Review: ‘Cruella,’ starring Emma Stone

May 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Emma Stone in “Cruella” (Photo by Laurie Sparham/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Cruella”

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1952 to 1974 in England (primarily in London), the comedy/drama “Cruella” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In this “101 Dalmatians” origin story, an aspiring fashion designer has conflicts with her cruel boss and vows to get revenge. 

Culture Audience: “Cruella” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, as well as anyone who doesn’t mind watching lengthy origin-story movies of classic Disney characters.

Emma Thompson in “Cruella” (Photo by Laurie Sparham/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

In this “battle of the villains” origin story, “Cruella” can be a little too overstuffed and filled with inconsistencies, but the dynamic duo of Emma Stone and Emma Thompson (as well as top-notch costume design) elevate this sometimes tedious movie. “Cruella” is a prequel to Disney’s 1996 live-action “101 Dalmations” movie, starring Glenn Close as villain Cruella de Vil. “Cruella” benefits from having a talented cast, including Stone as Cruella during her youth in England. At a total running time of 134 minutes, “Cruella” might test the patience of people with short attention spans, but the movie has enough dazzling moments and star charisma to hold people’s interests during the best parts of the film.

Directed by Craig Gillespie, “Cruella” at times seems a little too enamored with itself and could have benefited from a slyer sense of comedy. The jokes sometimes fall very flat, and the pacing drags during the middle section of the film. It’s a shame, really, because Stone and Thompson have immense comedic talent, but so much of it could have been put to better use if the “Cruella” screenplay (written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara) had been wittier and more creative. The supporting characters are underwritten by not having enough depth to their personalities. (Dodie Smith’s 1956 children’s novel “The One Hundred and One Dalmations” is the basis of this movie franchise.)

“Cruella,” which occasionally features Stone’s voiceover narration as Cruella, begins by literally showing Cruella at birth (in 1952), and being raised by her mother Catherine (played by Emily Beecham), a mild-mannered and patient single parent. Cruella’s birth name is Estella, and the movie shows that she was born with her famous two-toned hair, which is black on one side and white on another. It’s later shown how she gave herself the nickname Cruella, to describe her evil and vindictive side.

Estella/Cruella says in a voiceover: “From an early age, I realized I saw the world differently from everyone else, including my mother. It wasn’t her I was challenging, it was the world. But, of course, my mother knew that. That’s what worried her.”

The first 15 minutes of “Cruella” show her childhood at 5 years old (played by Billie Gadsdon) and at 12 years old (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), with Estella and Catherine (who has work experience as a maid) living in an unnamed suburban part of England. As a 12-year-old, Estella enrolled in a new school and was bullied by boys. Because she physically fought back, she often landed in the school headmaster’s office.

Because she was usually blamed for fights that she didn’t start, Estella learned early on not to trust authority figures. One bright spot to her miserable experiences at school was that she made a friendly acquaintance with a fellow classmate named Anita Darling (played by Florisa Kamara), but they didn’t hang out with each other enough to form a close friendship. Estella is an only child, and her closest companion is a stray, mixed-breed brown puppy she found in an outdoor garbage bin. She names the dog Buddy.

Estella gets in so much trouble at school that she’s eventually expelled by the headmaster or withdrawn from the school by her mother. The movie has what’s supposed to be a funny scene of Catherine debating with the headmaster (played by Leo Bill) over who made the decision first for Estella to leave the school. It’s another version of “You can’t fire me because I quit” schtick that doesn’t work very well in this scene.

At any rate, Catherine decides that she and Estella need a fresh start in the big city of London. But first, Catherine says they have to visit someone who can help them finance their relocation. Catherine seems reluctant to ask this person for help, but one evening, she drives herself and Estella to a grand estate called Hellman Hall, which is located on the top of a cliff.

A lavish costume ball is taking place at Hellman Hall. Before she gets out of the car, Catherine takes off a necklace with a red circular stone. This necklace, which Catherine describes as a “family heirloom,” is a big part of the story that’s linked to family secrets that are exposed later in the movie. Catherine tells Estella to stay and hide in the car.

But, of course, rebellious and curious Estella doesn’t stay in the car. Estella takes the necklace with her while she and Buddy crash the costume ball, Estella gets caught by a valet named John (played by Mark Strong), and the expected mayhem ensues. Three aggressive Dalmations give chase to Estella.

Estella gets cornered and hides near the cliff, where she sees Catherine talking to a woman (whose back is facing Estella) and asking the mystery woman to borrow some money. Suddenly, the Dalmations charge and jump on Catherine, who falls off of the cliff to her death. A horrified Estella runs away with Buddy and accidentally drops the necklace in the chaos.

An orphaned Estella is wracked with guilt because she blames herself for her mother’s death. With her dog Buddy in tow, Estella is now homeless and living on the streets of London. And it’s where she meets two other street urchins who are the same age as she is: somewhat dimwitted Horace (played by Joseph MacDonald) and intuitive Jasper (played by Ziggy Gardner), who both eventually take Estella under their wing. They make money as beggars, thieves and con artists.

