How Well Does ‘I Want You Back’ Handle Its Manipulative Premise? Let’s Find Out!

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I Want You Back (CREDIT: © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC)

Starring: Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Gina Rodriguez, Scott Eastwood, Manny Jacinto, Clark Backo, Omar Gooding, Dylan Gelula, Isabel May, Pete Davidson, Jami Gertz

Director: Jason Orley

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R for Adults Behaving Hot and Bothered

Release Date: February 11, 2022 (Amazon Prime Video)

Plenty of romantic comedies feature highly manipulative, perhaps even psychopathic behavior, and I Want You Back is just the latest example. That feature of the genre isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. It all just depends on how you present it. If you’re going for something cynical or a heightened/surreal vibe, then this behavior fits perfectly. If however you want to conclude with the sweet-as-treacle traditional happily-ever-after, then the message might end up a whole heck of a lot darker than intended. In the case of I Want You Back … it’s complicated. It features likable actors who can go vicious or weird if that’s what’s asked of them, but this time they’re aiming for something more grounded and thoughtful. But they’re not perfect either. They make some bad decisions, eventually they have to deal with the consequences, and the narrative grapples with how to move forward from those consequences.

Here’s the setup: Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) are both blindsided when they’re dumped from their respective long-term relationships. Breakups are always hard, but these ones are especially tough, because these two mortal fools have convinced themselves that their now-exes (Scott Eastwood, Gina Rodriguez) were The Ones for them. So when they have a chance encounter in the office building where they both work, they hatch a scheme wherein they will rip apart the new relationship of the other’s ex so that they can be reunited. Along the way, they get up to a few shenanigans, deliver some chuckle-worthy dialogue, forge some unlikely friendships, and learn a little bit about themselves. But the clock is ticking, and The Truth Bomb is just waiting to go off…

Let’s jump ahead to discuss the point when Peter and Emma’s scheme fully unravels. Predictably, everyone who’s been an unwitting pawn is so aghast at the lack of forthrightness and integrity when they thought everything had been genuine. It would be realistic if everyone remained angry with each other for weeks, months, or even years afterward. But instead, they talk it out. Is it enough to justify a happy ending? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not personally sure myself. But I am certain that it’s ultimately healthiest to address these emotionally distressing situations head-on. It may be supremely difficult, but settling on anger most likely means allowing these situations to fester into something even more toxic. Since I Want You Back recognizes that, it mostly wins my approval.

I Want You Back is Recommended If You Like: Sitcom Stars in Movies, Quarter-Life Crises, Abortive threesomes

Grade: 3 out of 5 Airplane Safety Masks

It’s Time to Watch ‘Horse Girl’

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CREDIT: Katrina Marcinowski/Netflix

With so many movie theaters closed for the foreseeable future, I decided to finally watch and review some straight-to-streaming flicks I haven’t had a chance to get around to yet. And in the spirit of things being not-so-normal, these reviews will maybe be a little more, uh, shall we say, offbeat, than usual.

First up on the docket is Horse Girl, a seemingly quirky indie comedy, but actually no, it’s a psychological study of emergent mental illness, but with some trappings of low-budg sci-fi. We can use the catchall term “drama.” It stars and is co-written by Alison Brie. The other person handling scripting duties is Jeff Baena, who also sat in the directing chair. I know and love Jeff from The Little Hours, in which he previously directed Alison. It played at Sundance in January 2020 and landed on Netflix on February 7, 2020. Thanks to Alison’s presence, I knew I was going to definitely watch it eventually, as I’ve been a superfan of hers since her days on Community (which I’m legally obligated to acknowledge is my favorite show of all time whenever I mention it).

Alison plays Sarah, an introverted lass who works at an arts and crafts store and enjoys horses. Also, her stepdad is played by Paul Reiser! (That’s got to be a good sign, right?) Things seem to be going okay for her, especially when she strikes up a potential new romantic relationship on her birthday. But then, as she begins to experience lost time and unexplained visions, it appears that the mental struggles that run in her family are finally making themselves at home in her brain. Or is she actually a clone who is also dealing with flippin’ alien abductions, jeez?

