King of Herrings characterizes an offbeat friendship with cold compassion and biting retorts. Eddie Jemison’s comedy is one that, like the classical structure, falls into tragic elements in its conclusion that underly the nature of these people and their manipulative, backstabbing ways. They’re all antiheroes in a world that doesn’t craft particularly heartfelt or inherently connectable characters, yet they remain compelling on screen due to the strong performances from the ensemble and the zippy, spontaneous nature of the script. Jemison’s work has been described as a mixture of Woody Allen and Tom Waits, which feels fitting considering the former’s emphasis on character-driven narrative with the latter’s offbeat sensibilities. In using those two artists as his main point of reference, the film feels like a twisted homage to the two with a touch of his own creation, even using black-and-white cinematography to explore the black-and-white arguments that haunt these characters. The film’s humor is vulgar, a characteristic I enjoyed, but it’ll be off-putting to some, yet the foundation of the film thrives when it relies on the connection to the mostly unlikable, potentially earnest men at the center.
The film focuses on Ditch (Eddie Jemison) and company, including the Professor (Joe Chrest), Gat (David Jensen), and Augie (John Mese). They’re a ragtag group of friends that always seem to fight over trivial matters in New Orleans. The catalyst for the story involves a debt of nine dollars that’s completely asinine in the grand scheme of things, but to these men means everything. It’s a semblance of respect and honor that they cannot seem to fulfill that haunts their decisions and leads to increasingly disrespectful actions: adultery, threatening, violence, and anything else that could possibly destroy friendships. The characters aren’t relatable in their actions but in their emotions; I cared for the characters when I could see compassion shining through their tomfoolery. Characters need heart and Jemison’s film allows them that, even if there are slight bouts of misogyny that pervade the men’s decision-making. King of Herrings meanders in the middle as the characters’ actions begin to feel a bit strained, but the conclusion is worthwhile and a reminder that comedies must have notes of tragedy or else, well, what are we laughing at?
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)