The movie then fast-forwards 10 years later. It’s 1974, and Estella (played by Stone) is now living with Horace (played by Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (played by Joel Fry) in a large warehouse-styled loft. They are still being grifters for money, with some help from a white and brown terrier mix dog named Buddy and a Chihuahua named Wink. There’s a montage of this team of thieves working in tandem to do things like pickpocket wallets or steal jewelry from a jewelry store by posing as customers.

Estella (who wears a red wig to hide her distinctive black-and-white hair) designs a lot of the clothes that she, Horace and Jasper wear as disguises. Her ultimate goal is to become a famous and successful fashion designer. And her biggest idol is a designer named The Baroness (played by Thompson), who is considered to be one of the top haute couture designers in the fashion industry. The Baroness is also the boss from hell, who demeans and insults almost everyone she’s in contact with, and she takes credit for her employees’ work.

“Cruella” wastes some time setting up the convoluted circumstances that led to Estella working for The Baroness, whose first name is not mentioned in the movie. First, Jasper embellished Estella’s résumé/CV, and he found a way to get it into a stack on a hiring manager’s desk at a high-end clothing boutique called Liberty. Somehow, Estella was hired for an entry-level position at Liberty without even interviewing for the job. Jasper tells Estella this news one day. And she’s elated, because working at Liberty is a dream job for her. Naturally, Liberty carries fashion by The Baroness.

But the entry-level job at Liberty isn’t what Estella thought it would be. She’s the store housekeeper, which means that she mostly has cleaning duties. Meanwhile, her snooty boss Gerald (played by Jamie Demetriou) doesn’t care that Estella is an aspiring fashion designer and ignores her suggestions on how to style the store’s displays. Gerald just wants Estella to shut up and clean when she’s at work.

Horace thinks there could be some kind of thieving angle they can work in Estella’s Liberty job, but Estella and Jasper both insist that this job will be off-limits to their con games. Jasper seems to be in tune to Estella’s desire to break into the fashion industry honestly. Does that mean Estella, Jasper and Horace will straighten out their lives and leave their criminal ways behind? Of course not.

One day, Estella walks into a vintage clothing shop called Second Time Around and meets an androgynous sales clerk named Artie (played by John McCrea), who’s clearly influenced by David Bowie’s 1970s glam rock style. Predictably, Artie becomes Estella’s flamboyant sidekick, which seems expected when there’s a scripted movie that takes place in the fashion industry. Artie is very sassy, but unfortunately, viewers will find out almost nothing about Artie while watching “Cruella.” He seems like a fascinating character who deserves more of a storyline.

Estella grows increasingly frustrated by her dead-end job at Liberty. And so, one night, she gets drunk, goes to the store when it’s closed, and completely rearranges Liberty’s front-window display to make it look like an anarchist punk took over the space. She passes out and wakes up the next morning as the store is opening for the day.

And guess who happens to be visiting the store at that moment? The Baroness. Estella’s boss Gerald panics because there isn’t time to change the window display back to what it was. The Baroness wants to know who did the window display. Gerald points to Estella, but he says that she’s been fired.

However, viewers shouldn’t be surprised that The Baroness loves the display because it’s so edgy. She gives Estella her business card. And it isn’t long before Estella is working as a junior designer at The Baroness’ chic designer workshop.

Estella soon finds out that The Baroness is a tyrant boss. And this is where “Cruella” looks like Disney’s version of “The Devil Wears Prada,” except that Estella doesn’t battle with any co-worker peers and she doesn’t get involved in any romances. Through a series of circumstances, the rest of the movie is about Estella getting revenge on The Baroness, as they try to out-do each other as diva villains.

Most of Estella’s revenge plans are done under her alter ego Cruella. Viewers are supposed to believe that during much of the Cruella/Baroness feud, The Baroness doesn’t figure out that Cruella and Estella are the same person, just because Estella has red hair and wears glasses while on the job. It doesn’t make The Baroness look very smart, so it dilutes some of the comeuppance competition between The Baroness and Cruella/Estella.

And the tactics used by Cruella fall into catty stereotypes of women being cruel over who looks better, with Cruella doing some form of “The Baroness is an old has-been” type of humiliation. The Baroness has a formal Black and White Ball where the attendees are require to wear only black and/or white, but Cruella crashes the event by wearing a bright red dress. In another scene, Cruella upstages The Baroness at a high-profile gala, by literally wearing black makeup on her face that reads “The Future.”

And in another scene, with Jasper and Horace’s help, Cruella outshines The Baroness at another public event. The Baroness is prevented from getting out of her car when she arrives. Cruella stands on the car and unfurls a dress that has the words “The Past” pointing down at The Baroness.

Meanwhile, Anita Darling (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is now working as a society columnist for a Daily Mail-type tabloid newspaper called Tattletale. She has been reporting on Cruella’s shenanigans in her column. And because Anita is someone with common sense, she immediately figures out that her former school acquaintance Estella is really Cruella.

