Review: ‘The King’s Man,’ starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Harris Dickinson and Djimon Hounsou

December 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Harris Dickinson and Ralph Fiennes in “The King’s Man” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The King’s Man”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United Kingdom and Russia from 1902 to the late 1910s, the action film “The King’s Man” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: Orlando Oxford (a British former military man also known as the Duke of Oxford) and some allies, including his son Conrad, battle villains led by evil Russian monk Grigori Rasputin.

Culture Audience: “The King’s Man” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ralph Fiennes, the “Kingsman” movies and poorly written action flicks.

Ralph Fiennes, Djimon Hounsou, Harris Dickinson and Gemma Arterton in “The King’s Man” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The King’s Man” is a charmless prequel that’s messier than the unkempt beard and head of hair on Rasputin, the movie’s flashiest villain. Even with a talented cast, this origin story to the “Kingsman” movies gets bogged down in a jumbled plot and cringeworthy dialogue. And for an action movie, much of “The King’s Man” is downright dull.

“The King’s Man” is the precursor story of 2015’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and 2017’s inferior sequel “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” which are all about a secret spy agency led by Brits. Matthew Vaughn directed and co-wrote all three movies, which are all based on the comic book series “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbon.

Audiences don’t have to see “Kingsman: The Secret Service” or “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” to understand “The King’s Man.” In fact, seeing “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” will just prove how “The King’s Man” is such a witless disappointment in comparison. If you only care about explosions and fight scenes that are too choreographed to be believable, then you might find “The King’s Man” entertaining. But if you care about having an interesting storyline and engaging characters along with thrilling action, then “The King’s Man” will leave you bored or annoyed.

Vaughn and Jane Goldman co-wrote “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” For “The King’s Man” screenplay, Vaughn teamed up with Karl Gajdusek, which might explain why the quality of “The King’s Man” is worse than the movies that Vaughn wrote with Goldman. Gajdusek’s other movie screenplay credits includes stinkers such as 2011’s “Trespass” and 2020’s “The Last Days of American Crime.” The screenplay for “The King’s Man” is definitely the worst part of the movie.

“The King’s Man” tries to disguise how weak the plot is by tangling it up with more subplots and by introducing useless characters. “The King’s Man” also tries to look smarter than it really is by throwing in real-life historical figures into the mix. But all of these gimmicks cannot hide the gross stupidity of so many aspects of “The King’s Man,” which is nothing but a bloated over-indulgence in period set pieces and big-budget stunts that are just smoke and mirrors for a lackluster story.

The basic story, which takes place from 1902 to the late 1910s, is that wealthy nobleman Orlando Oxford (played by Ralph Fiennes), also known as the Duke of Oxford, is a military-officer-turned-pacifist, who finds himself caught up in a lot of violence and political machinations leading up to World War I. To make matters worse for Orlando, his young adult son Conrad (played by Harris Dickinson) wants to enlist as a soldier to fight during the war, much to Orlando’s objections.

The movie opens during the Boer War in 1902, when Orlando (who’s representing the Red Cross) is visiting a concentration camp in South Africa with other military officials. Traveling with him in the car are Orlando’s wife Emily Oxford (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) and Conrad at about 8 or 9 years old (played by Alexander Shaw), who wait in the car while Orlando goes to meet with the people in charge of the concentration camp.

The movie is so badly written, it never explains why Orlando brought his family into this dangerous situation. During the ride to this concentration camp, Emily tells Conrad about the legendary Knights of the Round Table. She also talks about how privileged people must share their power and that the knights’ round table equals equality.

When you visit a concentration camp and you bring your spouse and underage child with you, don’t expect good things to happen. And sure enough, there’s a shootout that results in Emily getting shot and killed in front of Orlando and Conrad. Orlando’s loyal bodyguard Shola (played by Djimon Hounsou) stabs and kills the shooter, but it’s too late to save Emily. Emily’s dying words to Orlando are: “Protect our son. Promise he’ll never see war again.”

Two other military men were also caught up in this tragic shootout: Lord Kitchener (played by Charles Dance) and his right-hand man Maximillian Morton (played by Matthew Goode), who is a trusted soldier. Lord Kitchener gets shot but not killed. Unlike Orlando, Lord Kitchener does not become a pacifist after this incident. (The Lord Kitchener character is based on the real-life Herbert Kitchener, the British Army officer who later became the U.K.’s secretary of state for war.)

