Addicted to Fresno

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015 (limited)


Written by: Karey Dornetto

Directed by: Jamie Babbit

This review is my second contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I’d like to thank James for giving me the chance to take a peek at this one! 

In her fifth feature film Jamie Babbit fixates upon life in a Californian town where nothing seems to happen — nothing good, anyway. Attracting an impressive cast of almost exclusively comediennes — Natasha Lyonne, Judy Greer, Molly Shannon and Aubrey Plaza — the film regrettably misuses the talent it has been afforded by stranding them in a dispassionate and thoroughly unconvincing narrative that will have viewers actively searching for the comedy.

Addicted to Fresno concerns two sisters working as hotel maids in Fresno. Lyonne is Martha, a hard-working, upbeat woman who is determined to make something of her life in these doldrums, while her older sister Shannon (Greer) has recently been released from sex rehab and is trying to put her life back together by working a steady job. Unfortunately Shannon can’t fight temptation and ends up sleeping with a hotel guest who she accidentally kills in an ensuing struggle. Desperate to keep her job, she enlists Martha’s help to get rid of the evidence, insisting she was raped and that it was not, in fact, consensual sex.

When the pair try to pass off the corpse they have concealed in a hotel hamper as a dog they want buried, they invoke the irritation of two local pet cemetery owners who insist they be paid $25,000 to keep quiet. Oh, and the money must be delivered in three days. Martha, once again bailing her sister out of a tough situation, reluctantly turns to robbery. It’s a harebrained scheme that will involve a porn shop, where they make off with a hamper filled with sex toys they will later sell to a lesbian softball team that just so happens to stay at the hotel. Convenient. (Not so convenient is their realization that porn shops don’t carry much cash in the register.)

The plan goes from bad to terrible when they find themselves still short of their total and decide that an upcoming event — a Bar Mitzvah — hosted at the Fresno Suites will help them considerably. Meanwhile, Martha strikes up a friendship with Kelly (Plaza), a Krav Maga instructor who gets denied a few first dates as Martha attempts to keep the other situation from spiraling out of control. Kelly may be cool, but she isn’t cool with being perpetually put off for the sake of Martha’s unapologetically reckless sister.

Greer channels more than a hint of her deranged Archer personality, Cheryl Tunt (or, is that Carol?) but the key difference here is that . . . well, other than being a live-action character, Shannon just isn’t funny. If she’s not all sour grapes over the fact that Edwin (Ron Livingston), is reluctant to keep having an affair with her and would rather end his current marriage and be with her than have it both ways, she is sabotaging her sister’s personal and professional life. Martha may be the more empathetic character, yet her older sister is both the center of attention and whom Babbit intends for us to eventually embrace. Come the film’s conclusion we can’t bring ourselves to do anything of the sort. Instead we wonder how and why Martha has put up with this for so long.

Plaza fares better in an understated role as the fitness instructor who takes an immediate liking to Martha. Rather than reigning queen of the deadpan here she plays it straight (so to speak), although increasing her screen presence would have helped offset the unpleasantness pervasive throughout. Molly Shannon is frustratingly superfluous, adding a couple of lines to contextualize the life of the victim of Shannon’s sexual aggression earlier in the film but absent is her spunky personality. I do need to single out Edward Barbanell who, playing Fresno Suites Executive Maid Jerry, manages to convert his real-life Down Syndrome into comic relief that works fairly well.

Unfortunately Fresno‘s reliance upon raunchiness, save for a scene in which a member of the hotel staff happens to find herself in the right place at the right time when dildos begin raining down the laundry chute, doesn’t translate into many laughs. The cast is clearly having a field day with the material — it would be hard not to with this many funny women on the same set — but sadly we feel out of the loop watching on, trying to justify how a hotel staff could possibly overlook this kind of a farce, one that is happening right in front of their eyes. I suppose I’m focusing on the wrong things, but then that wouldn’t likely have happened if there was something else to entertain my overactive imagination.

Addicted to Fresno is a relationship comedy with few addictive properties. Under almost any other circumstance, that would be a plus but when it comes to entertainment, we should be left at the end eager to come back for more.

Recommendation: As a comedy, this doesn’t offer much in the way of originality. Featuring a central character that’s too easy to loathe, the film misjudges raunch and vulgarity and misses some opportunities to explore both romantic and familial relationships on a much deeper level. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 78 mins.

Quoted: “It’s hard letting go, isn’t it? If only Pop-Tart could have spoken up and told me what was bothering her. But turtles can’t let you know what’s going on, can they? Robots can’t, either . . .”

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Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

Release: Friday, June 12, 2015


Written by: Jesse Andrews

Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

I’d like to dedicate this piece to my good friend Andy, a man of rare intelligence and passion for rock climbing that the Knoxville community and the world at large lost far too soon.

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl may be unafraid of confronting brutal realities but it has little interest in festering in sorrow and solemnity. In fact the blunt title is a strange acknowledgement that things are going to be okay. Much like Rachel’s frilly purple pillow it cushions us if even just slightly from the gut-punch we prepare ourselves for throughout this meditation on life’s transience.

