Song of the Day #3,994: ‘Unchained Melody’ – Lykke Li

If Aladdin benefitted from my low expectations, Booksmart suffered because my expectations were too high.

The Olivia Wilde-helmed high school comedy blew through Sundance and left a trail of rapturous reviews and breathless recommendations in its wake. Its Rotten Tomatoes score sat at 100% until The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody spoiled the party. Comparisons were made to Superbad and Lady Bird.

It’s that last bit that really does the film a disservice. While Booksmart is definitely in the Superbad vein, it has none of the depth of emotion or painful realism of Lady Bird. Nor does it try to. Just because an actress-turned-director made a movie set in high school co-starring Beanie Feldstein isn’t a reason for lazy critics to prop it up as something it’s not.

So I went into Booksmart expecting a funny, poignant, authentic portrait of adolescence, one with a great shot of landing near the top of my year-end list. And I got a very funny, moderately raunchy, last-day-of-high-school teen comedy. If I’d gone in expecting the latter, I’m sure my overall reaction would be more positive.

Wilde does an excellent job in her directorial debut, coaxing memorable performances from all of the actors and making innovative use of the camera. An extended sequence late in the film that includes an underwater pool scene and a long tracking shot into a house where an argument takes place is virtuoso work. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Leads Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever are hilarious and magnetic. Their chemistry (forged through living together during the shoot) brings a crackling energy to all of their scenes. I would love to see these two work together again, and I’ll surely seek out whatever they appear in next.

Where Booksmart falters is in its writing. Penned by four different women over multiple years, this script is a hodgepodge of great jokes and ridiculous plotting. It envisions a high school where even the deadbeats get into Ivy League schools but never explores why. It hints at class issues (one student is a millionaire with a rented yacht, while Feldstein lives in a low-rent apartment complex) but doesn’t spend even a minute exploring them.

The arc of a cool teacher (played by Jessica Williams) seems like it was written by a horny frat guy. Two thirds of the film is spent on the main characters trying to find a party they could have easily located if the script didn’t need them elsewhere.

It all just feels so half-baked and sloppy, and a waste of such good talent in front of and behind the camera.

All that said, I’m ultimately a fan of Booksmart. Wilde’s vision and Feldstein and Dever’s screen presence go a long way. And the final scene is a slam dunk.

I just feel like I’m missing out on the movie I wanted to see.

Oh, oh, my love, my darling
I’ve hungered for your touch
A long lonely time
And time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much
Are you still mine?
I need your love, I need your love
Godspeed your love to me

Lonely rivers flow to the sea, to the sea
To the waiting arms of the sea
Lonely rivers cry, wait for me, wait for me
To the open arms, wait for me

My love, my darling
I’ve hungered for your kiss
Are you still mine?
I need your love, I need your love
Godspeed your love to me

Lonely rivers flow
To the sea, to the sea
To the open arms of the sea
Lonely rivers sigh
“Wait for me, wait for me”
I’ll be coming home, wait for me

11 thoughts on “Song of the Day #3,994: ‘Unchained Melody’ – Lykke Li

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    It’s unfortunate that you went in with such high and different expectations. I had not read or heard of the comparison to “Lady Bird” (though I wasn’t as high on that film as your family was anyway). I had heard the comparison to “Super Bad,” and so I knew what I was in for, and felt quite pleased with the movie I was expecting to see.

    I get some of the criticisms you have about the movie, but they were clearly born out of your expectation that you were going to see a Comedy Plus. As a pure comedy, this film delivered. Indeed, the plot explanations you sought are antithetical to a comedy. The success of the deadbeat students, the over the top wealth of a student and the inability to get to the party were the jokes far more than the plot. And, as they say, if a joke needs to be explained it no longer is funny. You want explanations and poignancy? Go watch “Ladybird” again, but if you want lots of laughs, see“Booksmart” again without expecting it to be something it’s not and isn’t trying to be.

    • Clay says:

      You’re right, and I would totally see Booksmart again just to laugh out loud at its many funny parts.

      I disagree, though, that a pure comedy (a great one, anyway) has no need for plot or character consistency. Maybe something like Airplane!, sure, but not a character-driven movie like this one.

      Booksmart is hilarious, no question, but addressing some of those nagging issues would have taken it from good to great (for me).

      • Amy says:

        Me, too. I reached over during that early scene and commented that it was outrageous to imagine that the lot of them got accepted into those schools. Apparently one of Daniel’s just graduating friends had a similar reaction. That pulls the viewer out of the film in a way that hurts the film.

  2. Dana Gallup says:

    Each of the things you cited could have been explored or explained ed, but doing so would have cut against the very absurdity and exaggeration that made these things funny.

    I don’t see this as a character driven movie. I see it as a comedy. You obviously wanted and expected a character driven, poignant movie. Did you have that expectation for Superbad? Was Superbad flawed because of its plot absurdities? Perhaps you (and critics) assume that a female written and featured movie should have a level of plot consistency poignancy, etc, that you don’t expect or require in male movies?

