Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Booksmart" Crams Problematic Predecessors for the P.C. Midterm, Forgets about Comedy

Olivia Wilde's faux-indie, go-for-woke directorial debut epitomizes the meekness of artists in the shadow of our cancel culture. It's Superbad without balls.

© Annapurna Pictures, modified

Whatever people choose to think of Roger Ebert’s liberal (and also liberal) use of his 4 star rating, the critic once astutely wrote that, “No good movie is too long, just as no bad movie is short enough.” Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart doesn’t run for longer than 105 minutes, but I can’t imagine a version of the movie that wouldn’t be fundamentally broken. Vaunted in advertising and pseudo-advertising (i.e. reviews right out of SXSW) as “female Superbad” for the Zoomer generation—a compliment suggesting a viewer who has exceedingly fond memories tied to Superbad—, Booksmart trades in a generic high-school comedy plot about partying hard and getting laid that would be wholly unremarkable and fly under the radar of any discriminating person if not for its cunning, politically correct casting choices.

The movie is set in some kind of small prep school where all the rising graduates with names are going to an Ivy League college or heading straight into the workforce… at Google. “Don’t judge me, but… Harvard,” says one of the teens to the competitive Jewish girl Molly, the more outgoing half of the straight-As duo who decide to live it up the night before they get their diplomas. Har har moments like these underscore the film’s slavish endorsement of the money-fleecing scams that are for-profit, intellectually specious institutions like Yale and Harvard, the latter of which is recognized for accepting celebrities with subpar testing scores so long as they promote the fad political cause of the month.

Confronted by the sudden epiphany that having good academics and good fun aren’t mutually exclusive goals in high-school, Molly berates her virginal gay best friend Amy into infiltrating the cool kids’ party, where both hope to make up for the missed opportunities and see some physical action. Making the Michael Cera character a lesbian is the film’s most inspired deviation from Superbad, since Amy’s defective gaydar compounds her lack of social confidence and belonging. However, her gayness has the downside of unveiling the writers’ similar lack of fortitude as they lightly skip around the eggshells of issues that could rile their young audience up into a cannibalistic Twitter mob. Teen comedies frequently come up in “Could it be made today?” discussions because they reflect the ever-shifting Overton windows of their respective youths. In the same way that Superbad repudiated the glamorized sexuality or supposed “creepiness” of John Hughes’s hits, e.g. Sixteen Candles, Booksmart suggests that young Millennials and Zoomer Tumblrites can no longer tolerate some of the edgier, more truthful sides of Superbad.

As any devout LGBT supporter would feel pressured to do, Wilde gives life to an idealized neoliberal universe where seemingly every character, no matter how mean or vindictive, presumes homosexuality is normal and beyond the boundaries of reproach. It’s hard to judge what convenience beggars belief more: that Amy’s parents, over a celebratory dinner they’ve prepared, casually give their daughter their assent to go have sex with Molly at her house (the most plausible alibi these #smartwomen could brainstorm for slipping off to the party), or that none of the bullies seize upon her sexual preference as an object for ridicule.

Does Booksmart feel more toothless than its forerunners because its subjects don’t flaunt their cruelty as much and the movie is merely portraying their deference to political-correctness accurately, or is the film itself a product of inhibitions and social conformity? I haven’t set foot in a high-school since my SAT, but I did go to a university that felt like high-school, and rewatching Superbad just confirmed my notion that Booksmart buckles under the timorous impulses of its writers. In the 2007 film written by and loosely based on Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the young cast members casually denote effeminate or atypical behavior as “gay”, which was true to my college experience, as I’m sure it remains true to current high-schoolers’. Making matters more problematic and funny, Jonah Hill addresses Christopher Mintz-Plasse as “Fagell” throughout the film, a decision that Rogen now claims to regret. The 2019 film features no such displays of antagonism because it’s terrified of people who can’t distinguish a writer’s words from the words of a character.

I anticipate a defense that Booksmart is less abrasive and mean-spirited than Superbad merely by token of its focus on women, who don’t find as much camaraderie as men in skewering each other’s sexual prowess and proclivities. On the other hand, the writers seem largely disinterested in the myriad ways that women can demean and torment each other, or in the friction that could develop between adamantly leftist #Resisters and their peers. Putting aside the utter detachment that would be necessary to put an “Elizabeth Warren 2020” sticker on a car belonging to an 18-year-old, Molly and Amy don’t come up against any intellectual adversaries because the script has situated them in an idealized neoliberal bubble. Even Jason Sudeikis’ jaded principal gets caught with his metaphorical pants down listening to the Lean In audiobook in his Uber car, because nothing apparently is funnier than the thought of a white male hating himself enough to read Sheryl Sandberg. An hour into the film, I could have gone for one of Adam McKay’s and Will Ferrell’s stick-figure conservatives, just so the main characters wouldn’t have to exist in a vacuum, unopposed by anyone and everyone. Some paid critics’ blurbs on Rotten Tomatoes (a utility that gets more broken and oxymoronic by the month) extol the lack of “meanness” in Booksmart. To each their own, but if I wanted to watch a story without adversity or the more unattractive sides of humanity, I could always take a nap on my couch in front of HGTV or Chopped.