In her coverage of the Cruella/Baroness rivalry, Anita seems to side with Cruella. And so, one day, The Baroness confronts Anita about it and demands that Anita help The Baroness find out Cruella’s true identity. “Don’t cry,” The Baroness tells Anita. When a calm Anita says that she’s not crying. The Baroness gives a slight pause and says ominously, “You will.” It’s an example of how comedically gifted Thompson is in this villain role.

It should come as no surprise that The Baroness owns Hellman Hall and the Dalmatians that Estella/Cruella saw that fateful night when Catherine died. Therefore, there’s a long part of the movie where Estella wants to get back the lost necklace from The Baroness. Various schemes are put in place. And at one point, the Dalmatians get kidnapped.

Because “Cruella” is supposed to be a family-friendly movie, nothing too disturbing happens in the story. However, much like director Gillespie’s 2017 dark comedy film “I, Tonya,” the title character is often upstaged by a bigger scene-stealing villain. Thompson’s The Baroness actually becomes more riveting to watch than Cruella in many scenes.

It’s not that Cruella isn’t potent in her own right, but she’s often conflicted about how evil she wants to become while getting revenge. There’s no ambiguity for The Baroness, and Thompson seems to be reveling in being an unabashed villain in a lot of the showdown scenes. As Cruella, Stone is perfectly cast and plays the role with the right combination of toughness and vulnerability, but there’s no denying that Thompson is a formidable presence too. Cruella gets a despair-driven monologue which is one of the film’s emotional standouts.

Aside from Stone and Thompson working so well together in “Cruella,” the movie’s other atrributes are its costume design by Jenny Beavan and production design by Fiona Crombie. (Tom Davies handled the eyewear design.) The makeup and hairstyling are also outstanding. There are set designs in the movie that look right out of a fairy tale, which is clearly the intention.

However, the “Cruella” screenplay needed a lot of improvements. There’s a big reveal in the movie about Catherine’s death that has a major inconsistency/plot hole that would require a certain person to almost be in two places at once to commit a certain act. The timeline just doesn’t add up.

And the movie’s visual effects are hit-and-miss. Some of the scenes with the Dalmations obviously used CGI dogs, not real dogs. And there’s a scene with a big fire that looks too fake, because more characters should’ve gotten fire burns in that scene, but they were able to unrealsitically walk away unscathed.

And most of the supporting characters are underdelevoped. Estella has been living with Jasper and Horace for several years, but viewers don’t learn anything interesting about these two Estella/Cruella confidants by the time the movie ends. And, if we’re being honest, the casting of this trio is age-inappropriate. Estella, Jasper and Horace are supposed to be in their early 20s, but the actors in these roles look at least 10 years older than that, because they are. That doesn’t take away their ability to act in the roles, but they just don’t look entirely convincing as people who are supposed to be in their early 20s.

There’s just so much untapped potential for the movie’s supporting characters, who are really just incomplete sketches with limited personalities. All the supporting characters—including Anita, John and The Baroness’ attorney Roger (played by Kayvan Novak)—just react to whatever Estella/Cruella or The Baroness does. The Baroness has a lackey assistant named Jeffrey (played by Andrew Leung), who is constantly by her side, but Jeffrey doesn’t say an entire word during the movie.

The way that the soundtrack songs are used in “Cruella” borders on jukebox placement instead of feeling organic. It’s a good selection of songs, but sometimes they blare in places that seem way too intrusive and distracting. At times, it just seems like shameless shilling to buy the “Cruella” soundtrack.

And there’s a bombastic outdoor concert scene where Cruella makes a big entrance to The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” with Artie singing as an emcee, Jasper playing a guitar and Horace being a DJ. This is the part of the movie where viewers who love punk music might be rolling their eyes, because there are no DJs in real punk music. The movie would’ve worked better if Cruella and her mates had more 1970s London punk authenticity, not a watered-down Hollywood version of this subculture. The adult Estella/Cruella, Horace and Jasper have a polished actor sheen to them that isn’t entirely consistent with these characters who are supposedly to be scrappy con artists who grew up on the streets.

The scenes with the adult Cruella are supposed to take place in 1974. However, some of the soundtrack choices might annoy pop music aficionados who will notice that there a few songs in the movie that were released after 1974, such as Electric Light Orchestra’s “Livin’ Thing” (released in 1976) and Blondie’s “One Way or Another” (released in 1978). These are small details, and a movie director who really cares about musical accuracy wouldn’t make these mistakes. The “Cruella” soundtrack also has the obligatory new and original song that will undoubtedly be promoted for awards consideration: Florence + the Machines’ “Call Me Cruella,” which was co-written by Florence Welch and “Cruella” composer Nicholas Britell.

