a brilliant "support" choice -- I just never saw the guy as much of a leading man. His best work to date (as in Tropic Thunder and Knocked Up) comes as either a supporting player or as part of an ensemble, so I was duly intrigued when a Canadian farce called The Trotsky came my way at the Tribeca Film Festival. Could Jay Baruchel carry a 110-minute comedy all by himself?
My fears were entirely unfounded, and here's why: Despite being the title character and being present in virtually every scene of The Trotsky, Baruchel is not carrying anything by himself. The Trotsky is packed with fantastic actors doing some very fun work, and the icing on the cake is this: not only does Jay Baruchel shine as a leading man, but he elevates The Trotsky from gimmicky to provocative with very little difficulty. The kid is a natural comedian, there's no getting around that, but given the right material, one can't help but think Jay Baruchel has a very entertaining career ahead of him.
Written and directed by veteran actor Jacob Tierney, The Trotsky is, quite simply, one of the best "high school comedies" I've seen in a long time. It's the story of young Leon Bronstein, a jittery but well-intentioned prep school student who legitimately believes that he is the reincarnation of noted communist Leon Trotsky. After organizing a (humorously pathetic) strike at his father's company, Leon is thrown to the wolves: Dad sends him to public school for his senior year -- and it takes less than a day for Leon to run afoul of a nasty disciplinarian and her leader, the wonderfully oily principal.
To say that Leon welcomes these stubbornly unpleasant authority figures would be a huge understatement.
My fear was that, as a product of the American education system and therefore relatively ignorant about the life of Leon Trotsky, the flick would be rife with incidents and references that would sail right over my head, but Tierney's surprisingly sharp screenplay does an excellent job of "teaching" us all we need to know about the late Russian revolutionary -- and Baruchel's performance provides the rest. His Leon Bronstein is a tic-laden time-bomb who is so incensed by the treatment his fellow students receive ... hell, it's time for a revolution. Much of The Trotsky focuses on Leon's goal of unionizing his school's student body, but it also provides legitimate screen time to Leon as a "normal" character -- which makes all the difference in the world.
Fortunately for Tierney, a huge handful of noteworthy Canadian actors are on hand to keep his film flowing smoothly: the prolific Saul Rubinek is great as Leon's long-suffering dad; the hypnotic Colm Feore is clearly having a lot of fun playing a slyly devious high school principal; Michael Murphy and Genevieve Bujold contribute some colorful authority as a crusading lawyer and a no-bullshit judge, respectively; and ... I'm not exactly sure how I've avoided noticing the lovely Emily Hampshire before this film, but I've already kicked myself more than once for the oversight. More than just (very) pretty and (effortlessly) adorable, Ms. Hampshire is a twinkling star of this fine ensemble. Her scenes with Baruchel, as she trades frustrated barbs for his earnest sincerity, are particularly excellent and frequently very funny.
If The Trotsky is ultimately a fairly predictable tale of "bored youth vs. obtuse authority," and it is, then it's certainly worth mentioning that the flick is A) smarter than you're expecting, B) backed by a few surprises you might not see coming, and C) exceedingly funny. It seems to be a combination of a snarky script and a few great little pieces of improv, but The Trotsky has dialogue both off-hand amusing and "quote-worthy" hilarious. With his skinny glasses, disapproving expressions, and forward-leaning gait, Baruchel more or less "becomes" Leon Trotsky -- and, again, it's a rather hilarious transformation to observe.
Certainly one of the best indie comedies I've seen in a while, The Trotsky also boasts some great support from non-star Canadians (get this: the high school kids are all great! Even Baruchel's charming little sister gets into the act!), an apt and energetic soundtrack, and a spark of witty confidence that most "high school comedies" don't even bother with. My only advice would be to change the title, because this film deserves a serious theatrical release, and a moniker like "The Trotsky" might not help at the box office. Perhaps something like Confessions of a Prep School Communist?