The movie then fast-forwards about 12 years later. Orlando has left the military and is an over-protective father to Conrad, who has led a very sheltered life. As a young man, Conrad is getting restless. Conrad wants to experience life outside of the confines of his family’s lavish estate, but Orlando is reluctant to let Conad experience the real world, and Orlando constantly fears for Conrad’s safety. Conrad has gotten an invitation from his cousin Felix Yusupov (played by Aaron Vodovoz) to visit Felix in Russia, but Orlando won’t allow Conrad to go.

The United Kingdom is on the verge of getting involved in World War I, and Orlando is firm on being an outspoken pacificist. When he takes Conrad to the Kingsman Tailor Shop on London’s Savile Row to get fitted for a new suit, Orlando tells Conrad that he wants the both of them to lead very different lives from their ancestors. Orlando describes their forebears as “tough and ruthless” brutes, who conquered and pillaged their way to power.

Orlando and Conrad have a sassy housekeeper named Polly Watkins (played by Gemma Arterton), who says things to Orlando such as: “I’ll play by your rules, if you play by mine.” “The King’s Man” is yet another action movie where the people who get top billing are several men and one token woman. And the movie has the sexist trope that this token female character can’t be around these men unless she’s a love interest of one of the men.

Therefore, you know where this is going when “The King’s Man” makes it obvious that Polly’s snappy remarks to Orlando are just her way of flirting with him and testing how he’ll react to her. It takes a while for Orlando to catch on to Polly’s romantic interest in him. And there’s a formulaic soap opera subplot when this would-be romance hits a very big snag.

Of course, there would be no “King’s Man” movie if Orlando and Conrad led a peaceful and tranquil life. Orlando, Conrad, Shola and Polly get caught up in a series of events where they become a four-person combat team fighting off various villains, many of whom are real-life historical figures.

These rogues have meetings around a table in a dark, dungeon-type of room, where Russian monk Grigori Rasputin (played by Rhys Ifans) leads the discussions. But there’s a mysterious mastermind who’s seen in the shadows during these meetings. And this person is the one who’s really calling the shots. (The movie eventually reveals who this mastermind is.) Also part of this rogue’s gallery are Dutch spy Mata Hari (played by Valerie Pachner) and Austrian con artist Erik Jan Hanussen (played by Daniel Brühl).

One of the movie’s few highlights is in how it pokes fun at real-life rivalries of royal cousins King George of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia. All three roles are played by Tom Hollander, who does a very good job at balancing comedy and drama in his performances. However, the movie’s attempts at having high-minded “history lessons” are just drowned in an avalanche of silly conversations and convoluted plot twists that aren’t very clever.

The movie also goes off on a weird and unnecessary tangent when it fixates on Rasputin’s reputation of being a hedonistic libertine. At first, Rasputin’s insults are mild. When he first meets Orlando and Conrad, he asks them, based on how Orlando and Conrad are dressed: “Are you waiters or Englishmen?”

Later, Rasputin ramps up the sex talk by saying, “I only make a decision when my belly is full and my balls are empty.” And then he says to Orlando, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think your son is trying to fuck me.” Orlando replies, “Knowing your reputation, I’d think you’re trying to fuck him.”

And the homoerotic innuendos continue. After Orlando gets a leg wound, Rasputin says to him, “Let me lick your wounds.” Rasputin then flicks his tongue on Orlando’s leg wound in a sexually suggestive manner. The filmmakers go overboard in making their point that Rasputin is supposed to be some kind of sexual predator.

But really, it’s all just a badly written and awkward-looking attempt at making audiences laugh at the idea that a straight guy like Orlando is supposed to be uncomfortable at male sexuality that isn’t heterosexual. And why is it that the only possibly queer character in this movie has to be a villain? It’s really just homophobic filmmaking that’s incredibly tone-deaf and outdated, much like many other aspects of his dumb film.

“The King’s Man” fails in much of its comedy, but the dramatic scenes aren’t much better. That leaves the action to possibly salvage the film, but the movie falls short in that area too. There are obvious stunt doubles and distracting CGI effects in too many of the action scenes.

The movie’s production design and costume design are actually two things that make “The King’s Man” enjoyable to look at on a superficial level. However, the movie’s tone veers from having slapstick-type goofy comedy to trying to be an intense and serious spy thriller. Ultimately, “The King’s Man” is a movie prequel that makes the “Kingsman” franchise look stuck in an unimaginative rut that’s in desperate need of fresh and new ideas.