Despite some of the flaws with the screenplay, editing and song selections, “Cruella” can be enjoyable to watch if viewers brace themselves for the overly long run time. “Cruella” isn’t a superhero epic origin story, although at times it seems to want to use that template when it should have been a movie under 100 minutes. “Cruella” is a movie that’s supposed to be a fun and cheeky romp, but the jokes and slapstick comedy just aren’t very imaginative and edgy as a young Cruella is supposed to be. If not for the great comedic talents of Stone and Thompson, “Cruella” would be nothing but cast members playing elaborate dress-up in a bloated and mediocre Disney movie.

Walt Disney Pictures will release “Cruella” in U.S. cinemas and at a premium extra cost on Disney+ on May 28, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD is on September 21, 2021.

Review: ‘How to Build a Girl,’ starring Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Chris O’Dowd and Emma Thompson

May 11, 2020

by Carla Hay

Beanie Feldstein in “How to Build a Girl” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“How to Build a Girl”

Directed by Coky Giedroyc 

Culture Representation: Taking place in early 1990s England (and briefly in Dublin), the comedy film “How to Build a Girl” has a predominantly white cast (with some representation of black people and Indian people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 16-year-old girl who’s a misfit in school reinvents herself as a hotshot music journalist and becomes the type of bully she used to hate.

Culture Audience: “How to Build a Girl” will appeal mostly to people who like coming-of-age films about teenagers or movies about entertainment journalism, but viewers should not expect this film to have a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be a beginner journalist.

Alfie Allen and Beanie Feldstein in “How to Build a Girl” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“How to Build a Girl” tries very hard to be a charming, coming-of-age comedy with a heavy dose of nostalgia (in ways that writer/director Cameron Crowe’s 2000 Oscar-winning dramedy “Almost Famous” did so well), but “How to Build a Girl” suffers from presenting too many unrealistic fantasies about magazine journalism, in order to serve the movie’s cutesy plot. The results are mixed.

Beanie Feldstein gives a winning performance as the main character, and there’s solid direction from Coky Giedroyc in this movie that ultimately has a feel-good feminist message. But that message is cheapened by Caitlin Moran’s screenplay, which overloads the story with an abundance of “too good to be true” moments that gloss over the harsh realities of showbiz and journalism.

Moran adapted the “How to Build a Girl” screenplay from her 2014 semi-autobiographical novel of the same title, which was based on Moran’s real-life experiences of being a teenage journalist in the early 1990s for the now-defunct British music magazine Melody Maker. Moran also had some ’90s fame in her native Great Britain, as the host of the short-lived Channel 4 music show “Naked City.” She went on to write for several publications and became the author of multiple books.

In the “How to Build a Girl” movie, Feldstein plays Johanna Morrigan, a moody and bookish 16-year-old who comes from a working-class family in Wolverhampton, England. Johanna is the oldest of five children, and all of her siblings are brothers, including newborn twins. Her father Pat (played by Paddy Considine) is a frustrated drummer/wannabe rock star who’s been waiting for his “big break” for decades. Her disheveled mother Angie (played by Sarah Solemani) is overwhelmed with taking care of a large family and suffers from post-partum depression.

Angie is a homemaker and Pat can’t keep a steady job, so the family mainly lives off of government assistance and whatever questionable “get rich quick” schemes cooked up by Pat. (At one point in the movie, Pat gets busted for fraudulently claiming disability benefits, while he breeds Border Collies for extra money.) At school, Johanna is an outcast who has no friends. Her closest companions are her dog Bianca and her gay teenage brother Krissi (played by Laurie Kynaston), who confides in Johanna about his boy crushes and tentative first steps in dating.

Johanna has an eclectic myriad of historical figures whom she admires and whose pictures she keeps plastered on her wall. They include Sigmund Freud; Elizabeth Taylor; Karl Marx; Sylvia Plath; Donna Summer; Cleopatra; the fictional Jo March from “Little Women”; Maria von Trapp of “The Sound of Music” fame; and writer sisters Emily Bronte and Charlotte Bronte. Johanna has a vivid imagination, so one of the memorable aspects of the film is that it sometimes brings these pictures to life, as they speak to Johanna and give her advice. Several well-known entertainers have cameos with these roles, such as Michael Sheen as Freud, pop star Lily Allen as Taylor, Jameela Jamil as Cleopatra, Gemma Arterton as von Trapp and Lucy Punch as Plath.

In fact, the most whimsical moments of “How to Build a Girl” come from Johanna’s numerous fantasies that are depicted on screen of what’s going on inside her head. For the most part, they work well in boosting the comedy level when the movie tackles some dark subjects, such as Johanna’s anxiety and depression that lead to suicidal thoughts. What doesn’t work well in the movie is the unbelievable way that she skyrockets from being an unknown teenage student to being a famous writer at a major rock magazine without any experience or knowledge of rock music.

