Lockdown-centric movies, if done right, can be immensely effective. The endless sense of ennui (often tinged with a splash of horror) that accompanies characters forced to isolate themselves has been expertly explored in films like Alone With You and The Same Storm. So what makes Joseph Ahern’s The Disappearance of Toby Blackwood worth one’s time and consideration? As the film was shot during the pandemic with a limited crew and budget, there surely are some merits to consider in terms of its conspiracy-centric plot. However, despite being hilarious in parts for its comedy skit-like humor, The Disappearance of Toby Blackwood fails to engage beyond its first half, which then gives way to a clunky, underwhelming, overly-long resolution.
Wes Crowley (Ahern) is in the literal dumps after his wife leaves him in the middle of the pandemic. Immensely depressed and irritated by his group of friends who make it a point to remind him of his misery during daily Zoom call sessions, Wes desperately needs a distraction. The opportunity presents itself when he learns that his childhood friend — you guessed it — Toby Blackwood (Doug Mellard) has been deemed missing for more than 48 hours. Apart from being a YouTuber who makes bonkers survivalist content, Toby is also a conspiracy nut who panders to his QAnon audience. Driven to find his friend partly as a means to escape, Wes, along with his friend Luke (Grant Harvey) jumps into the rabbit hole that is essentially Toby’s world.
The premise, although simple, is weaved into an elaborate joke that gets its fuel from a colorful cast of characters delivering the most unhinged lines in their attempt to explain Toby’s fanbase. Luke and Wes round up a group of Toby’s subscribers and cross-question them on Facetime, and this leads to the meatiest part of the film, where we are treated to a bunch of fun, unexpected cameo roles. There’s Luiz Guzman hell-bent on believing some weird theory, Ginger Gonzaga ranting about lizard people, and none other than Simon Pegg suggesting Dean Koontz has something to do with Toby’s disappearance. Many, many more familiar faces pop up during these haphazard calls, adding to the tongue-in-cheek incredulity of the scenario.
The descent into madness, courtesy of Luke and Wes devouring every Toby video available online, paints a potentially interesting picture with a few high points. There’s a seemingly-useless PI with a pet parakeet, Toby spouting inane things on camera, and the investigative duo actually buying into the nonsense. There are talks about what really happens in Area 51, how the pandemic was invented, and how our lizard overlords control us, with someone always out to get us. You know, your standard paranoia packaged as wisdom, with Toby Blackwood as the guru who went missing for speaking the “truth”. However, the reality of the situation is comically underwhelming.
Despite trying their best to resuscitate a script that goes stale within the first 20 minutes, the leads lack the charm to sustain interest till the end. Harvey emerges as the better, funnier point of interest as he conveys his character’s staggering alcoholism and irreverence toward everything in an unstated, hilarious manner. Although Ahern fits the Wes role pretty snugly, there isn’t enough for the audience to give a damn about, and the urgency of the central mystery loses steam pretty quickly. By the time we actually get to learn what happened to Toby, we really couldn’t care less.
In essence, The Disappearance of Toby Blackwood plays out like an elaborate prank that stops being funny midway. There are some scenes that manage to evoke a chuckle or two towards the end, but I would be lying if I were to say it wasn’t exhausting at the same time. By the end, Toby Blackwood remains a numbskull who chops off his hair to combat rattlesnake poisoning, and his antics in the film’s mid-credits scene add nothing to the overarching essence of who he is — except that he’s no survivalist.