Review: ‘Friendsgiving,’ starring Malin Akerman, Kat Dennings, Aisha Tyler, Jack Donnelly, Jane Seymour, Chelsea Peretti and Ryan Hansen

October 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left: Deon Cole, Aisha Tyler, Andrew Santino, Christine Taylor, Kat Dennings, Jack Donnelly, Malin Akerman, Jane Seymour, Ryan Hansen, Mike Rose, Scout Durwood and Rhea Butcher in “Friendsgiving” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Friendsgiving”

Directed by Nicol Paone

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy film “Friendsgiving” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, one Latino and one Asian) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Hollywood actress and her best friend, who are trying to get over big breakups in their respective love lives, plan to spend a quiet Thanksgiving together, but those plans are disrupted by several unexpected guests.  

Culture Audience: “Friendsgiving” will appeal primarily to people who like lowbrow comedies that think any jokes about sex, drugs and selfish antics are automatically supposed to be funny.

Pictured clockwise from bottom left: Serenity Reign Brown, Kat Dennings, Christine Taylor, Aisha Tyler, Deon Cole, Everly or Savannah Sucher, Malin Akerman and Jack Donnelly in “Friendsgiving” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

When there’s a comedy film about a large, chaotic holiday gathering, how much you might enjoy the film really comes down to one thing: Would you want to spend time with any of these people in real life? “Friendsgiving” swings hard and aims low in this vulgar comedy about mostly self-absorbed people at a Thanksgiving dinner, where the majority of the people weren’t even invited by the host. There are some mildly amusing moments, but “Friendsgiving” is really just a series of crude jokes, as the movie’s characters preen, make mischief, and whine about something that eludes almost everyone in this movie: a happy, long-term, monogamous relationship.

“Friendsgiving” is the first feature film directed by Nicol Paone, who wrote the movie’s vapid screenplay. Paone has a background in stand-up comedy, as an actress and as a writer for Funny or Die. Unfortunately, this movie is written as if everyone is a caricature waiting to spout some foul-mouthed lines that someone would write for a mediocre stand-up comedy act. The good news is that the characters’ personalities are distinctive and you can tell them apart from each other. The bad news is that their personalities are also very shallow.

Set in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day, the two central characters of “Friendsgiving” are longtime best friends Abby Barrone (played by Kat Dennings) and Molly (played by Malin Akerman), who have had very different reactions to painful breakups in their love lives. Abby is still recovering from being dumped in January by her ex-girlfriend Maeve, who is a single mother. Molly is a semi-famous Hollywood actress who’s raising a baby son named Eden (played by twins Everly and Savannah Sucher) on her own. Molly’s businessman husband Michael left her because he said he didn’t want to be married to her anymore.

Molly’s impending divorce hasn’t reached the stage of signing divorce papers yet, but she considers herself to be single and available. And she’s already found a new lover: a Brit who’s a cheerful, New Age type of philanthropist named Jeff (played by Jack Donnelly, who’s married to Akerman in real life), whom she’s been dating for only about two weeks. They met when Molly was in London for a press tour for a movie called “Pluto Raiders,” which is described as a basic sci-fi action flick.

Meanwhile, Abby is still wallowing in her breakup misery and has a hard time getting back into the dating pool. Abby doesn’t label her sexuality in the movie, but she mentions that Maeve was the first woman she ever dated, after Abby previously dated only men. In one of several video chats that Abby has with her nosy and opinionated family members—including Abby’s mother (Rose Abdoo) and Abby’s younger sister Barbara (played by Dana DeLorenzo)—Abby is given unsolicited advice on her love life. She is “out of the closet” with her family members, who are a traditional Italian clan on the East Coast, and they seem to think it’s best if Abby settles down and marries a man.

According to the production notes for “Friendsgiving,” the movie is loosely based on Paone’s real-life experiences during one Thanksgiving, when she was mourning a breakup from an ex-girlfriend, while Paone’s best friend was raising a baby after her husband had left her. This shared loneliness and breakup blues sparked the idea for the movie. Paone is openly gay, and she describes Abby as a “gay lady” in the movie.

Although the heart of the movie is about the friendship between Molly and Abby, the story is more focused on Molly. It’s at Molly’s home where the Thanksgiving dinner is held, and Molly is the one whom people seem to want to be around, probably because she’s a fairly successful actress. She lives in a spacious house, but it’s clear that she’s not an A-list actress who can afford any live-in staff.  (There’s no nanny in sight.)