Johanna has dreams of being a writer, but she hasn’t quite figured out what type of writer she wants to be. She enters a poetry contest with a poem titled “My Best Friend,” about her beloved dog Bianca. To her surprise, she ends up winning the contest. So, Johanna is invited to recite the poem on a local news/talk show called “Today in the Midlands,” hosted by a slick TV personality type named Alan “Wilko” Wilkinson (played by Chris O’Dowd, in a cameo).

Unfortunately, Johanna is extremely nervous when she gets to the TV studio, so she ends up embarrassing herself by being overly touchy-feely with the host and rambling on about how she and Bianca are a lot like the famous cartoon characters Shaggy and Scooby Doo. Needless to say, Wilko can’t get her off the air fast enough.

Back at school, Johanna gets the expected teasing and bullying from her classmates for her disastrous TV appearance. She sinks even further into her emotional shell and starts having thoughts about killing herself. (Johanna’s imaginary friends on her wall try to cheer her up, but notoriously depressive poet Plath whispers that she can give Johanna some tips on suicide.)

Meanwhile, Johanna’s family falls further into a financial hole, as the family’s TV (which is the center of their household’s social activities) gets repossessed. But wouldn’t you know, here comes another contest. This time, it’s from the London-based rock music magazine Disc & Music Echo (D&ME), which is having a Young Gunslinger competition for aspiring young writers. The winner will get to write for the magazine on a part-time basis.

Johanna knows almost nothing about rock music (even though her dad is a rock musician, albeit an unsuccessful one), but she enters the contest anyway. She writes a sincere essay praising one of her favorite songs: “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie.” And in yet another unrealistic plot point, she gets a call that she’s won that contest too.

So off she goes to London to D&ME headquarters, with excited dreams of becoming a glamorous music journalist. (D&ME is the movie’s obvious parody of real-life British music magazine NME.) However, Johanna gets a rude awakening when she discovers that the congratulatory call that she received was just a cruel prank from the sexist managing editor Derby (played by Ziggy Heath), who leads an all-male team of writers and editors.

Derby and his D&ME co-workers are skeptical that someone of the female gender can be taken seriously as a music journalist. One of the writers on the staff is the lecherous Tony Rich (played by Frank Dillane), who eyes Johanna in a way that makes it obvious that he sees her as “fresh meat.” (The age of consent in the United Kingdom is 16.)

When Johanna finds out that the D&ME editors think her writing submission was a joke and that they had no intention of hiring her, she refuses to leave. She begs, pleads and talks her way into being hired on the spot for an intern-type of position. It’s one of many unrealistic things that happen in the movie.

And she immediately gets a plum assignment: a concert review of Manic Street Preachers, who were one of the hottest bands in England at the time. So off Johanna goes to the club in Birmingham to see the band play. She’s accompanied by her father Pat, since Johanna doesn’t have her driver’s license. It’s Johanna’s first time at a rock concert, and she’s blown away by the experience.

Meanwhile, her father thinks that he can use Johanna’s new position at D&ME to pass on a demo tape to her to hopefully get it reviewed in the magazine. He even starts to sit in as a drummer for a young local band called the Strange Cases that come over to the Morrigan house to rehearse. As Pat Morrigan tells Johanna, he was raised to believe that the three best ways to get rich are by being a “boxer, a footballer or a pop star.”

Johanna doesn’t think her real name is cool enough for the magazine, so she comes up with the alias Dolly Wilde for her articles. She also changes her image, by ditching her mousy brown hair and dyeing it scarlet red. Johanna also stops wearing schoolgirl clothes and starts wearing outfits that look like shopping-mall versions of Victorian Goth, complete with black top hats and fishnet stockings.

When she hands in the concert review, which naturally gushes about the band in the review, Derby tells her that it sounds like a review written by a teenage girl. She’s crushed by the criticism because she was expecting to get a bigger assignment. However, Derby refuses because he thinks she’s an annoying girl who doesn’t know anything about the music she’s supposed to cover.

And then Derby does something very creepy in full view of several staffers: He tells Johanna to sit on his lap. Even though it’s obvious sexual harassment, Johanna uses it to her advantage, by playfully moving heavily around his lap and putting Derby in a headlock until a red-faced Darby relents and gives her another assignment, in yet another very unrealistic movie moment. This time, Johanna gets to fly to Dublin to do an interview with a British rock star on the rise named John Kite (played by Alfie Allen), even though she has absolutely no experience doing interviews and doesn’t know anything about John’s music.

Although “How to Build a Girl” tries to have a teachable moment with the sexual-harassment scene, it’s almost offensive how the movie brushes it aside with a slapstick response that pokes fun at the body size of the female target of the harassment. Would that scene have been done that way if Feldstein were a thin actress? Probably not, because the gimmick of the scene was that she was “too big” for Derby’s lap, and therefore caused him physical pain when she moved around on his lap. And he gave Johanna the assignment not because he thought she deserved it but because he just wanted her to get off of his lap and go away.

