Emergency is Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle viewed through a Black Mirror. Instead of going for straight comedy like H&K, Emergency opts for a more heightened mixture of drama and comedy. The results at times are brutally hilarious, but inconsistent. And let’s be honest, if you’re promised a college party hop, and you barely see anyone having fun, at some you’ll go down in the dumps a bit too.
It’s the final days of the final semester of college. Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) is putting the finishing touches on his big senior project. His best friend Sean (RJ Cyler) is also ready to finish his big project: get Kunle and him to be the first black students to finish the “Legendary Tour” through 7 famous frat parties in one night. Having obtained all the passes necessary, As Sean and Kunle are all ready to complete their epic college careers, they return home from pre gaming…to find a drunk passed out girl (Maddie Nichols) in their off campus apartment which their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) failed to notice due to gamer haze.
Because Emergency firmly grounds itself in reality, the story has to walk this very tricky, delicate line. On the one hand, we’re party hopping with college students, but on the other hand, there’s a drunk white girl who might die of alcohol poisoning “at the hands” of 3 male minorities. Director Carey Williams does this by starting light, and taking incremental steps toward life threateningly serious. But the middle has wild tonal swings that put us in a frat comedy then next scene in a Liam Neeson thriller, then a Jordan Peele nightmare. The wild tonal swings and the split between the 3 frat boys/drunk white girl and the white girl’s sister Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter) and her attempts to find her sister unmoor the story a few times, especially with the sister.
But even though the execution isn’t perfect, Emergency finds brilliance more often that not. The movie’s at its best when it finds the darkly comic/revelatory moments when the lies we tell ourselves are revealed and exposed for what they are. Sean and Maddy give off bravado and fun, but when the goings get tough, the narcissistic fear underneath comes full boar, with Maddy projecting all her mistakes onto the 3 boys, choosing to see them as stereotypes, and Sean finding ways to get out of any responsibility for this situation. The comeuppances they get are well earned and well executed, with VERY funny punchlines for the audience at the expense of these two douches. There’s also quite amusing Harold and Kumar like setups for comedy that work because of their cathartic pressure release to the story, such as a Democratic supporting couple calling the police on the “scary black boys;” a black guy pissing on a frat boy “sacred totem” and an innocent black guy being chased for it by frat boys in soldier (eg old police) armor; a badass crew of African Americans too scared to lend someone a car; and my personal favorite, a “sympathetic” letter of apology that I’ve DEFINIETLY heard a politician read. This is all set up for clearly what Carey Williams believes is the point: poor Kunle’s hammer drop, as there’s no way this sheltered, good hearted, Princeton bound hero is going to leave campus without some painful truth coming into the horrible lights.
Despite its mixed bag, Emergency packs a potent punch. By the end, you’ll start unraveling yourself from some of the lies you tell yourself, some of which will be funny, some of which will hurt you, probably a lot. Further proving, thanks to Radu Jude’s brilliant movie thesis, life is a simultaneous mixture of comedy and tragedy: best to just embrace it and move on.