The opening scene of “Friendsgiving” gets right to the raunchiness, as Molly is dressed as a dominatrix while she and Jeff are engaged in some light BDSM play. Their sex session is interrupted by a phone call from Molly’s friend Lauren (played by Aisha Tyler), who asks Molly if she, her husband and two kids can come over to Molly’s place for Thanksgiving. Lauren gives a vague explanation that she’s going a little stir-crazy in the home and wants to spend Thanksgiving at Molly’s place, and she offers to bring some food. Molly is too polite to say no.

Meanwhile, Abby is chatting by phone with her mother and sister while doing some last-minute Thanksgiving shopping in a grocery store. There are clues to how obnoxious Abby can be, such as when she guzzles a bottle of wine while shopping. When a store manager tells her that drinking alcohol in an open container is not allowed in the store, Abby refuses his request to stop, and she gets thrown out by security. Before Abby leaves the store, she makes sure to do some damage to the Christmas tree on display.

Abby plans to spend a quiet Thanksgiving with just Molly and Eden. But there would be no “Friendsgiving” movie if that happened. Needless to say, Abby isn’t too pleased when she hears that there will be more people at the Thanksgiving dinner than originally planned. In fact, Abby is furious, and she starts whining about it like a bratty teenager.

Jeff is invited to stay for Thanksgiving dinner too, since Molly figures out that he’s lonely and has nowhere else to go. And of course, since this is a movie that wants to cram in as many jokes as possible about sex and penis sizes, the first time that Jeff and Abby meet, he accidentally walks into the room completely naked. As an embarrassed Jeff covers his genital area, Abby quips, “It’s no big deal. I have one just like it in my top drawer, except mine is bigger.”

It turns out that Lauren invited several people over to Molly’s place for Thanksgiving without checking with Molly first. And then, Molly’s sex-crazed Swedish mother Helen (played by Jane Seymour), who’s on her fifth marriage, shows up unannounced without her current husband. And, much to Molly’s embarrassment, Helen acts exactly how you would think a no-filter “cougar” would act.

In addition to Molly, Abby and Helen, the people who are at this larger-than-expected Thanksgiving dinner include:

  • Jeff, Molly’s new lover whom Abby begins to compete with in the kitchen and for Molly’s attention.
  • Lauren, who brings some low-dosage psychedelic mushrooms to share with Abby and Molly. (Molly declines to take any mushrooms, but Lauren and Abby do.)
  • Dan (played by Deon Cole), Lauren’s husband who is loving and attentive, but Lauren seems bored and restless in their marriage.
  • Lauren and Dan’s children Lily (played by Serenity Reign Brown), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, and Jack (played by Kenneth Sims), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. The children have no purpose in the movie but to look cute, sit at the kiddie table, and possibly walk in on something “adult” happening.
  • Gunnar (played by Ryan Hansen), a vain actor who is an ex-boyfriend of Molly’s and whom she broke up with years ago because he cheated on her. Gunnar was invited to the Thanksgiving dinner by Molly’s mother Helen, who thinks Molly and Gunnar should get back together, but Helen didn’t know about Jeff when she invited Gunnar.
  • Gus (played by Mike Rose), who’s openly gay, single, and lets it be known that he has a brother who’s been missing for years, which has no bearing on this movie at all, but it’s an attempt to give Gus some kind of backstory.
  • Rick (played by Andrew Santino) and Brianne (played by Christine Taylor), an image-obsessed, materialistic newlywed couple from Orange County who met each other four months ago and have been married for one month. A running gag in the movie is Brianne has recently had some kind of plastic surgery on her mouth, which she can’t move properly.
  • Claire (played by Chelsea Peretti), a New Age hipster who’s recently become a shaman (or a “shawoman,” as she would prefer to be called) and who can’t stop spouting platitudes about people being in touch with their feelings. And maybe she’s a part-time drug dealer too, because Claire sold the mushrooms that Lauren brought to the party.

There are also three lesbians whom Lauren invited to the party in an attempt to match any of them up with Abby. The lesbians don’t have names in the movie, but they have nicknames in the end credits. The lesbians each give brief monologues to the camera explaining their likes and fetishes when it comes to dating.

The first lesbian to arrive at the dinner is nicknamed Denim (played by Rhea Butcher), and she likes to wear denim and gives off a Tig Notaro vibe. The second lesbian to arrive at the dinner is nicknamed named Palo (played by Scout Durwood), and she’s a neo-hippie who seem likes the type to go to the Burning Man Festival. The third lesbian is nicknamed Civil (played by Brianna Baker), and she’s a left-wing militant feminist.

