Culture Representation: Taking place in Boston, Rome, and Central America, the comedy film “Confess, Fletch” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: In his first night at a rented vacation townhouse in Boston, a freelance journalist finds a murdered woman in the living room, he becomes a prime suspect in her murder, and he annoys the police by trying to solve the murder himself.
Culture Audience: “Confess, Fletch” will appeal mainly to people who are star Jon Hamm and fans of author Gregory Mcdonald’s “Fletch” mystery novel series and murder mystery comedies that have wisecracking characters.
Thanks to a very talented cast, the comedy film “Confess, Fletch” is an adequately entertaining story that should satisfy fans of murder mysteries and the book on which this movie is based. Jon Hamm’s skill for dry wit holds everything together. Without his great sense of comedic timing, the protagonist of “Confess, Fletch” wouldn’t be as interesting to watch.
Directed by Greg Mottola (who co-wrote the “Confess, Fletch” screenplay with Zev Borow), “Confess, Fletch” is adapted from Gregory Mcdonald’s 1976 book of the same title. The movie has been updated to take place in the early 2020s. This update is put to great use involving the movie’s running gag about GPS tracking.
At the beginning of “Confess, Fletch,” Irving Maurice Fletcher (played by Hamm), who prefers to be called by his nickname Fletch, is spending his first night at a rental townhouse in Boston. He goes downstairs to fix himself a drink, she he sees a murdered young woman on the living room floor. The cause of death is blunt force trauma to the head.
Fletch calmly calls 911 to report the murder, and he fixes himself drink. When the police arrive, Fletch appears too casual about everything and immediately falls under suspicion, since he was the only person in the house to find the body. When the estimated time of death is later revealed, Fletch doesn’t have an alibi. To make matters worse for Fletch, his fingerprints are all over the murder weapon: a wine bottle.
The name of the murder victim is Laurel Goodwin (played by Caitlin Zerra Rose), who was an aspiring art dealer or art broker. She was working as a barista while trying to start a career in the art industry. Fletch insists to the police that he never met or saw Laurel before he found her dead in the townhouse. He also says he has no motive to kill this stranger.
The two police officials who are on the case are Sergeant Inspector Morris Monroe (played by Roy Wood Jr.) and his rookie partner Griz (played by Ayden Mayeri), who also goes by the name Gracie. Fletch is the type of person who’s irked that he had to tell these investigators his real full name, but Griz refuses to tell Fletch what her real full name is. Throughout the movie, Fletch plays pranks on Griz, who is more gullible than Inspector Monroe.
Inspector Monroe thinks that Fletch is the most likely suspect, and he’s inclined to arrest Fletch for the murder, but there’s not enough evidence. Instead, Inspector Monroe keeps telling Fletch to make things easy for everyone by confessing to the murder. Instead, Fletch (who has a background in investigative journalism) irritates the police by trying to solve the murder himself.
Why is Fletch in Boston? The townhouse was actually rented by Fletch’s new girlfriend Angela De Grassi (played by Lorenza Izzo), a wealthy Italian heiress whom he met in Rome. Angela and Fletch have been dating for only one month. During their whirlwind romance, Angela finds out that several valuable paintings owned by her father have been stolen. And then, her father gets kidnapped. One of the paintings is a Picasso worth $20 million.
Fletch was able to find out that a Boston-based art collector named Ronald Horan (played by Kyle MacLachlan) has bought one of the paintings, but the painting hasn’t been delivered yet. It doesn’t mean that Ronald knows that the paintings have been stolen. Fletch is in Boston to investigate who will be delivering the painting and to find out if Ronald knows that the art has been stolen. Police in Italy are investigating the reported kidnapping of Angela’s father.
In other words, Fletch has tasked himself with two investigations in this story: the investigation of who murdered Laurel Goodwin and the investigation of who stole the De Grassi family paintings. Angela bitterly complains to Fletch that Angela’s stepmother Countess Sylvia De Grassi (played by Marcia Gay Harden) is a gold digger and might have been responsible for this art theft to get a secret fortune from selling the paintings.
Fletch sometimes stumbles and fumbles in his investigations, but he often manages to stay one step ahead of the police. He encounters some eccentric chararacters along the way, including Countess De Grassi, who tries to seduce Fletch in ways the movie deliberately compares to the Mrs. Robinson character in the 1968 film “The Graduate.” Harden (who is American in real life) is hilarious in this Countess De Grassi role, even though Harden’s Italian accent isn’t always believable.
The townhouse is owned by Owen Tasserly (played by John Behlmann), a wealthy heir who has been floundering in life. He tried and failed to be an actor and a restaurant owner. Owen is currently an art dealer who’s in the middle of a contentious divorce and custody battle over his underage daughter. Owen was apparently away on a trip to Europe during the murder, so he has an alibi.