20th Century Studios released “The King’s Man” in U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2021.

Review: ‘Summerland,’ starring Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton and Tom Courtenay

August 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gemma Arterton and Lucas Bond in “Summerland” (Photo by Michael Wharley/IFC Films)

“Summerland” 

Directed by Jessica Swale

Culture Representation: Taking place in England from the 1920s to 1970s (and primarily during World War II in the early 1940s), the dramatic film “Summerland” has a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A reclusive writer who’s a confirmed spinster must battle against prejudices (including her own) about raising a child during World War II, when she’s forced to become a foster parent to an evacuated boy, as she struggles to come to terms with a secret love affair that broke her heart.

Culture Audience: “Summerland” will appeal primarily to people who like period dramas that are about parental issues or LGBTQ issues.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Gemma Arterton in “Summerland” (Photo by Michael Wharley/IFC Films)

The emotional drama “Summerland,” which is set in England, takes viewers on a journey of someone who never wanted to become parent but is forced to take care of an evacuee boy during World War II. The experience has a profound effect on the child and his foster parent in more ways than one, in a story that has a few big surprises. Written and directed by Jessica Swale, “Summerland” also serves as a reminder of how it’s more important to judge a a family by how they treat each other, rather than by society prejudices of what a family is supposed to look like.

The movie begins in 1975, in a rural beachside area of Kent, where reclusive and cranky writer Alice Lamb (played by Penelope Wilton), who’s in her 70s, is working at home on a book, by using a typewriter. She’s temporarily interrupted by two girls, about 8 or 9 years old, who are at her front door, asking for donations to help the elderly. Alice rudely tells the girls before she slams the door on them, “You know how you can help the aged? You can bugger off!”

Astute viewers will notice that that the two little girls who were at Alice’s door have a strong physical resemblance to two women whose close relationship is revealed later in the story. Seeing these two little girls together appears to have triggered some of Alice’s memories, because most the movie then flashes back to Alice (played by Gemma Arterton) when she was in her early 40s, living in the same house, during World War II.

Alice was a reclusive writer back then too. She has an unpleasant demeanor and a moody reputation. People don’t know if she’s going to ignore them or snap at them. And because Alice is a never-married, childless woman of certain age who lives alone, she is the subject of a lot of the town’s gossip, with some of the townspeople believing that she might be a witch. A few of the residents have given her the unflattering nickname “The Beast of the Beach,” which is what they call Alice behind her back.

It’s revealed later in the story that Alice (who has no siblings) doesn’t seem to have any close family members or friends. Her mother isn’t really mentioned, but Alice’s father played a huge role in her life by encouraging her to follow her dreams. Alice’s father died when she was a child, and Alice was devastated by this loss.

Alice isn’t just a cantankerous eccentric. She seems to go out of her way to insult or hurt people. For example, she goes into a candy shop and sees that a little girl wants to buy some chocolate, but the girl’s mother says no because they can’t afford it, Alice buys the chocolate that the child wants. But instead of generously giving the chocolate to the little girl, Alice keeps the chocolate for herself and smirks outside when she can hear the little girl crying in dismay inside the shop.

It’s made abundantly clear that Alice doesn’t like children. And so, she’s very shocked when a boy in his early teens is placed into her care, despite her protests. The boy’s name is Frank (played by Lucas Bond), he’s an evacuee from London, and Alice is told that she received a letter from the foster-care system saying that she was expected to take care of him. Alice claims she never received the letter.

Alice tries to come up with excuses not take the child into her care, but the foster-care system is overwhelmed, and Alice is told she has no choice to take Frank until they can find another foster home for him. Frank’s father is serving in the military during the war, while his mother is still in London. Frank’s mother sent Frank away for his safety, since London was the target of intense bombing at the time.

During Frank’s first evening at Alice’s house, she treats him in an annoyed and dismissive manner. For dinner, she plops down raw food on a plate and says, “You don’t expect me to cook for you. There’s the stove.” At night, she doesn’t really care if Frank will sleep well, and she doesn’t do anything to make him feel comfortable. When Frank tells her that he usually has a glass of milk before he goes to sleep, Alice ignores him.

