On March 6, a pair of Hollywood co-stars clad in vibrant biker Spandex made a confident left turn across Southeast Powell Boulevard. That day, Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin seemed to pedal straight out of their forthcoming buddy comedy, The Climb, and into Braking Cycles bike shop. For Marvin, the Portland press stop marked a homecoming.
"It's a big deal for me too," Covino joked, "but I don't understand why."
But like practically everyone else on March 6, the duo couldn't see what came next. After a packed screening at the Portland International Film Festival, COVID-19 stuck a wrench in their chains, and the theatrical release of The Climb inched backward for most of the year. Distributor Sony Pictures Classics clung to a theater-or-bust approach, and The Climb was finally made available this month via private rental screenings at Portland venues like Cinema 21 and Living Room Theaters prior to the second governor-ordered partial lockdown.
If nothing else, 2020 did The Climb the courtesy of confirming its themes. Covino and Marvin's buddy comedy maintains a helpless, bittersweet relationship to character development. The harder the lifelong bros (also named Kyle and Mike) push themselves, the less control they have.
"Life is absurd," Covino said back in March. "We should really all try not to take this too seriously."
The feature film grew out of a 2018 short depicting two lifelong friends ascending the French Alps. Midway through the climb, Mike admits to sleeping with Kyle's fiancée. Kyle is furious, but not a strong enough cyclist to catch Mike. The subsequent bickering and wheel-spinning continue for the rest of the mountain ride and, in the feature-length version, another 10 years.
Both Marvin and Covino acknowledge that many films inspired by shorts fail to transcend their original premise, so they entered a game of self-upmanship to top their opening cycling scene with highly choreographed single takes.
"How can we make this scene harder [to execute] than the last?" Covino said. "That was a personal, masochistic way of approaching it."
For an indie comedy from virtual unknowns, the visual ambition sticks out—from funeral brawls, to ice-fishing mishaps, to an almost gymnastic tour of a Christmas party. Marvin and Covino find prickly humor in the smallest details interrupting the long pans or sustained stillness. Everyone fights about everything, like the French translation for "bike water bottle," or whether a mourner should be allowed to toss dirt at a union cemetery.
This approach led Marvin and Covino to specific casting aspirations and a crew of supporting actors like Gayle Rankin (GLOW), George Wendt (Cheers) and Talia Balsam (Mad Men) with one quality in common.
"We had our casting director really look for theater actors, people who could sit in a scene, in a character, for 11 minutes before they had their first line," Marvin said. "We were the least-qualified actors."
Meanwhile, surrealist interstitials, like a spontaneous musical number and a montage of ski-dancing, give the audience a little space from Mike and Kyle's codependency and the absurd question of why these guys are still friends.
Despite insisting onscreen that Kyle and Mike—a hapless teddy bear and a sardonic depressive, respectively—represent complex fictional blends of their genuine selves, the filmmakers still reveal small moments of symmetry with the characters. On March 6, Marvin had forgotten his wallet (blame the bike shorts) and couldn't pay for coffee. Meanwhile, Covino was quick to jokingly answer one question, "That's probably from an interview where Kyle misspoke."
As for Marvin's Portland connection, while growing up in Sellwood and attending Sheridan High School, he ironically never gravitated toward cycling. It took moving to New York and Los Angeles, working in advertising, and co-writing a bike comedy to connect with one of Portland's favorite pastimes. With The Climb finally out, he may reconnect with Portland in deeper ways soon.
"I'm doing everything I can to move back here, actually," said Marvin, a father of two. "My childhood couldn't have been better, and I want to share that quality of life that Portland has. It's not even slower [than L.A.], it's just more thoughtful."
SEE IT: The Climb screens at Cinema 21 and Living Room Theaters. Both venues offer private bookings during the pandemic once the state-mandated freeze has ended.