Other characters in the story include Owen’s flaky neighbor Eve (played by Annie Mumolo), who is a talkative stoner with an apparent crush on Owen; Tatiana Tasserly (played by Lucy Punch), Owen’s pretentious and estranged wife; and gruff and sarcastic Frank Jaffe (played by John Slattery), who used to be Fletch’s boss at the Los Angeles Tirbune and who currently works as an editor at the Boston Sentinel. “Mad Men” fans should be pleased that former “Mad Men” stars Hamm and Slattery have a few scenes together in “Confess, Fletch.”
The movie has a breezy tone that plays up Fletch’s “naughty boy” attitude. Fletch is also a huge fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, which is used for recurring jokes in the film, such as Fletch’s fondness for wearing a Los Angeles Lakers cap and flaunting his Lakers fandom to people in Boston, who are no doubt Boston Celtics fans. Comparisons are inevitable to director Michael Ritchie’s 1985 “Fletch” movie (starring Chevy Chase in the title role), but “Confess, Fletch” and Hamm’s portrayal of Fletch makes this character less of a slapstick buffoon and more of a grizzled wiseass with sex appeal. Overall, “Confess, Fletch” (just like the title character himself) has some flaws and missteps, but the movie’s self-effacing comedy is appealing because it always lets the audience in on the joke.
Miramax/Paramount Pictures released “Confess, Fletch” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 16, 2022. Showtime will premiere the movie on October 28, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the dark comedy film “Silent Night” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with two black people) representing the working-class and upper-middle-class.
Culture Clash: Before an impending apocalypse, a family gathers for one last Christmas dinner, where secrets are revealed, and there are emotionally painful debates over suicide.
Culture Audience: “Silent Night” will appeal primarily to people that are interested in watching very dark satires of how people deal with certain death.
“Silent Night” takes heartwarming movie clichés about Christmas holiday gatherings, and burns those stereotypes to a crisp. It’s not a horror film but a very dark comedy about how an apocalypse brings out the best and worst in people. Some viewers who have no problem watching apocalypse movies might have a problem with how the impending doom in “Silent Night” involves children and is set during the Christmas holiday season. Therefore, this movie is not for people who are very religious, or sensitive people who are extremely offended by debates about committing suicide versus waiting to be killed by an apocalypse.
“Silent Night” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Camille Smith, who took a bold risk to make her first feature film focused on such an uncomfortable topic and making it a satire. It’s a dialogue-heavy film about an upper-middle-class British family gathered for one last Christmas dinner on the eve of an apocalypse. There are secrets and lies that are revealed during this dinner, but this is not a typical apocalyptic movie where all the characters want to stay alive.
What makes “Silent Night” so different from other apocalyptic movies is that people in the movie have the option to take an Exit pill, which will kill them almost immediately, in order to avoid suffering during the apocalypse. It’s this suicide angle that’s the most likely to make “Silent Night” offensive or controversial to some viewers. However, the movie does point out the uncomfortable truth that tragedies such as suicide don’t stop just because of an impending apocalypse.
The movie is a disquieting roller coaster ride about how people’s minds can be messed with when dealing with the destructive end of the world as they know it. Some people want to plan ahead and be as prepared as possible. Some people want to deny it all and act like everything’s fine until the last possible moment. Some people don’t want to stick around for the apolocaypse to happen and want to take control of how and when they will die. Other people want to hold out hope that maybe they and their loved ones can survive the apocalypse.
This varied range of emotions and attitudes are all on display with the family gathered for this meal. Although there are many characters in the story, they have distinct personalities, so it’s easy to tell them apart. These family members are:
Nell (played by Keira Knightley), a high-strung socialite who is determined to keep the annual holiday tradition of having a fabulous Christmas dinner at her home.
Simon (played by Matthew Goode), Nell’s patient and loving husband, who is more willing to discuss the impending apocalypse than Nell is.
Art (played by Roman Griffin Davis), Nell and Simon’s outspoken and foul-mouthed youngest child, who’s about 12 or 13 years old.
Hardy (played by Hardy Griffin Davis) and Thomas (played by Gilby Griffin Davis), the identical twin sons of Nell and Simon. The twins, who are about 14 or 15 years old, are almost as bratty as their younger brother Art.
Sandra (played by Annabelle Wallis), Nell’s materialistic and judgmental older sister.
Tony (played by Rufus Jones), Sandra’s laid-back and often-henpecked husband.
Kitty (played by Davida McKenzie), Sandra and Tony’s prim and proper daughter, who’s about 12 or 13 years old.
Bella (played by Lucy Punch), Nell and Sandra’s irresponsible queer older sister, who is a single mother, but her child is not with her at this dinner.
Alex (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Bella’s girlfriend, who works as a bodyguard and is more sensible than Bella.
James (as Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), Alex’s younger brother, who is an oncologist in his early 30s.
