Sunday, February 25, 2024

Live girls are easy


Directed by Zelda Williams
Written by Diablo Cody

Spoilers: moderate

If I were going to choose what cinematic year I'd be doomed to repeat, it sure wouldn't be 2023.  But here comes 2024 anyway, where the very first movie I watched in theatersin late February, evenis once again a movie that happens to star Kathryn Newton and that I can't say I really outright dislike, but suffers under a thinly-conceived mess of a screenplay and some questionable direction that leaves the film operating well under its potential.  The good news is that it is a much better Kathryn Newton performance, and a somewhat better movie, than Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.  I almost said, "a more original movie," too, but I think we can agree that's only true in a legal, intellectual property sense.  The more important part, anyway, is the bad news, and to deal with Lisa Frankenstein is to deal with that dubious screenplay, courtesy of its outsizedly-famous screenwriter, Diablo Cody, which is dubious in ways that go well beyond the Codyisms you would not only expect but presumably desire if you willingly bought a ticket to a Diablo Cody movie.  It is, thenand fairly openlya companion to what is, in 2024, probably Cody's signature work, the now-fifteen-year-old Jennifer's Body, which was also a high school comedy thrust into a gnarly horror movie about coming back from the dead, specifically as a vampire in the earlier film, even if the word "vampire" was conspicuously never mentioned and its mythology tip-toed away from it.

Lisa Frankenstein is (perhaps needless to say) more explicit about its touchstone, and that brings us to the most perplexingly clumsy misstep of that screenplay immediately: this is not Frankenstein, nor is it even a subversion of Frankenstein, and Lisa Frankenstein is therefore one really terrible name for the movie it actually is, setting up some very particular generic expectations that no one is even attempting to meet for almost half of its runtime (and not all that often thereafter), with a protagonist who is in no way, shape, or form a scientist, let alone a modern prometheus, or even a graverobber; and while she effects a resurrection, she does so, essentially, by means of wishing upon a star.  It's not at all a good thing that Jenny Dracula would have been a far more reasonable title for Jennifer's Body than Lisa Frakenstein is for this; it's only too bad that Lisa Scissorhands would've made even less sense.  Now, yes, the movie is set in 1989 (raising the curious expectation that, fifteen years from now, Cody will finally deliver a distaff mummy movie, set in 1969; I don't know about you, but I'll be there), and so of course I realize that the whole point of it is to make a cute little joke.  But I don't think it's wise to try carry an entire first act on a fucking pun.

So, that's kind of our plot already summarized, but we can be less opaque about it.  In 1989 there is a semi-goth high school senior, Lisa Swallows (Newton)"Swallows" is almost as annoying, because the title has already gone for it and you can't back out nowwhose life has recently been upended by dual tragedy, first the murder of her mother by an axe murderer who almost killed her too (which feels, I'm afraid, like way too aggressive a backstory for it to matter so little); and second, and perhaps worse, by her father's (Joe Chrest's) recent remarriage to Janet (Carla Gugino), a narcissistic hyper-bitch late-80s stereotype, which has also required Lisa to move and switch schools.  Lisa sort of gets along with her more popular stepsister, Taffy (Liza Soberano), though she perceives an unpleasant cajoling tone to most of her interactions with her, even when she is genuinely being nice.  At a party she's been dragged along to, instead of flirting with her crush Michael (Henry Eikenberry) like she'd planned, she accidentally imbibes a drink spiked with some hallucinogenic agent, and suffering through the gross impertinence of another boy who'd offered her "assistance," wanders off into the woods, taking a shortcut she's long since known about through the Bachelor's Cemetary she's spent a lot of time hanging out in.  We maybe know a little more than her thanks to an animated prologue that established the grave she stops at now as the final resting place of a musician who essentially died of heartbreak (though more proximately a lightning strike) about a century ago (this will soon be Cole Sprouse, credited as "the Creature," which we will see forthwith is exceedingly inaccurate).  Having invested much romance in the dead artist, she wishes she could be with him instead.

