How to Build a Girl


Johanna Morrigan contemplates a boring future.

(2019) Dramedy (IFCBeanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Emma Thompson, Sarah Solemani, Laurie Kynaston, Frank Dillane, Arinzé Kene, Gemma Arterton, Chris O’Dowd, Michael Sheen, Lucy Punch, Lily Allen, Alexei Sayle, Joanna Scanlon, Sharon Horgan, Patsy Ferran, Ziggy Heath, Bobby Schofield, Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins. Directed by Coky Giedroyc

 

When it comes right down to it, adolescence is a process in which we invent ourselves. The trouble is, we rarely know what it is we want to be. We often reach for the stars only to realize that our arms just aren’t that long. But as anybody who knows England will tell you, it’s almost impossible to reach the heights from Wolverhampton.

And it is from that dowdy suburban landscape that teen dreamer Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein) finds herself. Socially awkward but possessed of a talent for writing, she feels trapped in a place that doesn’t hold enough interest for her. An entry into a poetry contest ends up causing her even more humiliation and embarrassment than ever.

Her home life isn’t much better. She lives in a cramped household flat with her mother (Solemani) who suffers from post-partum depression after an unexpected birth of twins, her cheerful father (Considine) who dreams of the rock and roll stardom that he has thus far failed to find and her brother Krissi (Kynaston) who has the same frustrations she does and channels it into a fanzine. In her loneliness, she carries on conversations with photos of her heroes which she keeps on her wall; Sigmund Freud (Sheen), Maria von Trapp (Arterton), Sylvia Plath (Punch) and Elizabeth Taylor (L. Allen), among others.

Yes, it’s the 90s and Britpop is coming into its glory. Johanna manages to wrangle and interview with a Melody Maker-like British rock rag called D&ME but discovers when she travels to London that the somewhat snarky editorial staff thought that her submitted review of the soundtrack of Annie was a joke.

Utterly defeated, she ends up crying in a loo where a poster of Bjork (Ferrari) gives her a pep talk. Heartened, she storms back into the office and demands an opportunity. Taken aback, they assign her to review a Manic Street Preachers concert in Manchester.

She does okay and manages to convince them to give her an opportunity at a feature, an interview with up and coming rocker John Kite (A. Allen) whom she promptly falls head over heels over and he in turn opens up about his demons. Her piece, though, is a gushing, fawning puff piece that the snarky folks at D&ME don’t have any use for.

Stung, she resolves to be the biggest bitch she can possibly be and that turns out to be considerable. Reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, a flame-haired, top hat-wearing libertine vixen who writes with poison pen and has as much casual sex as she can possibly get. But her persona begins to take over as she alienates everyone close to her, from John Kite whose trust she breaks, to her parents whom she humiliates by throwing in their face that she’s paying the rent. When she realizes that the people she’s trying to impress aren’t worth impressing, she is forced to re-examine who she is and who she wants to be.

Some have compared this to a distaff version of Almost Famous which isn’t too far off the mark; like that film, this story is based on writer Caitlin Moran’s own experiences as a teen rock critic for Melody Maker in the 90s. Make that very loosely based. There is an air of fantasy to this; the lifestyle depicted for the writers for the rag aren’t realistic; I can tell you as a not-so-teenaged rock critic in the 90s in the San Francisco Bay Area that all music critics are notoriously low-paid. That’s because there are far more people who want the job than there are jobs available; it’s the law of supply and demand.

Feldstein though takes a character who isn’t always lovable and makes her root-worthy. For the most part she has an endearing joie de vivre that permeates the film and makes it a pleasurable viewing. Even when she’s being a cast-iron jerk the audience knows that really isn’t Johanna.

There are literally dozens of cameos, including Emma Thompson as an encouraging editor late in the film to the ones mentioned earlier playing pictures on the wall. Particularly fun is Chris O’Dowd as a somewhat bewildered host of a local arts show.

\The soundtrack is full of a goodly amount of righteous period music, including tracks by Bikini Kill during a fun thrift store transformation sequence. Even if the story falls into cliché near the end, the good nature at the heart of the film coupled with the good will that Feldstein’s performance earns from the audience are enough to carry it through.

REASONS TO SEE: The film has a sweetness at its core. Feldstein is a star in the making.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally succumbs to clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some teen sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alfie Allen, who plays a singer, is the younger brother of Lily Allen, an actual singer who has a role here as one of the Bronte sisters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Almost Famous
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Role Models


Role Models

Ken Jeong points out that it's good to be the king; Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Paul Rudd are chagrinned to find it's not good to be serfs.