In addition, comedians Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho and Fortune Feimster make cameo appearances as Fairy Gay Mothers, in a scene where Abby is having a psychedelic hallucination. The Fairy Gay Mothers give Abby some “Wizard of Oz”-inspired advice, since she is recently out of the closet as a queer woman: “All you have to do is tap your wing-tipped Oxfords three times and say, ‘There’s no place like Home Depot.'”

It’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie, which doesn’t have a lot of very funny scenes. By the way, Sykes is shown on the movie poster for “Friendsgiving.” But it’s misleading to think that she’s in the movie as one of the main stars. She’s barely in the film. Sykes, Cho, and Feimster are only in the Fairy Gay Mother scene, which lasts for only about five minutes. Unfortunately, the characters that are annoying in “Friendsgiving” get much more screen time than this hilarious trio.

Seymour, who’s British in real life, has a questionable Swedish accent for her character of Helen, who is one of the worst people in this group of mostly spoiled and obnoxious egomaniacs. When Molly makes it clear to Helen that she’s not interested in getting back together with Gunnar, Helen declares, “If you won’t have him, I will.” And then Helen proceeds to make a fool out of herself in trying to seduce Gunnar.

Molly is actually one of the more tolerable people in this group, but she shows a lot of bad judgment in quickly letting this group take over her household. Some of these guests thoughtfully brought potluck dishes, but others didn’t. And there’s a scene later in the movie that involves the baby and some irresponsible actions that send Molly and some other people into panic mode. It’s one thing for the adults in this story to act dumb, but it’s not that funny to make it a joke that an innocent child’s safety is put at risk because of some the shenanigans at this party.

Because there are so many guests at this dinner, “Friendsgiving” doesn’t spend a lot of time on character development. Therefore, everything in the movie is as superficial as the characters, which is why the movie has nothing to fall back on except more crude jokes and predictable gags. The overwhelming attitude that all the adults have at this Thanksgiving dinner is: “I’m going to do whatever makes me feel good, even if it hurts other people.”

And it’s why there’s an ill-conceived scene in the movie where Lauren and Abby make out with each other (this isn’t spoiler information, since it’s in the movie’s trailer), and Lauren’s husband Dan finds out and naturally feels hurt by this infidelity. And it’s just so cringeworthy to see Helen try to be sexy with the ex-boyfriend of her daughter. It should come as no surprise later when Helen admits to Molly that her latest marriage is on the rocks, but it’s still no excuse for Helen’s selfish and predatory actions. Someone of Seymour’s talent deserves better than this tacky role, even if she doesn’t exactly master the Swedish accent that she’s supposed to have in the movie.

Dennings has a lot of very good comedic timing, but it’s too bad that a lot of lines she has to deliver make Abby insufferable. Akerman (who is one of the producers of “Friendsgiving”) is solid in her role as Molly, while the supporting actors do an adequate job with their very limited characters. Peretti can bring some chuckles as the spacey-yet-pretentious Claire, but those laughs are few and far in between, since Claire is a one-note character.

A better movie would’ve had less people at this Thanksgiving dinner. For example, the characters of Gus, Rick and Brianne don’t really add anything to the story except stereotypes that aren’t very funny. And speaking of stereotypes that aren’t very funny, here’s an example of some dialogue between the lesbian nicknamed Denim and the lesbian nicknamed Palo. Demin asks Palo, “Do you like basketball?” Palo replies, “I don’t like balls of any kind.” 

You get the idea. If “Friendsgiving” were a meal, then it would be a meal that should be skipped because of all the stale cheese that’s being offered.

Saban Films released “Friendsgiving” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 23, 2020. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is October 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Bad Therapy,’ starring Alicia Silverstone, Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins

April 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Anna Pniowsky, Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry in “Bad Therapy” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Bad Therapy”

Directed by William Teitler

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the dark comedy “Bad Therapy” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asian Americans) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged married couple go to a relationship therapist, who’s actually a manipulative, toxic person who tries to break up the couple.

Culture Audience: “Bad Therapy” will appeal mostly to people who like to see movies about troubled marriages or unhinged characters, but the film’s uneven tone and sloppy, predictable screenplay make this movie a disappointing waste of time.

Michaela Watkins in “Bad Therapy” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Bad Therapy” (directed by William Teitler) is supposed to be a dark comedy or a comedy/drama or a dramedy, but the movie’s three lead actors have such contradictory styles in their performances that it makes the entire tone of this poorly written film look completely out of whack. Nancy Doyne adapted the “Bad Therapy” screenplay from her novel “Judy Small,” which was the original title of the movie. However, the “Judy Small” book isn’t even listed on Amazon, so it might be difficult for viewers to find out how the movie differs from the book.