What Lisa meant, she'll explain, is that she wished she were dead; but whatever power she invoked misunderstood, because it resurrects the musician with another bolt of lightning, and he comes lumbering to/through Lisa's door.  Initially terrified but soon calmed by his pantomime pitifulness, Lisa realizes she has to keep her new revenant friend a secret, though this will become difficult once he starts killing peoplenot entirely unjustifiably, but certainly inconvenientlyand Lisa, about halfway through the movie, finally utilizes some measure of parodic mad science (a malfunctioning tanning bed) to start giving him zaps of life and integrate the new parts into his rotting body.  He is, at the least, going to be a real distraction from her attempts at being cool at school and getting the boy of her dreams.  But has the grave not already coughed one up for her?

I mean, yes, it has; it would only be a spoiler if, somehow, it hadn't, though after having pondered this screenplay for a few days, I can only assume that Cody did not do the obvious thing (Frankenstein Created Man, I suppose) in order to keep the underfed love triangle in the picture, insofar as the plot of Lisa Frankenstein, for a surprisingly long time, is her revenant serving as her mute wingman in her schemes to impress the vaguely-goth, vaguely-alternative Michael.  (Eikenberry and his presentation here militate incredibly strongly against "uncool outsider," by the way, though I guess I am almost offering a spoiler on that count.)  And this is mostly forgivable, ultimately, even if it takes an inordinate amount of suspension of disbelief far beyond a "high school girl builds her own boyfriend" lark; I mean, it feels outright lazy on top of being very aggravatingly un-Frankensteinian, especially when it does in fact veer back towards a joke Frankenstein conceit later, meaning that it had access to that mode all along but spent nearly half the movie on what amounts to a null concept.  But at least once you're over the hump, it's mostly functional as a formulaic Cyrano-inflected zom-rom-com, albeit an especially shamblingly-structured one.

And as I've certainly given "mostly functional" movies higher marks than I'll wind up giving this one, none of that is the most serious defect here.  (Though I think I'm being extremely well-behaved in not being a literalist shithead about any of this, like decomposition rates or the confrontational clarity with which some of the body parts Lisa uses to rebuild our "creature" are presented and how they would obviously not fit his frame; I will complain, only, that one of those missing body parts could have justified the slow-walk on the romance while still allowing a proper "Lisa Frankenstein" from the outset.)  But, yes, it's possible that the most serious defect is that Lisa and her zombie require a screenplay dead-set on pushing them together in order to seem like their romance is written in the stars, and it takes a weird path to get there even then, finding an unusual medium between "the corpse in my closest who eventually gets his glow-up" and "I dug the perfect man out of the ground ready to go," by way of this particular "creature," a compulsory good listener who can also serve as an extra set of hands to hold a vibrator while Lisa, presumably, thinks about her living crush.  This all gets us into an entire area of the difference between men's fantasies and women's fantasies that I'd just as soon avoidthough "aren't sexy Frankenstein stories supposed to at least contemplate the objectification of a romantic partner?" is another good reason this isn't very Frankensteinian in moodso I'm just going to fall back on simply calling the romantic arc of it awkward again.

The defect, anyway, is that this screenplay is translated into actual action on the screen in a way I'm not even sure that screenplay fully intended, with first-time feature director Zelda Williams evidently taking as her starting point "this sure is like a Tim Burton movie" and running with that so far afield she accidentally wound up in "Wes Anderson movie but not as good," and as Cody writes Kevin Smith movies you can see how this could become a problem, with the vast majority of the performances channeled into stiff animatronic-like recitations of floridly-stylized Cody dialogue done in each character's single-note register.  It's for this reason, along with the plot, that it feels like Lisa Frankenstein doesn't even really have a supporting cast and that it's placing a downright unfair amount of the film's chances of success solely upon Newton and Sprouse (who essentially doesn't even speak, but by virtue of not having lines, only gurgles and reaction shots, is in fact arguably managing the best performance); more damagingly, it often prevents it from being anything like an effective comedy, with a swathe of material that might've been funny under a different treatment (for example, Karyn Kusama's, who understood "Diablo Cody writes Kevin Smith movies" and built Jennifer's Body accordingly) winding up laughless here, while the lines that do punch through and manage to be funny anyway, and they must be hilarious to do so, often don't get to build up to, or upon, anything else.  (It's a little remarkable to find out who Williams's dad isthat is, the famously high-tempo Robin Williamsenough so that, while making a comedy and doing comedy are obviously very distinct skillsets, you could still be forgiven for wondering if this kind of icy, affectless, not-at-all-1980s-style un-comedy even comes naturally to her in the first place, or if she's forcing it.)

