Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Put This on Your Netflix Queue: Spring Breakdown

Posted By on Tue, Jun 23, 2009 at 8:22 AM

3c2b/1245704077-springbreakdown.jpgWith the flood of next-gen comedy stars to emerge from the Apatow-and-company circle, there remains a sizable blind spot on even the better studio comedies, bigger on some than others but almost always present: women. You know, that other gender that's also capable of delivering jokes. With so many dudes in the kitchen, it may be difficult to avoid some institutional sexism. (Although: I don't particularly want to hear these criticisms from Katherine Heigl, star of 27 Dresses.) Apatow himself has shown the ability to write interesting female roles (Catherine Keener in 40-Year-Old Virgin; Leslie Mann in Knocked Up), but even when they get funny lines, it's all pretty grounded and levelheaded; generally, gals don't get to engage in hijinks unless they're pursued by or in pursuit of a man.

So when I first heard about Spring Breakdown a couple of years ago, my heart sang: a comedy starring Parker Posey, Amy Poehler, and Rachel Dratch, co-written by Dratch, about a trio of nerdy thirtysomethings who get thrust into a wild spring break situation. I eagerly anticipated its release even after it was downgraded into limbo, slightly upgraded into a Sundance attraction this past January, and then re-downgraded directly to DVD a couple of weeks ago: hey, a Netflix rental I'd actually watch right away instead of eying it on my coffee table for weeks while watching DVR'd Sarah Connor Chronicles reruns.

My hopes remained high. Spring Breakdown has a good hook — a senator's daughter goes on spring break to impress a boy, and the senator sends her aide (Posey) to keep tabs with the help of her excitement-starved best friends (Poehler and Dratch) — hearkening back to the fun Dratch, Poehler and their buddy Tina Fey had on Saturday Night Live skewering the new(ish) female self-objectification. Apart from the lead trio, the cast is stacked with funny ladies with no qualms about looking goofy for a laugh: Jane Lynch, Missi Pyle, Arrested Development's Mae Whitman (Anne!) and Sarah Hagan from Freaks and Geeks (Milly!). Even Amber Tamblyn, not particularly known for her comedy chops, gets loose and goofy as the awkward senator's daughter. It's a pleasure to watch a movie so saturated with female comic talent.

It would be an even greater pleasure if the movie weren't so addled and scattered. The three ladies each get a potentially funny spring break adventure: Posey retreats to nerd-dom to act as den mother to Tamblyn and her out-of-place friends; Poehler falls in with the bitchy popular crowd for the first time in her life; and Dratch discovers hard drinking as well as a semi-imaginary one-night stand with a young stud. But the movie doesn't follow through or develop its scenes, even on a superficial level: characters who have supposedly undergone comic changes keep reverting back to their beginnings.

Not to get too presumptuous, but the problem might be another man: the director and co-writer, Ryan Shiraki, smashes everything together with a cranked-up garishness, with too much noise and cutting and weird sped-up transitions for his actresses to find the subtleties in between the big gestures. The technique might work as a jab at the manufactured MTV spring break aesthetic if it didn't extend to the storytelling: Missi Pyle's character, for example, has a brief introductory scene before she's greeting the characters like old friends in every subsequent appearance — this is one of those comedies where the action is moved along primarily by characters bumping into each other. As much as I love the actresses, and despite laughs that certainly outnumber many big studio releases, I can kinda see why the movie went direct to the homevid market: it has a quick, cheapie feel. Some of this may be the result of editing-room futzing, although the deleted scenes on the DVD, while amusing, don't offer much more connective tissue.

Spring Breakdown, isn't a total wash and fans of Dratch and company should probably throw it on their Netflix queue; the actresses are all naturally funny and get off plenty of little, enjoyably off-kilter laughs (possibly because I will never, ever tire of Poehler copping the attitude of an entitled sixteen-year-old). I read a few Sundance reviews that dismissed it for being too silly and broad, which isn't really the problem; Poehler and Dratch are under no obligation to make something more substantial than The Hangover (though I'd love to see them or Diablo Cody or someone smart and funny follow up on Cody's idea to do Superbad for the lady-geek set). But I did find myself thinking of The House Bunny, which pays similar lip service to outcast women struggling with post-Maxim ideas of femininity. That movie had little going for it apart from Anna Faris being brilliant, but it was smart enough to step aside and let her be brilliant, like the comedy version of one of those Best Actress Oscar-showcase movies (except, you know, actually enjoyable to watch). Spring Breakdown, with more talent at its disposal, winds up playing like a spring break mob scene; you want to call out, get out of the damn way.

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