“Drunk Bus” looks at a friendship between a cowardly overnight bus driver on a college campus and the Samoan muscle hired to protect him from the dangers of intoxicated riders and their low impulse control. It tries t to be a comedy about the craziness of the job and the struggles of empowerment. “Drunk Bus” has appealing performances, but it’s no farce but rather a more serious story of broken people and their life choices.
Set in 2006 at Kent State University, we meet Michael (Charlie Tahan), who stays up late to drive a bus route that finds him interacting with the worst of the worst in the middle of the night. Michael deals with angry riders and bodily fluids, and he’s particularly tormented by his break-up with Amy (Sarah Mezzanotte), a woman who dumped him without a reason, leaving him a virgin s. When an incident with a belligerent passenger leaves him with a head wound, bus manager Fred (Will Forte) hires Pineapple (Pineapple Tangaroa) as security, joining the Campus Loop route and he sits with Michael’s friends, Justin and Kat. Pineapple senses self-esteem issues within Michael and urges him to become a better man through small-time crime and violence. The driver isn’t much of a lifestyle choice is for him.
Directors John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke create an evocative understanding of Michael’s misery. He’s up in the early hours of the morning, driving the Campus Loop during the winter and meeting the worst of the worst passengers, with most in a state of drunkenness that prevents them from controlling their mouths, fists, and bowels, leaving the bus a mess at the end of every shift. Then there’s outside pressure from Frat Row, who guys who launch chunky bombs at the vehicle, and there’s a nightly war with a wheelchair-bound character known as F.U. Bob (Martin Pfefferkorn), who rolls along in the cold until Michael decides to keep him warm with free rides.
Pineapple comes aboard the bus after Michael is assaulted by a passenger. He’s a massive guy with traditional facial tattoos, piercings and a punk look and us brought on the bus to maintain order. He does just that, but also wants to learn more about Michael. He wants to know more about Michael’s hang-ups with Amy who’s recently texted him thus keeping him glued to his flip phone as he decides how to respond. Pineapple is mostly a fearless philosopher, offering wisdom to Michael to help him find some self-respect. The middle of the film shows their growing comfort with each other, and follows them on a few misadventures.
“Drunk Bus” tries to take matters a bit more seriously in its second half but the actors aren’t strong enough to manage deeper feelings. “Drunk Bus” is engaging as a casual observation of mounting madness involving the worst job on campus and following Michael’s growing mental illness, but the script wants viewers to care about the guys and their love of denial, and that doesn’t fully happen.
There’s a lot of lowbrow humor but at its core this is a character-driven story. The central friendship isn’t always easy, with Michael frequently pushed out of his comfort zone and, just as he begins to trust Pineapple, confronted with the possibility that his friend isn’t everything he seemed to be. There’s a balance to be found between the cautious life he’s been used to and the chaos of the Pineapple’s existence. It’s in these difficult places that the film comes into its own.