Every once in a while, some thumb-twiddling twit (or former co-star of Parks and Recreation) will step up on the soapbox of social media and lecture us about how some classic movie comedy that we all adore – the examples vary, but Blazing Saddles is the most frequently cited – simply could not get made today, on account of the P.C. brigade or Twitter mobs or fraudulent wokesters or whatever scary nickname their generation has chosen to appropriate for underrepresented groups who are tired of being underrepresented in mass media.
The thesis, to be clear, is faulty to start with; comedy is a reactive art form, designed (much of the best of it, anyway) to push buttons and test boundaries, which change over time. And the form itself is a work in progress as well, shifting in just the past century from knockabout slapstick to witty wordplay to Borscht Belt mother-in-law jokes to personal, confessional humor (though most have, and will continue to, go in and out of vogue). And those cycles carry over from the style of comedy into its attitude: while nose-thumbing and antiauthoritarianism date back to even earlier that the Marx Brothers, the conundrum of “punching down” has unexpectedly taken up the center of how we think about, and consume, funny work.
The question then becomes, simply: can a movie comedy be “woke,” and still be funny? Or are the mere ideas of kindness, visibility, and sensitivity antithetical to onscreen laughter? Last year, Kay Cannon’s Blockers answered the question with a firm “Eh, probably,” in a film that confronted the most tired tropes and outdated gender roles of the high-school sex comedy, and came up with a product that was sporadically funny, occasionally clumsy, and undeniably well-intentioned.
That film now feels like a step we had to take to get to Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s explosively funny story of Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) two straight-A students who have accomplished all of their goals and been accepted to the schools of their dreams. They’re likable, funny young women who also feel a not inconsiderable sense of superiority to their party animal classmates.
And then, on the last day of school, Molly gets a wake-up call, when her snide aside to a party girl about screwing around instead of studying prompts the worrisome news that her object of ridicule, like Molly, is going to Yale (“I’m incredible at handjobs but I also got a 1560 on the SATs”). All of the party animals are going to good schools – except the ones who’ve already been recruited by Google. In one fell swoop, her assumptions are punctured; it turns her whole world upside down. And thus, on the eve of graduation, Molly tells her friend that they have a new, must-do assignment: “We only have one night left to have partied in high school!”
Thus, they find themselves trying to make their way to a party — just one party — the big blow-out party where their possible paramours await. There are complications along the way, of course, and witty dialogue, and the inevitable disappointments, which occur here in a fashion that is both unfortunate and rather narratively convenient. But even then, at the story’s most predictable, Wilde and her cast are aptly capturing the way your life can go from exhilaration to heartbreak in a snap at that age, how these things never quite work out the way you’ve envisioned them in your head, over and over and over again.
Feldstein (sister of Jonah Hill, whose own breakthrough comedy Superbad was rooted in a premise not unlike this one) was the acknowledged scene thief of Lady Bird, and here, she’s a comic dynamo – untouchable timing, masterful physicality, and an ability to let down her guard and allow the vulnerability to seep out of her big eyes, if only for a moment. Dever makes a first-rate scene partner, and while her role has fewer big bits and obvious punchlines (she’s mostly the straight half, so to speak, of this comedy team), she’s reactively funny, always finding an appropriately horrified expression or nervous tic to convey her discomfort.
The picture dies without their chemistry, and Wilde – an actor first – knows this. She doesn’t overcrowd the frame with too much visual pizazz (though she finds moments to let some flair shine through). Her focus is on showcasing the performers, and perhaps only an actor would’ve chosen to shoot their long-bubbling blow up scene in a long, loose, roving medium shot, during which we see both actors most of the time, because she knows the reactions are as vital as the words. Booksmart includes drinking and drugs and sex, but the movie works because of the gravity of the relationship at its center – it’s a film well acquainted with the specific, do-or-die intensity of adolescent friendships, which, let’s face it, we never quite replicate as adults.
The Booksmart screenplay is credited to four writers (Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman — all women), but it doesn’t have the cut-and-paste-and-rewrite feel all too common to such group-credit endeavors; there’s a consistency here, of tone and style. It is, above all else, a high school comedy, and the various drama kids, one-percenters, and dirtbags don’t exactly break the mold. But they’re colorful and funny, and believably written and played (these characters are types for a reason). Most importantly, the writers complicate the types, giving them unexpected complexities and sympathetic elements, and by the halfway mark, I found myself scrawling in my notes, “I LIKE ALL OF THEM SO MUCH.” It’s striking, how little use this movie has for conventional villains; the closest it comes doesn’t seem to have been even trying to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Is the film’s portraiture of progressive attitudes among this generation too idealistic? Maybe. (There are, lest we forget, plenty of Trump teens out there.) But what Blockers suggested and Booksmart confirms is you can make a funny movie about people like this; if you set up the right situation, and have Beanie Feldstein delivering it, then “Are you judging me for dabbling in pornography? I thought you were a sex-positive feminist!” can be a huge laugh line. And even better, it might still be funny – and not embarrassing – a few years from now.
“Booksmart” opens tonight, May 23, in wide release.