(Universal) Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jane Lynch, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks, Ken Jeong. Directed by David Wain

With the popularity of comedies produced/directed/written/overseen/obliquely referred to by Judd Apatow, it is inevitable that there will be copycat comedies trying to milk the same cow. However, as any good comedy writer will tell you, a good comedy isn’t just stringing a whole bunch of jokes together, unless you’re writing Airplane.

Danny Donahue (Rudd) has been in a foul mood for about eight years now. He is stuck in a dead-end job pimping energy drinks to bored high school kids under the guise of an anti-drug crusade; he has drunk enough of these drinks to make his urine change color permanently. His sales partner Wheeler (Scott) dresses like a Minotaur (the mascot of the drink), talks incessantly in motivational poster sound bites, and has a libido the size of Texas and Alaska, combined.

His temperament hasn’t gone unnoticed by Beth (Banks), his girlfriend who he just proposed to. She can’t imagine staying with a downer like Danny for another minute, much less the rest of her life. She dumps him, which does nothing to soften Danny’s mood.

After wrecking the company vehicle (a kind of monster truck with a bull on it) and getting involved with a fracas with the security officers at the school they’re appearing with, the two are arrested and sentenced to 150 hours of community service at a Big Brother-style charity called Sturdy Wings, run in no-nonsense style by ex-coke whore Gayle Sweeny (Lynch) who makes the average drill sergeant look like Stuart Smalley.

The two are given a couple of difficult cases. Danny gets Augie (Mintz-Plasse), a nerdy sort who plays a LARP-style game called LAIRE (LARP, for those not in the know, stands for Live Action Role Playing and consists of people in medieval garb bashing each other with foam swords, maces, hammers and shields in mock battles, which is a very simplified explanation of the game). I suppose to say he plays the game is a lot like saying an alcoholic has a drink now and then; the game is Augie’s life.

For his part, Wheeler gets Ronnie (Thompson), a foul-mouthed anti-social kid whose single mom isn’t sure how to handle her attitude-drenched son. Still, Wheeler and Ronnie find some common ground in their fascination for the female breast. Yeah, I know – ain’t bonding grand?

As the two men learn something from the two boys, their inherent disposition towards messing up catches up with them and they basically have their two charges taken away from them, which will mean jail time for the both of them unless they can think of a way to get back in the good graces of the boys, their parents and Gayle. Who knows, if they can do all that, maybe Danny can win back Beth while he’s at it.

This is one of those scattershot comedies where the filmmakers basically throw everything they can get their hands on at the walls and hope something sticks. Rudd and Scott actually have a pretty decent comic chemistry together and their characters are nicely fleshed out. Rudd gets a great riff in about the difference between large and venti which serves to piss Beth off but the rest of us (those that don’t live and die by Starbucks) will find it dead on while Scott continues the shtick that worked so well for him in Evolution.

Lynch, who since this was made has migrated over to “Glee” where she’s become one of the hottest comic actresses in the business, shows some of that ability, basically owning the screen whenever she’s on. It wouldn’t surprise me to see her headlining a big screen comedy venture in the very near future. Likewise, Jeong who hadn’t hit cult status with The Hangover when he made this, treads very familiar territory very well in his role here as the King.

In fact, that’s one of the things about the movie that holds it back – it really doesn’t do anything new or push the envelope at all. One of the things that made Apatow comedies like Superbad and Knocked Up so good is that they consistently took the comic genre they were working in and turned them on their heads. Role Models essentially takes basic comedy formula and follows it to the letter. That’s not a bad thing if you do it really well – and by that I mean reeeeeeeeeeeally well – but Role Models merely does it adequately. That’s not enough to put my butt in a bandwagon seat, so all I can really say for it is that while it has heart enough to make it worth seeing, it doesn’t have enough soul to make it a priority.

WHY RENT THIS: Scott and Rudd have good comic chemistry and Jane Lynch is a hoot in just about everything she does.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Pretty much a standard Hollywood comedy with no real surprises.

FAMILY VALUES: This is crude enough and sexual enough that I’d probably think twice before letting pre-teens see this; it’s more along the lines of mature teens in my opinion.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “Paul McCartney” song played over the closing credits is actually McCartney impersonator Joey Curatolo.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there are plenty of standard features on the DVD edition (including a blooper reel), the Blu-Ray is packed with interesting features, including a design your own LARP logo feature called “Ye Olde Crest Maker,” some in-character interviews, some Sturdy Wings videos (available through the BD Live feature) and Universal’s always-fun U-Control feature.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: World’s Greatest Dad