Sophie (played by Lily-Rose Deep), James’ American girlfriend, who’s about 10 years younger than James is.
At first, the gathering seems festive and full of cheer, as everyone avoids talking about the apocalypse in depth. However, not everyone wants to be at this party. An early scene in the movie shows that while Sophie and James were driving to Nell and Simon’s house, Sophie expresses her reluctance to go to the party this year. There’s definitely disagreeable tension between this couple. Eventually, the bickering and discord begin among other people at this gathering.
Sandra and Bella have a little argument because someone named Lizzie wasn’t invited to this dinner party. Sandra was supposed to invite Lizzie, whom Bella doesn’t like. But Sandra thought that Bella would invite Lizzie. The two sisters can’t agree on whose responsibility it was to give the invitation, so they reach a stalemate.
Meanwhile, brothers Art, Hardy and Thomas are little terrors when teasing Kitty, who is a serious and often-mopey child. Kitty is offended by the brothers’ cursing. She snootily says that coarse language is for “common” people. Kitty is also upset because she wants sticky toffee pudding, which Kitty has every year at this dinner, but Nell forget to buy the pudding this year, and Nell tries to hide this fact.
Later, when the family members open their gifts around the Christmas tree, Kitty is unhappy with her gift (a talking doll), and refuses to give a “thank you” hug to her mother Sandra. Why? As Kitty pouts to Sandra, “You’re wearing my education on your feet.” In other words, Sandra spent the money for Kitty’s future school tuition on high-priced shoes. After all, what good is that money going to be in the future if the world is going to end and there’s very little chance of survival?
Before dinner, the three sisters gather in the kitchen to exchange gossip and catty remarks. They wonder out loud if Sophie is anorexic because she’s very thin. Nell and Bella mention that before they became mothers, they used to do cocaine to keep their weight down. All three sisters think that Sophie is too young for James.
Meanwhile, the men gather in the greenhouse on the property, where James reveals a big secret that he doesn’t want Nell, Sandra, Bella, Alex and the children to know about. The secret involves a major decision that has to be made before the apocalypse happens. The problem is that certain people involved in the decision don’t agree on what should be done.
By the first 15 minutes of “Silent Night,” it becomes obvious that this family is not the warm and fuzzy type, with or without an apocalypse. Nell has her big annual Christmas dinner mainly so she can show off to other members of the family. But this year, it’s different. There’s enough food and drinks to go around, but the meal isn’t as lavish as it was in the past. For example, instead of having a fancy potato dish that would be normal for this dinner, Nell says that the entire group can only have one potato per person.
It’s the first sign of rationing that implies a food shortage has been going on for quite some time. Over this scaled-back dinner, Sophie gets confrontational with Kitty about the Queen of England’s recent televised Christmas speech. Sophie is offended because she thinks that the queen looked like she was giving the speech inside of a bunker. Sophie thinks that the British royal family secretly has access to apocalypse-proof safe houses. Kitty says that it doesn’t matter because the queen is “old” and “the Russians want us all dead.”
And then, people at this fateful dinner start talking about the apocalypse, which is described as an “environmental disaster.” It’s implied that scientists predicted the exact day that the apocalypse would arrive, much like hurricanes can be predicted with precision. On television, Art sees a commercial for the Exit pill. His curiosity about the pill leads him to ask questions that the adults find difficult to answer.
The movie makes a little bit of a sociopolitical commentary when it soon becomes clear that the Exit pill is only for people who can afford it. Simon tells Art that some people in society, such as homeless people and illegal immigrants, haven’t been given the Exit pill. Simon explains to Art that the Exit pill has been withheld from certain groups of people because the government doesn’t think they legally exist.
“Silent Night” doesn’t get bogged down in political preaching. Instead, the big ethical debate in the movie is whether or not parents have the right to decide if their underage children should take the Exit pill or not. Art has an opinion that is very different from his parents. Other people at this family gathering have conflicting opinions if they or other people should take the Exit pill.
Because “Silent Night” takes place entirely on the estate property of Nell and Simon, the movie is meant to be somewhat claustrophobic in its contained setting. (Trudie Styler, who is one of the movie’s producers, has a cameo as a family friend named Nicole, who says her last goodbyes via a video conference call.) The number of people in the cast is relatively small, but the movie is realistic in showing that most people in an impending disaster would want to stick close to home with family members.
“Silent Night” has its share of flaws (there’s some contrived soap opera melodrama), and the movie will disappoint viewers who are expecting more action or more likable characters. However, all of the cast members give capable performances, and writer/director Griffin maintains an effective level of suspense over what’s going to happen in this story. Ultimately, “Silent Night” succeeds in its intention to pose disturbing questions about how an apocalypse should be handled when power and privilege play more of a role than some people would like to admit.
RLJE Films released “Silent Night” in select U.S. cinemas, and AMC+ premiered the movie on December 3, 2021.
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.
“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.