    • Clay says:

      Well, critics gave this film close to a 100% Tomato-meter score, so I think that suggestion is inaccurate. If anything, maybe they gave it better reviews because of the rare and refreshing female presence in front of and behind the camera.

      This is actually a pretty good example in light of your comments yesterday about Aladdin. If Booksmart has been directed by a man, would it have gotten middling reviews the way Aladdin did? Personally, I think Olivia Wilde’s direction and the two lead actresses are the standout elements of Booksmart, so depending on the male director, maybe it would have.

      As for Superbad, I would say Booksmart is exactly as good as that film. I consider them both very funny, occasionally touching, raunchy high school comedies. As I wrote in my review, the big difference is that Booksmart was sold as something other than that, so my initial reaction suffered from my expectations.

    • Clay says:

      One other point… I don’t think the issues I cite are very funny, so explaining or avoiding them wouldn’t make the movie any less funny. How does Feldstein’s character living in a low-rent apartment complex add laughs? It doesn’t… it just adds confusion about the setting (is this a private or public school, for example?).

      The students all getting into Ivy League schools is absurd, but not in a funny way. Sure, it’s a shortcut to the premise that these girls feel like they wasted their high school years on studying, but that could have been handled more subtly without sacrificing a single laugh.

      And the Jessica Williams arc was pure character assassination, and not funny in the least. For such a refreshing and honest (and funny) portrayal to devolve into a horny teacher joke was very disappointing.

      All that to say that a pure comedy can be hilarious and still avoid plot and character potholes. I think ignoring those issues because it’s “just” a comedy is insulting to great comedies.

      • Dana Gallup says:

        I think the reveal about the other girls was funny and would have been less so had the girls gotten into good but not great schools or had their admissions been explained. It was the absurdity and exaggeration that made it funny and, as you said, a shortcut to advance the plot.

        I didn’t give a second thought to the main character’s economic circumstance and assumed the school was public, but in LA where you have that type of socio economic hodgepodge. I don’t see how greater exploration into that would have made this a better movie or funnier.

        I am with you on the Jessica Williams part. I didn’t find it particularly funny or all that interesting.

        Anyway, I think the larger point here is that you probably read too much about movies before seeing them and it does play with expectations. Beyond a general RT score, I try to avoid the hype or the negativity. I suspect had you gone into this movie without having read the hype and comparisons to Lady Bird, you would have had a far better experience and more favorable opinion.

        • Clay says:

          I think you’re right on both counts… I would have had a better overall impression without the heightened (and misleading) expectations. And I would probably benefit from reading too much about most movies before seeing them for that very reason.

          Speaking of the RT score, which you do look at, do you agree that even the 99% or wherever it landed is a bit misleading in this case vs. the overall quality of the film?

          • Dana Gallup says:

            Yeah, that’s high. I think the problem with RT generally is that it doesn’t differentiate between a good vs. great review or a bad vs fair review. So a movie can get a whole bunch of B reviews and still get a high score or get a whole bunch of Cs and get a very low score. I don’t know if that was the case here since it sounds like most of the reviews were glowing. For me personally, I would give the movie a B+ and think a score in the 80s is more in line.

  3. Amy says:

    I completely agree with your assessment, as I experienced the same journey through wildly high expectations, followed by woeful posts about the grim future of the film industry is this gem was underperforming at the box office. By the time I saw it (just two weeks into its run, but I already felt like a traitor to my fellow cinephiles), I found myself enjoying it but wondering what all that fuss was about.

    My favorite scene you didn’t mention was with the pizza delivery guy; that’s the one I imagine I’ll remember years from now. Otherwise, this movie will land in the middle of my year end list, and I, too, will be eager to see what all those involved in its making do next.

    One last note… the poignant moments for me came whenever I saw Carrie Fischer’s expressions on her daughter’s face.

  4. The Cool Guy (Daniel) says:

    I went in expecting exactly what I saw so I was not disappointed at all. I had only seen the trailer and it wasn’t until right around the movie came out that I heard a bit of what critics were saying, describing it like an indie darling. However, I didn’t go down the rabbit hole of those reviews or even know that it had a near perfect tomato score so when I went to the movie I went in expecting a straight up comedy, Superbad esque movie and enjoyed pretty thoroughly.

    I did feel like there were many moments that resonated with me as a teenager. Though I am not a woman, anywhere close to the valedictorian, or frankly a popular kid, I found the insights on the dynamics that exist and the nuances that get lost in perceptions rather profound. I feel that these dynamics have existed for years and although there are many movies like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club that arguably handled and illuminated this commentary better, I thought Booksmart did a valiant effort of bringing a modern perspective.

    The students who got into Ivy League schools inexplicably, is something that I’ve dealt with firsthand and I’ve had many conversations where those involved are in disbelief that someone with seemingly no qualifications got in somewhere particularly prestigious or, worse yet, somewhere one of us in the conversation applied to that we were rejected from. I almost liked that it was left open ended as there was definitely a lack of resolve for us in this situation in real life.

    Yes, the movie had messy moments and I wouldn’t rate it anywhere close to that perfect Rotton Tomatoes score but I did enjoy and felt it was rather apropos that I watch it right around my graduation.

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