Judy Small is the name of the family/relationship therapist who wreaks havoc on the lives of a Los Angeles married couple—real-estate agent Susan Howard (played by Alicia Silverstone) and TV executive Bob Howard (played by Rob Corddry)—who are both in their early 40s and have been married for three years. Living with the couple is Susan’s rebellious 13-year-old daughter Louise (played Anna Pniowsky), who does things like smoke marijuana and defy her school’s dress code. Louise is Susan’s daughter from Susan’s first marriage, which tragically ended when her first husband (who was her college sweetheart) died in a fishing accident. Bob has apparently adopted Louise, since her last name is also Howard.

At the beginning of the story, Susan is feeling restless and discontented in her career and in her marriage. Being a single mother for five years has left her constantly worried about financial security, while Bob is the exact opposite and doesn’t think they need to worry about money. (It’s revealed later in the film that Bob is head of programming at a network called the Nature Channel, where he makes $125,000 a year.)

Bob suggests that they have a biological child together, but Susan doesn’t really like the idea because it would be difficult for her to conceive a child at her age, and she’s feeling uncertain about where the marriage is going. “I want a break from all the drudgery!” she wails at one point in the movie.

There are also indications that Susan is a worrisome control freak. She nags at Bob (who’s not overweight) about what he eats, by warning him that he could have a heart attack. During breakfast, after Susan leaves for work, he throws his bran oatmeal in the garbage disposal and orders a cholesterol-heavy meal over the phone from a local restaurant. Later in the story, it’s revealed that Susan has forbidden Louise from taking public transportation, presumably because she doesn’t think public transportation is safe enough for her 13-year-old daughter.

It’s clear that one of the reasons why their marriage has hit a rough patch is precisely because Bob and Susan are total opposites in their outlooks on life. Susan is someone who’s the type of person who’s very judgmental and likes to have specific goals and plans (and she tends to get anxious if things don’t go her way), while Bob is more of a “go with the flow” easygoing type of person. In the beginning of the movie, before they begin therapy, Susan also expresses regret that she and Bob didn’t properly discuss the issue of them having a child together. And now, Bob wants Susan to have a child with him, but she doesn’t share that same wish.

One day, Susan has lunch with her close friend Roxy (played by Aisha Tyler), who’s a materialistic and shallow trophy wife to a wealthy business mogul. Roxy tells Susan the happy news that she’s pregnant with triplets after going through fertility treatments. Roxy also mentions that she and her husband have been seeing a relationship therapist. Susan asks Roxy for the name of the therapist, because Susan says that she and Bob might need marriage counseling.

When Susan brings up the idea of marriage counseling to Bob, he is extremely reluctant, but Susan eventually persuades him. “If it will make you happy, we’ll try it,” says Bob. It won’t be long before Susan and Bob regret that decision.

Judy Small works in a small office in a strip mall—the first indication that her practice is not very successful. She starts off the couple’s first session by getting Susan and Bob to talk about themselves and why they think they need counseling. Susan does most of the talking during this first session, while Bob admits to Judy that he really doesn’t want to be there.

Susan tells Judy what her first marriage was like (it was very happy, she says), but her marriage to Bob is on shaky ground: “I want our marriage to be the real thing,” Susan says of her relationship with Bob. “For some reason, I don’t feel satisfied.” On the other hand, Bob doesn’t think their marriage is in trouble.

Susan actually does too much talking during that first session, because she reveals something that is news to Bob: She’s worried that Bob might start having inappropriate thoughts about Louise, now that Louise has hit puberty age. Susan bases this suspicion on how she thinks Bob has been looking at Louise recently. Bob vehemently denies that he thinks about Louise sexually, and he tells Susan how hurtful it was for her to think he could do something so heinous. Judy suggests that Louise join them in their next therapy session so that she can observe their family dynamics.

However, enough was said in this first session for Judy to see the cracks in the Howards’ marriage and to use those vulnerabilities to her advantage. One of the first clues that Judy might intend to cause trouble is how she openly flirts with Bob in front of Susan, by saying how extremely attractive he is and that he must get a lot of female attention. Of course, Susan misses this big red flag because she tends to be self-absorbed and is the type of person who loves to hear herself complain about her life.