For a project bent on breaking down stereotypes and giving dimension to “less visible” groups, Booksmart has an odd habit of validating its audience’s preconceived assumptions about masculinity and femininity. The Lean In scene begs a chuckle because of the principal’s embarrassment, having been exposed as liking something that he, a heterosexual man, should not like. A second-act twist, admittedly well staged in an underwater pool shot, reveals that the frizzy-haired skater girl whom Amy formerly fancied a lesbian swims the other way, subverting both her and our expectations. In order for this scene to work as a surprise at all, one has to assume that some girls, either by the way they present themselves or by their facial features, fit a lesbian profile more than others, a postulate that sets the gay community back more than any Bohemian Rhapsody or Blue is the Warmest Color.

With a whole lot of smaller reviews on my back burner, I could have tried to mash Booksmart into another indie movie round-up, but that would make less sense than wrangling John Wick into an arthouse round-up. The film owes its existence to the generous pockets or astounding vanity of Megan Ellison, the daughter of billionaire Larry Ellison who has made a name for her Annapurna Pictures by throwing exorbitant resources at financially insolvent, “important”, Oscar baitprojects, often of a leftist bent, that unlike most films don’t need to turn a profit. In Booksmart, Ellison’s unlimited money appears to have been funneled straight into the soundtrack, which features such heavyweights as LCD Soundsystem, DJ Shadow, and Death Grips, although Wilde disrespectfully abuses the last group’s “I’ve Seen Footage” for a loud instrumental transition gag, anonymizing them.

The movie will surely be lauded for casting relatively unknown or even non-professional actors, but that praise also belies the insular, elitist nature of the casting; more than just a lazy ripoff of Superbad without any balls, Booksmart is an avante-garde, metatextual art film enlisting the real-life younger sister of Jonah Hill to play roughly the same character that he did 12 years ago. Clicking through the cast list on IMDb reveals additional noteworthy, if not surprising, connections: Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Molly Gordon, daughter of a screenwriter-producer and a Curb Your Enthusiasm director, and Billie Lourd, daughter of Carrie Fisher, who was of course the daughter of Debbie Reynolds. Being a laissez-faire capitalist, I point these details out not to discredit the casting choices so much as to assert that Booksmart is about as “indie” as Bernie Sanders.

The camerawork, production design, and other elements are serviceable, though not enough to compensate for the blandness of Wilde’s direction. In a moment that’s pretty indicative of the film’s artistic sensibilities, Amy and Molly get into an argument at the party that Wilde captures in one long take, woozily bobbing back and forth between the two girls as their tempers fly out of hand—so impressive, at least until the ambient soundtrack gradually swallows the audio of their quarrel, as if to tell anyone who didn’t get it or wasn’t paying attention that this is a very low point indeed. What’s the purpose of writing, shooting, and performing a friendship fallout scene if you’re going to make half of the scene illegible in post-production? Booksmart has precious few spaces where music isn’t overtly lending the mood of a scene, which may appeal to its target psychographic of young adults prone to saying, “I love music. I listen to a little bit of everything except country.” It also features a stop-motion drug trip in case the rest of the movie didn’t already scream, “Quirky directorial debut.”

Booksmart is hard to hold in contempt for very long if only because it feels emblematic of Hollywood’s new puritanical norm in the Trump era, which in 2018 saw one of the most banal and artistically bankrupt years in film history. Annapurna are pushing the film as a cutting-edge romp, full of risqué humor and political zealotry, but the final product can’t even find amusement in a high-school student seducing and having sex with his teacher in a fictional scenario. “You’re 20, right?” Jessica Williams asks pointedly, half to the student and half to the bloggers or SJWs carefully scrutinizing the movie for clickbait. Wilde forgets the principle Superbad knew so well, that there’s much hilarity to be mined from people taking drastic measures to misbehave. If it’s neither illegal nor, according to the liberal metric of consent, immoral for the student to bed his teacher, then why does Booksmart expect me to cackle at them doing it?

AUTHOR’S CORRECTION/ADDENDUM: The Sandberg audiobook scene takes place not in the car of the principal, who does awkwardly try to strike up a conversation with Amy about feminist music, but in the vehicle of another white male character. I originally conflated the two car ride scenes through an error of memory.

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