2/10 At long last, our suffering is over! There’s finally a Superbad for girls!
Because the first one is such a fucking classic!
In Booksmart, a pompous asshole called Molly (Beanie Feldstein) discovers that, after an entire high school career of working hard and never going out, she’s not the only one in her class getting into Yale, because she attends a rich, white Los Angeles high school and obviously everyone around her is also getting into big-name colleges because that’s how life works. Devastated that she wasted her youth pursuing ambitions that her family could have just bought, she and best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) determine to go out to the last party of the year, which turns into an ordeal because no one will give them the address because they’re stuck-up losers.
Nothing happens in Booksmart.
There are plenty of movies that have outwardly thin plots but still feel like things are happening as you watch them. Superbad is a decent example, but the most famous is Mad Max: Fury Road – a lot of people who weren’t really paying attention dismissed it as “just a big chase scene” and didn’t appreciate the depth of backstory told through vocabulary and art design or the drama laced into the cinematography. Mandy is another recent high-level example of a movie that’s short on plot but still has a lot to offer.
In Booksmart, nothing happens, and you can feel the nothing happening. Essentially every scene is improvised by the actors and cut across three camera setups for what feels like an eternity. Most of these scenes are in a Lyft or at one of the parties or some other passive point in the plot, meaning Dever and Feldstein don’t have so much as a “point A” and “point B” to get the scene to. They get to just say whatever comes to mind. You can feel the lack of energy when these scenes wear on into their fourth and fifth minutes, no progress is made in the plot, and it’s still cutting between those same three shots.
Between the original screenplay’s writing in 2009, re-writing in 2014 and re-re-writing in 2018, Booksmart has no fewer than four credited writers, yet it feels like it doesn’t have a script. Director Olivia Wilde reportedly had her leads move in together for 10 weeks to build chemistry, then told everyone to “rewrite the movie in their own voices,” so that script that had so much work put into it wasn’t really followed anyway.
There’s this idea right now in comedy that women – for some reason it’s usually, or at least most prominently, women – are so funny that you can point a camera at them and their best material will just fall out, and that’s not how comedy works. That’s not how writing works, that’s not how stand-up works, that’s not even how improv works.
The writing process is an intensive marathon of going over the same sentences again and again, and if done properly, the end result will be almost unrecognizable from the first draft. Stand-up comics regularly go through the same process at the performance level, fine-tuning their jokes, noting where the laughs are and playing with their audiences. Despite being synonymous with “made up on the spot,” improv troupes also go through a thorough refinement process before performing.
Booksmart actually shows off a side-by-side of Diana Silvers, playing a supporting role she appears to be completely prepared for, against Dever, who appears to be improvising. Silvers delivers her lines clearly, simply and succinctly, with her face and body incorporated into the performance, every nuance and sub-communication she wants to put into it ready to go. Dever stammers and shakes and tries to come up with something funny to say, with even her frequent successes betraying the overarching lack of effort in this style of movie.
Many of the improvised conversations take the form of “awkward” humor, with one party trying to push the envelope on a taboo or silly topic far enough that the other breaks the tension. In real life, someone usually breaks down after three or four volleys, but in a movie situation where you can edit around the laughter, the conversation keeps going on and on long after it otherwise would. Once a viewer laughs here, if a viewer laughs here, they’ve released their own tension in the scene, and everything else is waste.
When you have this type of conversation that’s only good for one laugh, you need to keep it to one punchline, which means you need to think about what you’re doing in advance and get the joke right the first and only time you tell it, not tell it over and over again for three minutes on end and hope more variations land than don’t – but even if that happens, even if almost every punchline lands, it’s still pretty insulting to me as a viewer. I didn’t pay to see you rehearse. I’m here to hear your best, most refined material. The refinement process seems to have never taken place for Booksmart.
My primary interest in Booksmart was assessing Wilde’s freshman directing effort, and having watched it, I don’t know what the hell she was thinking. Why did she sign onto this? The story is she was initially impressed with the script, but that was a full rewrite ago, and she didn’t even follow it. Most of the time when you see actors make the leap to directing, it’s for something they’re really passionate about, especially if they don’t also act in it, but from the absentee script to the acting to the cinematography to the editing, I can’t find even trace amounts of inspiration in this project. There are a couple of cool shots – literally one or two, certainly nothing that hasn’t been done before and certainly nothing worth the price of admission.
This movie’s characters reek of a nauseating Los Angeles entitlement, and the movie as a cultural item is beginning to take on that same stench. Booksmart is sitting at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, a spectacular number for any title, and Twitter is alight with personal entreaties from critics and celebrities to see it. Just as the undercurrent of wealth-driven apathy is so strong it becomes an unintentional theme of the film, the undercurrent of a Hollywood in-group propping up this vapid non-movie feels like a bizarro parallel, like Booksmart is a filmic manifestation of its own awful main character. Molly complains about other students who she thinks didn’t make an effort getting into name schools like her, and now this group is complaining about a movie that definitely doesn’t make an effort not making enough money.
The weird thing is it’s not doing badly at all – it opened at $8.7 million over the long weekend in 2,505 theaters. For an R-rated movie about high schoolers with no star set against an already full summer slate of blockbusters, one with fantastic word of mouth and little direct competition that’s sure to hold strongly, that’s nothing to complain about.
Meanwhile I am complaining about having sat through this movie.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.