Johanna is woefully unprepared for the interview (how unprofessional), and she admits to John that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s lucky that John is such a gentleman that not only does he give her a good interview, but he also shows her around Dublin. At the concert, she gets a backstage pass, so she watches the show from the side of the stage. Predictably, she’s transfixed and star-struck.

And when Johanna gets too tipsy from alcohol, John takes her back to his hotel room and lets her sleep on his bed, while he sleeps in the bathtub. And not once does he sexually harass her or try to take advantage of this obviously unworldly and gullible teenager. By the end of the trip, Johanna thinks she’s “in love” with John.

“How to Build a Girl” has the same problem that the 2019 comedy “Late Night” (starring Mindy Kaling) had in portraying a spunky heroine who’s chosen as the “token” female writer/co-worker in a male-dominated media job, even though she has no experience and is clueless about what it takes to do the job. Both movies make the mistake of having the main character fall into a bunch of “dumb luck” situations that lead to rapid career advancements that an inexperienced beginner would never get in real life, unless they have inside connections.

The heroines in both movies have neither experience nor inside connections, since each story relies on the premise that these newcomers are naïve outsiders when they get their dream jobs in showbiz. They were hired as “tokens” to be pitied or ridiculed, not to be respected. It panders to the worst negative stereotypes about affirmative action—that “token” people really aren’t qualified, and a “token” is getting a spot that should’ve gone to someone who is qualified. Affirmative action, when done right, is supposed to give qualified people a chance. (Coincidentally, both movies have Emma Thompson playing a boss, although her role in “How to Build a Girl” is essentially a cameo.)

It’s a disservice to feminism to portray these female protagonists as very ignorant, unqualified tokens who easily get a dream job that they didn’t work hard to get. It’s why “Late Night,” in its blatant and cynical pandering to forced diversity, flopped with audiences. And it’s why “How to Build a Girl” won’t win over a large audience either. Having a “cute” personality without working hard doesn’t entitle someone to great opportunities, even if you try to cloak it in a “feminist” message.

People in the real world don’t like it when filmmakers have a smug attitude that a female lead character with a plucky personality should be enough for audiences to root for that character. Audiences want a character who also has substance, starting with the character showing genuine appreciation for all the dumb luck that comes her way when she has her unrealistic, quick career ascension. It’s probably why “How to Build a Girl,” just like “Late Night,” isn’t going to find a wide audience, or even a cult audience that will enthusiastically recommend this movie to other people.

“How to Build a Girl” takes the protagonist’s dumb luck to new levels of “only in a movie” stupidity. While she’s still working part-time for the magazine, Johanna makes enough money to support her family, and she becomes very arrogant about it. This movie apparently doesn’t want the audience to know the reality that no magazine in the Western world pays a part-time beginner enough money to support a family of seven.

Johanna becoming the family’s breadwinner is an extreme plot development that’s unnecessary and undermines this movie’s potential to make this story relatable to a lot of people. It’s an insult to the audience’s intelligence for the movie to try to make people believe that an underage teenager who’s basically on the level of a magazine intern can suddenly support a large family with what everyone knows would be a very low salary in real life. A better-written screenplay would’ve kept it more realistic, by having Johanna make enough money to have more disposable income for just herself, not her entire family.

Johanna gets a minor setback when she’s about to be fired for writing articles that fawn too much over the artists. Derby and the other editors think she’s too immature and “girly” for the job. Tony is somewhat willing to defend Johanna, but it’s only because he has sleazy ulterior motives. He privately tells Derby, “There’s never been an organization that wasn’t improved from hiring jailbait.”

Once again, in an unrealistic way, Derby changes his mind about getting rid of Johanna, after she alters her Dolly Wilde persona to become a cruelly derogatory critic who uses over-the-top insults to get attention. Johanna’s change in writing style from star-struck fangirl to angry cynic was the result of a conversation that Johanna had with her smarmy co-worker Tony. “In order to get ahead, you have to get a hate,” Johanna says in an “a-ha” moment. In a voiceover, Johanna says, “Nice girls get nowhere, but a bitch can make a comeback.”

And in yet another unrealistic aspect of the story, Johanna actually becomes famous. She gets fan mail and is recognized in public by adoring admirers, all because of her writing in the magazine. Keep in mind, the movie takes place years before social media existed. Music journalists in the ’90s didn’t get the level of attention that Johanna gets in this movie, unless the journalists were on TV a lot. And in the movie, Johanna is a print journalist only, not a TV personality.

The rest of the movie shows what happens after Johanna’s “fame” goes to her head and she becomes everything she used to hate about people who bullied her. “How to Build a Girl” also explores Johanna’s sexual liberation (she loses her virginity and has various sex partners), and how it affects her attitude about herself and other people. The movie shows how she handles the issue of female journalists getting sexually involved with people they interview or co-workers, and how those choices can affect the reputation of a woman differently than a man who makes the same choices.

