Rodney (Steve Olson) is a mess. We can see this in the first frames of Fishbowl California: dirty counters, clothes hanging out of drawers, and finally him asleep on a deflated air mattress. A single goldfish swimming in a clean fishbowl is the only sense of orderliness present in the apartment. We see Rodney’s girlfriend Tess (Katrina Bowden) – way out of his league I might add – getting ready for work in the morning. We get the feeling, and are validated shortly thereafter in a montage of failed job interviews, that Rodney has never shared this experience. He’s also behind on his rent.
When Rodney awakens and talks with Tess, he asks her to move in with him and tries to reason with her the advantages. Like any self-respecting person (but not too self-respecting since she’s still with him), she turns down his request. After showing up unannounced at her apartment with a suitcase and his goldfish wanting to move-in, Rodney discovers her cheating with another man. In a horrid turn of events, the fishbowl falls to the floor and shatters, killing the goldfish. I’d wager that this was probably the actual catalyst for him turning his life around rather than discovering his girlfriend’s infidelity.
Shortly thereafter Rodney meets June (Katherine Cortez), an elderly woman who knows great frustration but also great sincerity. Her character is similar to those of Frances McDormand. In June, Rodney’s grating, millennial self has finally met his match. After June catches the homeless Rodney stealing electricity from her house, the two are off to a bad start but Rodney’s brashness in refusing to be intimidated by her aggression towards him earns her respect. She lets Rodney earn his keep by doing yard work and the two come to bond over alcohol, June being an alcoholic who is somewhat distanced from her family.
June’s daughter Olivia (Jenna Willis), a nurse, is busy with her career but is hurt in seeing her mother’s decline. She confronts June about not taking her medication, and June deflects saying that the medicine bottle said she wasn’t supposed to consume alcohol while taking the medicine. Being the alcoholic she is, the medicine simply doesn’t get taken. Olivia finally visits June and finds Rodney, the two also getting off to a bad start. But Olivia sees Rodney as an opportunity- he is around June every day and is much more capable of attempting to get June to take her medicine. Fishbowl California becomes a feel-good film as we see Rodney finally start to find himself as he cares for June. Director Michael A. MacRae convinces us that Rodney is good at heart, even underneath his entitled, happy-go-lucky exterior.
As a feature film debut, Fishbowl California has an impressive cast consisting of actors from shows such as The Office and 30 Rock as well as films such as Knocked Up and The Blind Side. Apart from the main roles, we only see other actors in 1-2 scenes each, often for the purpose of comic relief. As much a comedy as it is a drama, Fishbowl California leans on a number of clichés of the genre such as the aforementioned job interviews, coffee left on top of a car as it drives away, and a savant child who actually has a knack for comedic timing.
The mix of comedy and drama is a difficult one to execute, and the film clashes with itself tonally from time to time. Some of the shifts in tone are effective and downright funny, while others could use some refinement or simply removal for better consistency in guiding the audience’s empathy for Rodney and June. Where Fishbowl California most deserves praise in regards to its comedy is in Steve Olson’s role of Rodney. Olson’s ability to constantly redeem Rodney in our eyes is remarkable, especially considering how unlikable Rodney is. He enables us to wish for the best for Rodney rather than wishing for what Rodney, at times, deserves. As a whole, Fishbowl California is a wholesome debut for writer-director Michael A. MacRae and is one that has started to turn eyes from the likes of Judd Apatow, the master of this genre.