If you’re forcing me to say one or the other, Sarah probably actually is indeed experiencing mental illness. But Horse Girl makes me think: isn’t the idea of alien abduction intoxicating? What if it could be the basis of a religion? You could believe in them, though not literally, just have faith in them in some sort of way. That’s just a kernel of an idea, we’ll see if it becomes anything more. Anyway, Alison is terrific, but y’all knew that already! (Dint ya?)

Movie Review: ‘Her Smell’ Puts Elisabeth Moss Through Hell as She Fights Her Way Back to Punk Rock Redemption

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CREDIT: Gunpowder & Sky

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin, Dan Stevens, Eric Stoltz, Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula, Amber Heard, Virginia Madsen, Eka Darville, Lindsay Burdge, Keith Poulson, Alexis Krauss, Craig Butta, Hannah Gross, Daisy Pugh-Weiss

Director: Alex Ross Perry

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for The Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle at Its Most Rock-Bottom

Release Date: April 12, 2019 (New York)/April 19, 2019 (Los Angeles)

Her Smell is not about riot grrrl punk rock so much as it just takes place in the riot grrrl milieu. Although I suppose it would be fair to say that a person like Becky Something, lead singer of Something She, would be most likely to have the breakdown that she has in this particular setting. Hers is a story as old as show business: she grew up with a profound inner sense of emptiness and sought to fill it with the stage, but she also turned to drinking, drugs, and suspect shamanism. Elisabeth Moss is fully, almost painfully committed to a performance of Becky as a shell of a person who cannot cover up the destructive whirlwind she has become. This is The Elisabeth Moss Show, with Becky’s bandmates, ex, daughter, manager, and mom left to simply react in horror.

Writer/director Alex Ross Perry conveys Becky’s unraveling and possible redemption over the course of a couple of long nights and one afternoon, favoring long takes that will not allow us to escape the bowels of hell. The camera tracks around backstage hallways without ever finding the exits, keeping us stuck in a claustrophobic nightmare. The music is surprising, but effective. While Something She plays the expected Sleater-Kinney-style bangers, the score resembles that of a mystical sci-fi flick set in rural England. It contributes to the sense of how otherworldly this whole situation feels. Punk rock, and indeed all rock music, has long had a reputation of being the devil’s music. Her Smell does not believe that at all, and in fact all of Becky’s loved ones are fully supportive of her rocking endeavors. But if demonic possession is something that exists, she appears to be suffering from it, and this film makes absolutely clear which vices are  really the ones causing that destruction.

Her Smell is Recommended If You Like: A rock star biopic infused with a horror vibe

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Spin Magazine Covers

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Support the Girls’ is a Low-Key Look at the Ins and Outs of a Curvy Family Sports Bar

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2018.

Starring: Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, James Le Gros, Junglepussy, Dylan Gelula, Lea DeLaria, AJ Michalka

Director: Andrew Bujalski

Running Time: 91 Minutes

Rating: R for a Nipple That’s Visible for a Fraction of a Second

Release Date: August 24, 2018 (Limited)

A wayward day at work, especially if you have a job in the service industry, has a way of making time feel distorted. And if you’re working at a Hooters-style “family” restaurant, you also have to contend with the distortion of typically agreed-upon social mores. So it is for Double Whammies general manager Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall), who finds herself at the nexus of so many little disasters over one day. Every shift at Double Whammies is a potential disaster, so it is no surprise that an early scene features Lisa explaining her zero tolerance policy towards “grabbers.” On top of that ever-present risk, this day is just a circus. A bunch of potential new waitresses are recruited for an extracurricular car wash, somebody is stuck in the vents, and the cable is threatening to be out during a big boxing match.