Upon his arrival in Kent, Frank is enrolled in a school called St. Nicholas, where the kindly headmaster Mr. Sullivan (played by Tom Courtenay) provides some comic relief to the story because of his sometimes befuddled manner. During Frank’s first class session at the school, teacher Mrs. Bassett (played by Jessica Gunning) tells everyone to be nice to Frank when she introduces him to the students in the class. Mrs. Bassett assigns a seat next to an unfriendly girl named Edie Corey (played by Dixie Egerickx), who treats Frank like an unwelcome outsider.

When Mrs. Bassett says that Frank and Edie have to be class partners, Edie tells Frank, “I don’t believe in partners or sharing. I’m an individualist. I’m a maverick. Mavericks are free thinkers.”

Edie’s personality is basically a lot like Alice’s. And so, later in the movie, when Edie and Alice first meet, they seem to recognize these unpleasant traits in each other and clash later during a crucial part of the story. Edie also has an additional prejudice against Alice because Edie’s grandmother Margot (played by Siân Phillips) is one of the townspeople who thinks that Alice is a witch.

Edie and Alice eventually warm up to Frank, who is an inquisitive and amiable child, although understandably feeling anxious about when he’ll be able to see his parents again. Alice gradually opens up to Frank about her spiritual beliefs (she’s a pagan and an atheist), her interests (writing, reading and looking for mirages) and her love life (she says she loved someone once, but it was a long time ago). Unlike other people, Frank is not judgmental over Alice being a spinster with no children, so she appreciates that he seems to have an open mind.

Alice’s love affair is shown in flashbacks throughout the film. Alice met Vera (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the love of her life, when they were both attending Oxford University in the 1920s. They had an instant connection and become close very quickly.

Vera and Alice also lived together, but they kept their romance a secret because homosexuality was considered very taboo in that time and place. And so, Alice and Vera pretended to the world that they were platonic roommates. However, Vera and Alice had very different visions of their future.

Alice was more inclined to want to live openly as a lesbian couple, while Vera was still very much closeted. What ultimately drove them apart was Vera’s desire to become a mother, which Vera said was more important to her than anything else—even more important than her relationship with Alice. It’s for this reason that Vera broke up with Alice and walked out of Alice’s life.

This heartbreak puts into better context why Alice is so embittered about love and seems repulsed by the idea of taking care of a child. But as Alice and Frank get to know each other, they both realize that they’ve grown more attached to each other than they thought they would be. And they start to learn that being a good parent doesn’t mean that you have to be heterosexual and married.

When Frank and Alice start to talk about heaven, Alice tells Frank that “heaven was made up to make Christians feel better.” She says that if heaven were real, what about the people who died before Christianity existed? “Where did their souls go?” she asks Frank, who can’t answer the question. Alice tells Frank that does sort of believe in a celestial place called Summerland, which she describes as a “pagan heaven” that isn’t based on religion but a peaceful state of mind.

And one day, when Frank discovers an old music album of Alice’s and asks if they can play the album, she snaps angrily at him and tells him now. She says the album was a gift from a female friend she used to have. Based on her emotionally raw reaction, Frank can tell that this album has brought back some painful memories.

Frank astutely guesses that the album was a gift from the “past love” Alice told him about on another day. When Alice asks Frank, “Do you think it’s strange if a woman loved another woman?” When Frank says no, Alice bursts into tears at his unconditional acceptance.

Alice then tells him that most people think that same-sex love is wicked: “They think it’s a sin and we should burn in hell.” Frank replies, “It’s not as bad as marrying someone you don’t like.” And then it’s Alice’s turn to correctly guess something about Frank’s life: Frank’s parents do not have a happy marriage.

“Summerland” doesn’t clutter the story with a lot of unnecessary characters. The movie shows Alice and Frank’s relationship evolving in ways that are sometimes sweet, sometimes uncomfortable, but emotionally realistic, for the most part. Arterton’s Alice is the center of the movie, which she carries quite well, because the actress understands that it’s not about making Alice likeable but making her believable.

As foster child Frank, Bond does a very good acting job, since Frank is the person who gets Alice to take a hard look at herself and face some of the issues that she’s been hiding underneath her gruff exterior. Frank also learns some harsh lessons about life during his time with Alice. “Summerland” has some moments that blatantly pull at people’s heartstrings, but if people look beyond the film’s sappy moments, there’s an impactful message about being open to change and finding love in unexpected places.

IFC Films released “Summerland” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on July 31, 2020.

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.

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