Sure, there’s a sense of inevitability and dare I say it, predictability, that casts a pall over Greg (Thomas Mann), Earl (RJ Cyler) and Rachel, a.k.a. ‘the girl’ (Olivia Cooke) and the last few weeks of their high school lives but Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and his idiosyncratic crew would be damned if the weight of the material is going to get the better of them. In spite of its originality — first and foremost in the form of a knock-out performance from Mann, whose previous work didn’t exactly instill confidence in his acting prowess — I hesitate to say my relationship with Earl is one of complete, albeit beautiful, cliché. Rarely have I been so impressed with the value a movie places not only on youth but on life itself. To say I emerged from the theater with my outlook even remotely altered would be the cherry on top of that cliché sundae but hey, can I just say it anyway?

I was moved, yes. Yes I was.

That’s him and Earl . . .

The Part Where I Tell You About The Plot.

Greg’s informed by his overbearing mother (Connie Britton) that a school friend — Greg insists she’s just an acquaintance — has been diagnosed with leukemia. His father (a very hippie Nick Offerman), reiterating that the situation “sucks quite a bit,” shares mom’s concern that Greg ought to befriend Rachel during this difficult time. Greg knows Rachel would see through the idea, but goes anyway. And lo and behold she sees right through the idea; she doesn’t need anyone’s pity. Over time, however, Rachel becomes drawn to Greg’s peculiar sense of humor and aggressively self-effacing nature, though he hesitates to place the ‘friendship’ label on any relationships he shares with his peers. Especially with Earl, a longtime “co-worker” with whom he eats lunch daily in Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal)’s office . . . because of air conditioning and fears of getting caught up in any sort of clique constituting the chaos that defines Schenley High’s cafeteria.

Aside from social awkwardness, the pair share a passion for spoofing canonical films. One day class hottie Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) gets wind of this and asks them if they would make a film dedicated to Rachel. Given that their previous efforts are of a rather immature and bizarre nature — avant garde wouldn’t be the worst way to describe them — Greg is primarily concerned with coming up with something that would feel appropriate. When Earl tells Rachel about the idea to make this film, we witness the fall-out: Greg’s self-conscientiousness and Earl’s open honesty clashing with brutal force, with little thought given to how shallow and pointless the conflict really is.

Unfortunately it gives way to a larger rift between Greg and Rachel, the latter who is trying her hardest to deal with the reality of not knowing what the next day brings. All those weeks giving way to months of shared time in her bedroom, a room occupied by a diverse collection of pillows only an indie film could get away with drawing attention to on more than one occasion. Has all this time meant nothing? Was it just Greg’s parents ordering him to be there the reason he kept returning? Greg describes the friendship as doomed, but we’re not exactly sure how serious he is about that sentiment.

And this is the girl.

The Part Where I Act Like I Know How to Critique a Film.

Pervading Earl is a refreshing directness — from the performances to the tight framing of this hectic school environment and the surrounding neighborhood; from physical execution to the various thematic threads, nearly every aspect of the production lives and dies by its willingness to be casually confronting. It’s a film that allows a conversation about death and the fleetingness of existence to come about organically, although there are of course meanderings into subplots involving popsicles, “accidental” drug-taking, and peculiar food only Nick Offerman would be into for real.

As Rachel, Olivia Cooke exudes braveness and it’s a quality that clearly rubs off on her young co-stars. The distinction of most memorable performance may go to Mann but Cooke is damn good. Parenting as a function of the way we grow and experience is wisely given a substantive role as well. Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mother is unhinged but empathetic. She may be a little off her rocker and too often a poor role model for these kids but she’s a single parent desperately trying to deal with her daughter’s illness. Similarly, Greg’s parents are borderline obnoxious but they explain a great deal about Greg’s off-kilter personality. Matured and young adult alike aren’t alienated by unrealistic writing; they’re imperfect, sometimes off-putting but more often than not relatable.

Based on Jesse Andrews’ debut novel of the same name, Earl shares more in common with the ‘me’ in its title: like Greg, the narrative is equal parts profound and humble. Drama doesn’t draw attention to itself until a final tear-jerking sequence of events that simultaneously surprise and confirm early suspicions. The narrative is straightforward but as anyone who has navigated the halls of high school will attest, that journey is anything but. When you factor in a life-altering experience such as the one facing Rachel and those that she’s involuntarily surrounded by, all bets are off on how anyone is going to fare come the end of the storm. Speaking for myself, this isn’t life-changing stuff but it is life-affirming. This is surprisingly uplifting for a film with ‘dying’ as part of the title.

Recommendation: Gomez-Rejon’s sophomore effort proves an emotional experience, a beautiful representation of a difficult high school experience. It’s a great companion piece to 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Simmering with brutal honesty and endearing personalities, Earl isn’t always fun and games but as a big fan of films that refuse to sugarcoat its themes, I find it’s an easy one to embrace. And anyone who can appreciate really off-beat characters are sure to find plenty to sink their teeth into here.  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “So if this was a touching romantic story, this is where our eyes would meet and we would be furiously making out with the fire of a thousand suns, but this isn’t a touching romantic story.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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