Issues about social classes are also addressed, since most of Johanna’s co-workers at the magazine are privileged young men who went to prestigious universities, while Johanna comes from a very different background. Although Johanna tries her best to fit in with the guys, there are a few scenes in the movie that effectively show how her elitist co-workers really feel about the gender/social barriers that keep someone like Johanna from truly being a part of their clique. Johanna also faces some ethical dilemmas that demonstrate how much she’s willing to “sell her soul” to impress her co-workers.

Feldstein (who’s an American) does an admirable but not outstanding job in portraying the Wolverhampton accent and the transformative character arc that Johanna goes through in the story. However, it’s time for Feldstein to move on to a better variety of roles, because she’s in danger of being typecast as the “awkward misfit.” So far, most audiences know her for playing awkward, misfit teens in films such as “Lady Bird,” “Booksmart” and “How to Build a Girl.”

And for a movie about music journalism, it’s a huge letdown that the soundtrack to “How to Build a Girl” is very forgettable. There isn’t one single scene in the movie that will make people remember a particular song, so don’t expect this movie’s soundtrack to be an award-winning hit, like the Grammy-winning “Almost Famous” soundtrack.

It’s also disappointing that Moran couldn’t use her real-life experiences as a music journalist to write a more realistic screenplay. This movie was clearly intended for adults (based on the adult language and sex in the film), but “How to Build a Girl” is also like a children’s movie in the way that it removes a lot of showbiz realities and replaces them with wide-eyed, unrealistic fantasies about how the business works. You can’t really have it both ways, because the end result is a movie with an uneven tone. “How to Build a Girl” wants to be edgy, but it’s as edgy as a melted popsicle.

IFC Films released “How to Build a Girl” on digital and VOD on May 8, 2020. The film’s U.K. release is on July 20, 2020.

Review: ‘Dolittle,’ starring Robert Downey Jr.

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Robert Downey Jr.  and parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson) in “Dolittle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Dolittle”

Directed by Stephen Gaghan

Culture Representation: Set primarily in the United Kingdom, this dramatic adventure movie’s live-action characters are nearly all white; the voice actors portraying the animated animals are a racially mixed cast; and the social classes range from working-class to royalty.

Culture Clash: A reclusive doctor with the special power to talk to animals reluctantly goes on a journey to find a rare medical cure, and faces obstacles that include more than one villain.

Culture Audience: “Dolittle” will appeal primarily to fans of children-oriented entertainment who don’t mind if the visuals are much better than the storytelling.

Dab-Dab the duck (voiced by Octavia Spencer), polar bear Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), Dr. John Dolittle (played by Robert Downey Jr.), ostrich Plimpton (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett) and gorilla Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek) in “Dolittle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

It’s not really a good sign when a major-studio film headlined by an A-list movie star is released in January, the month that’s a notorious dumping ground for bad movies. Universal Pictures must have known that “Dolittle” was going to be a dud, even with star Robert Downey Jr. coming off his major hot streak in the blockbuster superhero “Avengers” and “Iron Man” movies. (“Avengers: Endgame,” Downey’s 2019 movie that was released before “Dolittle,” now holds the record as the world’s biggest box-office movie hit of all time, ending the 10-year reign at the top held by “Avatar.”) “Dolittle” isn’t a terrible film. It’s just a terribly generic film in an era when we’ve been bombarded with kids-oriented movies that have talking animals.

By making “Dolittle” an action-adventure film, “Dolittle” director Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay with Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, tried to do something different from previous “Dolittle” movies. The original 1967 “Dr. Dolittle” film, starring Rex Harrison and a cast of other Brits, was a musical adapted from Hugh Lofting’s “Dr. Dolittle” book series. The three “Dr. Dolittle” movies from 1998, 2000 and 2006 were slapstick American comedies—the first two starred Eddie Murphy as the title character, and a third film was an ill-conceived flop starring Kyla Pratt, who played Dolittle’s daughter in the first two Murphy-starring films.

Gaghan’s “Dolittle” goes back to the original United Kingdom location, during the mid-1800s era of a young Queen Victoria (played by Jessie Buckley), who has come down with a mysterious illness. During the film’s animated opening sequence, viewers see that veterinarian John Dolittle once led a happy life taking care of animals with his beloved wife Lily (played by Kasia Smutniak), who died tragically.

Fast forward seven years later, and Dr. Dolittle has become a cranky hermit who has neglected his hygiene (he’s so unkempt that a mouse has been living in his beard), as he lives with his animals on his estate that’s essentially an animal sanctuary. The filmmakers have made Dolittle a Welshman, so it might take a while for some viewers to getting used to hearing Downey speak in a Welsh accent that sounds a little too pretentious for a movie where most of his co-stars are animated talking animals. This is a kids’ movie, not Shakespeare.

Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett), a boy from the small village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, is an orphaned misfit who lives with his aunt and uncle. Tommy loves animals, and is therefore uncomfortable when he’s forced to go hunting with his uncle. When Tommy accidentally shoots a squirrel while hunting, he decides to take the injured animal to the mysterious Dr. Dolittle, even though the doctor has a reputation for being a curmudgeon. Instead of being afraid of Dolittle’s menagerie of wild animals, Tommy is fascinated and finds out that he has a knack for communicating with animals too. Affected by Tommy’s presence, Dolittle cleans himself up, as he notices that Tommy sees him as a role model and possible mentor.

