Larry and Penny are a married couple on vacation in Hawaii when something happens on January 13, 2018: everyone on the island gets an alert that a ballistic missile is headed for the island.
Suddenly their vacation is a lot less leisurely, forcing everyone to seek shelter inside. Stuck with one another and with nothing to do, the pair finds themselves scrambling to make the most of their last hour on earth, making their vacation a lot more meaningful than they had planned.
Written and directed by Michael Feld and Josh Covitt, who both co-wrote the script with Steve Feld, this warm, witty comedy takes a pressure-cooker situation when people are their most unvarnished and vulnerable, throws them into a room together and waits for the very human emotional foibles to come to the surface. It’s a film about the apocalypse — and how we never quite act the way we’d expect in the face of imminent doom.
Essentially a two-hander, like many stories in its format and genre it rests on smart, observant writing, with frank and funny dialogue and a sharp eye for the ways that people hide truths and difficult emotions from one another in an effort to maintain the status quo. Larry and Penny seem like a companionable pair who are deeply familiar and affectionate with each other’s flaws. But there are fissures underneath the surface of this vacation paradise, and very real feelings they want to give voice to before it’s all over.
What gives the story a twist — and what incites the psychological deep dive — is the real-life surreal incident of Hawaii’s missile alert in 2018, which caused a short but vivid panic for the brief time it was in effect. It causes the couple to quickly reckon with the unfinished business of their life — which includes an awkward goodbye phone call to their daughter — even as they pig out on mini-bar food. Of course, they attempt to fulfill their latent long put-off fantasies, but eventually, they’re left with nothing but their deepest regrets — and their deepest love.
Actors Julie Brister and Johnny Ray Meeks are terrific as Penny and Larry, who clearly have a great rapport, as well as unforced but deft comic timing. They’re clearly comfortable with one another as a long-married couple would be, and don’t let one another get away with anything. What works is that they never act out of rancor with one another, but from a clear base of affection and love — which comes out in an unaffected, unsentimental and ultimately very sweet way.
“40 Minutes Over Maui” is in the tradition of great American indie comedy, reminiscent of filmmakers like Alexander Payne, who look at people with an acerbic yet deeply humane lens. It takes the twist of a coming apocalyptic event and looks at how ordinary, flawed and loving human beings still go on being ordinary, flawed and loving, even when faced with the possibility of death and destruction.
The fantasy is that we become more profound, wise people in these events. But the fact is, people still squabble over in-laws, disagree over sex, rib each other over what they did or didn’t do. It’s this ordinariness, in fact, that makes life so rich and people so lovable — something this small gem of a comedy celebrates with aplomb and affection.