Support the Girls has the look and feel of a shaggy dramedy, capturing the minutiae of suburban service employment without directly commenting upon it. But it turns out that there is a tighter focus to writer/director Andrew Bujalski’s approach than he at first lets on, as Lisa is closer to the end of her rope than we initially realize. An alternate title could have been We Caught Her on a Good Day and a Bad Day. There’s a weird mix of committed and easygoing at play here. Hall is steely enough to make Lisa’s journey compelling, but I’m more interested in probing the psyche of Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), her most enthusiastic waitress. Maci is the type of person who suddenly pops out of a door to shoot confetti and declare, “You’re the best and we love ya!” She is a burst of consistent positive energy, which in this environment is alarming but never less than genuine. How do the Maci’s of the world stay on all the time? Are they role models for us all? Or maybe ideal best friends? Or perhaps cautionary tales struggling with demons they never show us?

Support the Girls is Recommended If You Like: Anything with Regina Hall or Haley Lu Richardson

Grade: 3 out of 5 Crop Tops

This Is a Movie Review: Zoey Deutch Shines in the Sweet and Sour ‘Flower’

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CREDIT: The Orchard

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Zoey Deutch, Adam Scott, Joey Morgan, Kathryn Hahn, Tim Heidecker, Dylan Gelula, Maya Eshet, Eric Edelstein

Director: Max Winkler

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for Matter-of-Fact Crude Teen Dialogue, Implications and Discussions of Statutory Relationships, and an Artistically Impressive Penis Drawing

Release Date: March 16, 2018 (Limited)

When Tim Heidecker is playing the relatively normal person, you know that everyone else is stepping a bit outside their comfort zones and/or we have now realized that everybody is at least a little bit crazy. Along with his frequent partner Eric Wareheim, Heidecker has set the demented tone for much of 21st century comedy. But when he acts for other writers and directors, he works effectively as the most grounded presence. In the case of Flower, in which teenagers attempt to expose pedophiles through unsavory means, he comes across as the voice of reason, or at least the one most conscientiously attempting to do the right thing. Meanwhile, folks like Zoey Deutch and Adam Scott, who normally play sweet and wholesome, are afforded plenty of opportunities to tap into their darker impulses.

Heidecker plays Bob, the stepfather-to-be of Deutch’s Erica, who runs a small-time extortion scam with her friends Kala (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Dylan Gelula) and Claudine (Maya Eshet), in which they lure adults into sex acts and then demand money once they reveal that they are underage. They sniff out a major opportunity when her future stepbrother Luke (Joey Morgan), stricken by panic attacks and suicidal tendencies, reveals that he was molested by Will (Scott), a former teacher of his who Erica recognizes as the hot older dude from the local bowling alley. She pronounces that shaking down a child molester is their “moral obligation,” but their sense of right and wrong is not exactly ideal, as they partly justify their actions by noting that they don’t want anyone to get fat after suffering abuse. Erica does seem to be motivated more by justice than cash, but her morals are too distorted to stop her from making things spiral out of control.

Flower is far from a Time’s Up rallying cry against abusers. It is much too complicated to be that. There are holes in Luke’s story, and Will seems too decent to be guilty of what he’s been accused of (and not in the way that abusers are often manipulatively charming), though it is certainly concerning that he allows the teenage Erica to insinuate herself into his life. And Erica and her friends are hardly appropriate symbols for victims reclaiming their dignity, as they are too quick to justify their own criminality as a means to the right end. Director/co-writer Max Winkler does not shy away from this messiness, getting a brazen but enticing performance out of Deutch in the process. But the ending ties everything up a little too neatly, opting for a romantic outlaw angle that ignores much of the film’s moral debris. The whole affair is a tonal ping-pong, for better and worse.

Flower is Recommended If You Like: The Edge of Seventeen, Donnie Darko, The Crush

Grade: 3 out of 5 Shakedowns