It isn’t long before Dolittle gets another visitor: Queen Victoria’s attendant Lady Rose (played Carmel Laniado), who arrives with orders to bring Dolittle to Buckingham Palace to give medical aid to the queen. Dolittle has a big incentive to save the queen’s life, because his property has been loaned to him by the queen, and if she dies, he will lose the property.

While at the palace, Dolittle has an awkward reunion with a former school rival: royal physician Dr. Blair Müdfly (played by Michael Sheen), who is jealous of Dolittle’s talent and acclaim. Müdfly is such an over-the-top villain that he practically twirls his moustache and gnashes his teeth. And there’s another antagonist in the story: the ambitious Lord Thomas Badgley (played by Jim Broadbent), who will inherit the throne if Queen Victoria dies. (At this point in her life, Victoria is not married and has no children.)

Dolittle determines that the best cure for the queen’s life-threatening illness is fruit from the Eden Tree on Eden Tree Island, because this fruit is said to have magical powers. (How biblical.) Tommy has essentially decided that he doesn’t really want to go home, so he tags along on Dolittle’s voyage, with Dolittle’s numerous animals in tow as they set sail on a ship called the Water Lily.

Now, about the animals. The problem with “Dolittle” is that there are too many of them in this film. If you’re someone with a short attention span, good luck trying to keep track of all the talking animals. The “Madagascar” movies (another animated series with a variety of wild animals that talk) worked so well because the animals were in a relatively small group and their personalities were so distinct. In “Dolittle,” the personalities of most of the animals tend to blend together in a crowded mush, with the notable exception of the parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), a dutifully efficient assistant/caretaker with a whip-smart attitude. Polynesia holds a special place in Dolittle’s heart because the parrot used to be owned by Dolittle’s late wife Lily.

The other animals in this mixed-bag menagerie are Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek), an insecure gorilla; Dab-Dab (voiced by Octavia Spencer), a maternal, scatterbrained American Pekin duck; Plimpton, a nervous osctrich (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani); Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), a polar bear who hates the cold, loves adventure, and often bickers with Plimpton; Betsy (voiced by Selena Gomez), a kind giraffe; Kevin (voiced by Crag Robinson), the injured squirrel that was accidentally shot by Tommy and who has a cheeky sense of humor; Tutu (voiced by Marion Cotillard), a fearless fox with leadership qualities; and Mini (voiced by Nick A. Fisher), a baby sugar glider that’s constantly curious.

Meanwhile, other talking animals include brainy dog Jip (voiced by Tom Holland), a long-haired Lurcher tasked with guarding the queen; Humphrey (voiced by Tim Treloar), a whale that helps navigate the Water Lily; James (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas), a nervous dragonfly; Barry (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), a Bengal tiger with mommy issues and a grudge against Dolittle; Don Carpenterino (voiced by David Sheinkopf), the leader of an ant colony; Army Ant (voiced by Matthew Wolfe), Don’s sidekick; and Dragon (voiced by Frances de la Tour), guardian of the Eden Tree.

As for other human characters, there’s also Pirate King Rassouli (played by Antonio Banderas), who lives on Monteverde Island, one of the stops along the way to Eden Tree Island. Banderas hams it up as yet another adversary to Dolittle and his crew. Large ensembles can work for well-written, live-action films geared to adults. But when it’s a mostly animated film geared to kids, the movie can come across as too cluttered for its own good.

“Dolittle” certainly has an impressive cast of acting talent. It’s too bad that so many of the characters are bland. Furthermore, Chee-Chee (the gorilla that’s a visual standout) is a missed opportunity, since the character was miscast for its voice. Malek sounds more like the minature “Frozen” snowman Olaf than a massive gorilla. The Chee-Chee character needed an actor with a deeper voice to better reflect the gorilla’s intimidating physical presence. Former wrestling champ Cena, who’s the voice of Yoshi the polar bear, would have been better in the role of Chee-Chee.

Although the characters in this movie are very underdeveloped, the compelling visual effects (overseen by visual effects supervisors Nicolas Aithadi and John Dykstra) are the most entertaining aspect of the film. Young children who are dazzled by visuals should enjoy “Dolittle” for the movie’s colorful ambiance, even if they won’t remember most of the movie’s animal characters weeks after seeing this film. (Don’t expect there to be a high demand for “Dolittle” toys.) More mature viewers might get easily bored with this movie, because it wallows in a lot of mediocrity that wastes this talented cast.

Simply put: “Dolittle” is not the kind of movie that people looking for high-quality entertainment will rush to see multiple times while it’s in theaters. We all know how this movie is going to end anyway.

Universal Pictures released “Dolittle” in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020.

 

 

 

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