Sunday, July 21, 2019

A Wilde Wilde Friday

You're getting sick of me telling you about the coincidences on my viewing schedule. Even I'm getting sick of me telling you about the coincidences on my viewing schedule.

But this one was too good to pass up.

I really like Olivia Wilde, and have since I watched her on a couple seasons of House back in the day. I think she's really talented.

But for some reason, she never became a big star. She's got the looks, she's got the skills, but she hasn't had the results, assuming that becoming a star was actually what she wanted, which it may not have been. She hasn't necessarily made the choices you would expect to earn greater exposure, but when she did make those choices, such as Tron: Legacy and Cowboys & Aliens in back to back years at the start of the decade, they were massive flops. But she's been terrific in more modest fare -- see her hilarious performance as a stripper in Butter -- and every time I see her, I'm saddened that I don't see her more.

Well, on Friday, for one day at least, I couldn't escape her. And, true to the requirements of a viewing coincidence actually being a coincidence, neither of two Wilde viewings might have actually happened that day.

The first was Wilde's acclaimed directorial debut, Booksmart, which only just opened here last week. I only had the chance to see the 3 p.m. screening if my 2 p.m. doctor's appointment proceeded expeditiously, which is no guarantee in a country with socialized medicine. In fact, as a result of checking in early, I finished at about 2:10 and actually had to kill some time before the movie started.

Then that night, when it came to my movie for a Friday night, I had planned to rewatch Under the Skin, which would be my fourth viewing of it overall (I guess I like this movie). However, when my wife heard that was on tap, she asked if we could delay the viewing until Saturday night and she'd watch it with me. So instead I turned to a movie I had downloaded for 99 cents from iTunes: A Vigilante, starring Olivia Wilde and directed by Sarah Daggar-Nickson.

I just wish the double dip of Olivia ended up showcasing her a bit better.

The better of the two is clearly Booksmart, but the margin of its superiority is not what I had hoped. I had hoped to love Booksmart, because it seemed like a good thing for a critic in 2019 to do. You always want to be on the right side of a movie that is earning raves for how it fares in terms of issues of representation, so I had hoped to go four stars or higher on my rating of it. I stalled out at 3.5, but I must say, that was a significant improvement from how I felt about it in the first half.

The other thing I'd heard about Booksmart, other than that people liked it, was that some people didn't see what was so special about it. I didn't want to be one of those people, but for a while I was. This walks and talks like a lot of teen comedies of recent years, with a lot of tropes like the slow-mo strutting of its main characters in scenes where they are either wearing special outfits or owning the moment, scored to hip hop that feels like a slightly self-conscious attempt to compensate for the fact that its main characters are white. There's accidental drug ingestion, there's the characters nobody likes because they try too hard, there's some kind of unclear commentary on social media. It wasn't anything particularly unexpected.

Then at some point in the second half -- at a number of points, actually -- an emotional intelligence that I really associate with Wilde as an actress rose up and asserted itself. In fact, I found myself surprised at how floored I was by certain moments between the two main characters, played by Beanie Feldstein (who I have always liked) and Kaitlyn Dever (who got a rough start with me but who I have started to like more lately). The soundtrack has some perfectly used songs -- I hurried to turn on my phone just so I could Shazam the song playing when Dever is swimming underwater at that party, but was too late -- and a number of other moments that really rise above some of the movie's cliches. These touches brought Booksmart into a territory where I could solidly recommend it, and for that I'm glad. (Oh, and the song was "Slip Away" by Perfume Genius. Check it out.)

Wilde doesn't even cameo in Booksmart, but she's almost never off the screen in A Vigilante, where she plays a woman who's fueling the pain of a trauma she suffered into helping women get out of bad relationships by roughing up their men a bit. It's got its heart in the right place, to be sure, and it's always nice to see some real dickheads get their comeuppance. But in terms of its filmmaking, it was just lacking a bit, and I'm sorry to say that Wilde's performance was one of its weaker aspects. She does subtle moments well in this movie, but she does not come off well in bigger moments, of which there are several, as we see her in full-on post-traumatic breakdown mode on a couple occasions. These always rung false to me, I'm sorry to say.

Which doesn't mean I wouldn't like to get another Wilde double feature on my schedule -- probably intentionally this time -- at my next available opportunity. I'm a big fan, even when she isn't at the top of her game.

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