Judy sees even more ways to manipulate the couple when Louise reluctantly joins them for the next session, and Judy sees that Louise resents Susan for being overprotective. And then, Judy’s devious machinations really start to kick into high gear when she suggests (and Susan readily agrees) that she counsel Susan and Bob alone in separate sessions. During these separate sessions, Judy uses information that they tell her to drive a wedge of distrust between Bob and Susan, especially when it comes to a past cheating fling that Bob had while he was dating Susan. (He lets this information slip during a solo session with Judy.)

As the therapy sessions continue, it becomes pretty clear that Judy wants to seduce Bob. And she encourages Susan to have an affair with another man, but Susan completely hates the idea and doesn’t want to do it. Because Bob and Susan have separate sessions with Judy, she’s able to manipulate them into thinking that they’re falling out of love with each other.

“Bad Therapy” has some dialogue and lines that are downright cringeworthy. At one point in the movie, Judy says to Bob: “Trust is like a muscle. Once it’s torn, it’s difficult to repair.”

It should come as no surprise that Judy has a dark past, which is revealed in the movie. There are also people from her past—including someone named Dr. Ed Kingsley (played by David Paymer)—who can threaten to expose Judy and her secrets. What could have been the most suspenseful part of the film is actually handled in a very clunky and unrealistic way.

In addition to the screenplay’s flaws (some of Bob and Susan’s actions make no sense after they see more of Judy’s true colors), the movie’s three main actors deliver performances as if they’re in three different movies.

Silverstone portrays Susan as an over-emoting neurotic who’s in a wacky comedy. (In “Bad Therapy,” she gives Jim Carrey a run for his money with rubber-faced expressions.) It’s by far the most annoying, worst performance in the movie, which is a shame because Silverstone is capable of doing better acting. (Her small but tragically impactful role in the horror film “The Lodge” is a recent example of how she can show good acting talent.)

Corddry is playing Bob as if he’s in straightforward drama, which this movie is most definitely not. Because Bob has cheated on Susan before (prior to their marriage), the movie drops major hints that he’s capable of cheating on Susan again, especially since she’s become a bit of shrew in their marriage. Unfortunately, Corddry (who was such a comedic scene-stealer in “Hot Tub Time Machine”) has almost no sense of humor at all in portraying Bob. It’s too bad that Corddry plays Bob in such a bland, forgettable way because Bob is a character who reacts to things, so the character had great potential for comedic possibilities, but it ended up being a missed opportunity.

As for Watkins, she comes closest to the movie’s intended dark comedy. But the way she portrays the unhinged Judy is as a hollow, not-very-smart villain. Even with some of the terrible dialogue in the movie, there was a way for Watkins to elevate the character’s “femme fatale” appeal, but she didn’t. Instead, Judy just comes across as creepy and weird, when charm and intelligence would be needed for this type of corrupt therapist to fool people.

One of the odd things about “Bad Therapy” is that it spends too much time veering off into subplots that are not necessary to the story. There are several scenes that show what teenage Louise does at school and in her free time that didn’t need to be in the film, except for one scene that takes place on a bus. While on the bus, Louise (defying her mother’s orders not to take public transportation) and her best friend Zooey (played by Paris Bravo) happen to see Judy walking down the street. It’s a scene where Judy shows her demented side.

And there’s another unnecessary subplot involving Bob’s co-worker Reed (played by Haley Joel Osment), who confesses to Bob that he’s had an office fling with someone in the accounting department named Annabelle (played by Sarah Shahi), who left her husband because of the affair. And now, Annabelle wants to run off with Reed and move to Mexico. Reed, who wants to break up with Annabelle, has a live-in girlfriend who’s eager to get married. Reed has no intentions of breaking up with his live-in girlfriend and moving to Mexico.

Reed tells Bob that he’s afraid that if he ends the relationship with Annabelle in the wrong way, she might accuse him of sexual harassment later to get revenge on him. Bob has no business getting involved, but he does anyway, by volunteering to talk to Annabelle about it. And where does he have this private and sensitive discussion with Annabelle that’s supposed to prevent a possibly messy #MeToo situation? In a bar, where Annabelle promptly puts the moves on Bob.

It’s not really a spoiler to reveal this subplot about Bob’s colleagues Reed and Annabelle, because it really has no bearing on what happens in the rest of the movie, which has one too many filler scenes. And the scenes that are necessary are just substandard and often dull, with awkward performances from the three lead actors. How bad is “Bad Therapy”? It makes Lifetime movies (which are often about troubled romances and crazy/evil women) look like masterpieces.

Gravitas Ventures released “Bad Therapy” on digital and VOD on April 17, 2020.