Gugino suffers the most from it, in her wicked stepmother capacity, so austerely-defined in her astringent inhumanity that you can't even quite call her "cartoonish," and it's nothing short of painful to watch her (and that's a pity, because of the three people involved in this movie whose names I actually knew beforehand, Gugino was the biggest selling point).  Soberano's stepsister is better in that her single register is simply less agonizing, though in some ways she gets the worst of it of anyone, with a character conceived to serve so many different inconsistent masterssimultaneously the wicked Cinderella stepsister who eats up all the validation at home, the Jennifer figure from Jennifer's Body at school, the airheaded Quinn Morgendorffer to Newton's dark pseudo-intellectual Daria, and, especially, a humanized subversion of each of these things in turnthat she has to spend much of the movie backgrounded or else her contradictions would resolve too quickly for the movie to do what it wants to with her.

The bright spot, however, is that Newton is exempt from much of this (and there's probably some strategy here, to either place her as the center of a satire ofthe late 80s, I guess? topicalor, more likely, to show that this is how she perceives and relates to other people; it's just not a very successful strategy), and she gets a lively, mean, vibrantly-nasty antihero to play.  (Likewise, the film picks up a lot just once Gugino's enforced hyper-bitchery can no longer be a going concern.)  And I realize I've been very down on a movie I don't really have profoundly negative feelings about, so it's worth turning around and admitting that when it's working, it really, really works, with most of its physical horror-comic setpieces managing to be either amusing or gross or both.  (Though just one more negative, I'm afraid: this otherwise-provocative horror-romance is strikingly demure about both gore and sex.  On the other hand, it's nicely icky: myriapods falling out of the "creature's" body onto Lisa during a romantic encounter is some enjoyably skin-crawling stuff; the running gag about his tears smelling like [insert colorfully-complex simile] is pretty great, too, albeit perilously close to a metaphor about masculine emotional vulnerability that otherwise got lost in the shuffle.)  Anyhow, at its best, Lisa Frankenstein can singnot literally, and nevertheless the best scene in the movie, buttoned by its absolute best line of High Cody dialogue, arrives with Newton singing an REO Speedwagon song like a person who has, fittingly enough, never sung a single song in her life.  Accordingly, that dark, murderous romance works, tooeven in spite of itselfWilliams having good instincts for some things, like the lingering closeup on Sprouse in a (somewhat) more robust state of health, to underline how much of a still-slightly-corpsey, floppy-haired, sultry Byronic dreamboat he is.  Or just the occasional full-on directorial flourish, that frankly I'd have loved to have seen more of, like the drug-addled one-take transition between the house party and the cemetery.  (We at least get one more full-tilt indulgence later, in an homage to Earth Girls Are Easy's own black-and-white dream, though a serious comparison to Earth Girls Are Easy is a thing this movie can afford even less than a comparison to Edward Scissorhands.)

And it gets to play out in a preposterously well-crafted idea of 1989, so that the truest stars of Lisa Frankenstein are all the below-the-marquee craftspeople who brought it into existence.  This movie looks, at turns, just fabulous, thanks to DP Laura Huidobro, production designer Mark Worthington, art director Michelle C. Harmon, and set decorator Andew W. Bofinger, who honestly do make the exertion of listing out more of the art department than I usually would worthwhile in their creation of this eyeball-searingly pink-and-teal universe supplemented by heaps of sometimes-motivated and sometimes-entirely-unmotivated gaudy lighting, in a manner that is somehow not oppressively over-the-top despite it being, by any metric, so far over the top it's on the other side.  (Meanwhile, not counting some harsh-looking daylight nature exteriors, it's a fairly strong replication of how those colors would've reproduced on late 80s filmstock, to boot, which is arguably even more important.)  But they might not even be the chief craft contribution, as that might fall to Meaghan McLaughlin's costume design, which tells the story of Lisa Swallows better than anyone including the person she's dressingeventually winding up turning her into a straight-up facsimile of Helena Bonham Carterand to the film's hairstylists, whose work is fun enough that I'm happy to credit both stylist Cammy Crochet and key stylist Natalia Shea Rose (not least because I don't know what the difference there is*), because this is to a shocking degree a movie about crimped hair.  And I do not mean that in any kind of bad way, nor even as a backhanded compliment.

Score: 6/10

*But I do know the difference between makeup and special effects makeup, so in that case I would single out the regular makeup artist, Bryan Waltzak.

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