Taglines can give you a pretty good picture of a movie. If you were to hear "In space, no one can hear you scream", you'd likely latch onto the operative words "space" and "scream" to discern that the tagline belonged to a sci-fi horror like Alien. "See it with a bud" is a perfect pun to predicate the stoner comedy genre of Dazed and Confused. Now, what comes to your mind when you consider the tagline "Be a better person, one mistake at a time"?
If you've glanced at enough movie posters, you're probably thinking "independent drama/comedy". If you have more than a cursory knowledge of cinema, you might venture further into accuracy and guess that it's an indie dramedy already available on streaming services. Correct! And it's called Fishbowl California.
The curiously titled film is the debut feature from director Michael A. MacRae, who co-wrote the script with Wyatt Aledort and Jordon Hodges. It stars Steve Olson as a down-on-his-luck schlub whose ineptitude leaves him jobless, homeless, and alone, and Katherine Cortez as an alcoholic widow in desperate need of a friend around the house to help her take care of the property—and wouldn't you know it, they connect by wacky happenstance! A surprising movie this is not: the screenplay sets up two puzzle pieces that fit together rather predictably, and aside from a faux-audacious third act fake out, Fishbowl California plays out exactly as one would expect. Titling the movie thusly (Rodney's life is as repetitive and fruitless as swimming in circles; June is drowning in the drink; Rodney owns a literal goldfish) is akin to John Ford changing the title of The Searchers to Doorways.
For all its obviousness and on-the-nose soundtrack choices that reemphasize its themes in bold lettering, Fishbowl California works as a story of sweet and simple sentiment. It maintains an effervescent in-the-moment enjoyability, largely due to a precise understanding of how visual and written comedy should coexist. MacRae knows exactly how to bring humor to life, walking a line between natural and unexpected that causes nearly every joke to land. Timing, choice camera angles, and off-screen dialogue keep the film funny and pleasurable when it's not novel or compelling.
Fishbowl California was shot on a relatively small budget, which can add to its charm if you're not listening closely. The sound mixing and editing are poorly done. There's background noise that changes with each cut, mismatched dialogue that an over-the-shoulder shot can't save, and sterile sounds that seem like they were recorded in a studio. I could pin this all on the budget, but I've heard better sound in high-quality student films.
(Edit: director Michael A. MacRae reached out to let me know that the critics' screener link was "extremely low res", and that some of these sound quality problems may be less discernible on DVD or Blu-Ray copies of the film.)
Where Fishbowl California far exceeds your typical low-budget film is in its casting. There are a number of familiar faces from Katrina Bowden to Kate Flannery, but the film's lesser known performers shine brightest. Steve Olson is a promising talent: he displays disarming emotional sincerity and commits to comedy with a full-body performance. He's an actor with the makings of a Hollywood funnyman, or the indie scene's next big name, or both—a Jake Johnson type, if you will. Katherine Cortez's emotional range and depth make a convincing case for an earned career renaissance.
This is an uncomplicated movie that's firmly clipped together by its genre staples. Its one major attempt at subversion—not letting its male protagonist stumble into a romantic relationship—is undercut by the fact that the woman he's attracted to is more a mouthpiece for announcing this subversion than she is a developed character. But Fishbowl California is still a simple pleasure that finds promise on both sides of the camera, even if it's not destined for lasting impact.