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

October 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

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

“Friendsgiving”

Directed by Nicol Paone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island,’ starring Lucy Hale and Michael Peña

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell and Michael Peña in “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” (Photo by Christopher Moss/Sony Pictures)

“Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” 

Directed by Jeff Wadlow

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional South Pacific locale, the horror film “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” (inspired by the 1977-1984 TV series) follows a racially diverse cast of middle-class characters who go to a luxurious island to fulfill their biggest fantasies.

Culture Clash: The fantasies turn into nightmares, as the island visitors end up in terrifying life-threatening situations.

Culture Audience: “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” will appeal mostly to horror enthusiasts or curious fans of the original TV series who already know that the movie will be filled with over-the-top entertainment.

Lucy Hale, Maggie Q, Austin Stowell, Jimmy O. Yang, Ryan Hansen and Parisa Fitz-Henley in “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” (Photo by Christopher Moss/Sony Pictures)

Here’s one thing that “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” movie has in common with the 1977-1984 TV series “Fantasy Island” TV series that inspired the film: There’s plenty of cheesiness to go around. The premise is still the same: A group of strangers fly on a private plane to a beautiful island, where they meet their host: the enigmatic Mr. Roarke, who always wears a white suit. All of the strangers are there to fulfill their biggest fantasies. And one by one, they begin to regret that their wishes came true.

The TV series had so much over-the-top ridiculousness (including Mr. Roarke fighting the devil) that people who’ve seen the show might already sense that the movie isn’t going to have any aspirations of being an arthouse film. However, the movie, which was filmed in Fiji, is a pretty good advertisement for the South Pacific country’s gorgeous landscape. The brand name for Blumhouse (the production company whose specialty is horror, with franchises such as “The Purge” and “Insidious”) might be an added attraction, but the quality of Blumhouse films is hit or miss.

Case in point: Blumhouse was the production company behind writer/director Jordan Peele’s 2017 Oscar-winning horror blockbuster “Get Out.” But Blumhouse also did 2017’s “Truth or Dare,” one of Blumhouse’s worst horror movies, directed by Jeff Wadlow, starring Lucy Hale, and written by Wadlow, Chris Roach and Jillian Jacobs. And guess what? All four of them have reteamed for “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island,” which is only slightly better than “Truth or Dare,” because at least “Fantasy Island” made some attempt to be a horror film that’s a little more intricate than a cliché slasher flick. Too bad that attempt results in a convoluted mess.

Who are the strangers who’ve gathered on this island and what are their fantasies? They are contest winners who, when they first arrive, cynically speculate about what kinds of elaborate stunts will be pulled to make their fantasies look realistic. Sarcastic beauty Melanie Cole (played by Hale) wants revenge on former schoolmate Sloane Maddison (played by Portia Doubleday), who bullied Melanie in their childhood. Nerdy stepbrothers JD Weaver (played by Ryan Hansen) and Brax Weaver (played by Jimmy O. Yang) want to live out their wildest party fantasies.

Patrick Sullivan (played by Austin Stowell) is a good-guy cop who has a military “Call of Duty” type of fantasy that involves someone from his past. Insecure and sad Gwen Olsen (played by Maggie Q) wants to go back in time to change a decision she made years ago in her personal life. They are greeted by Mr. Roarke (played by Michael Peña), who tells them that once they’ve started living their fantasies, they can’t go back and change their minds.

The “Fantasy Island” TV series famously had an energetic character named Tattoo (played by Hervé Villechaize) as Mr. Roarke’s assistant. In this movie, Mr. Roarke’s assistant is a woman named Julia (played by Parisa Fitz-Henley), who’s as calm as Tattoo was hyper. This movie’s Mr. Roarke is much more serious and aloof than the TV version of Mr. Roarke (played by Ricardo Montalbán), although one thing is still the same: He greets his staff by saying, “Smiles, everyone. Smiles.”

Speaking of the Fantasy Island staffers in the movie, they are some of the biggest clues that all is not so wonderful on Fantasy Island. Julia gets mysterious nose bleeds and has a vacant stare. (And later in the movie, some of the employees bleed black bile from their eyes.) One of the staffers is so creepy-looking that he looks like he walked straight from an audition for playing Riff Raff in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Because the movie has numerous twists and turns, there’s only so much that can be described without giving away spoiler information. Melanie is taken to a high-tech room where she thinks she’s seeing a hologram of her former nemesis Sloane, who’s tied up and gagged and sitting in a torture-chamber chair. Melanie has fun pushing certain buttons on the control panel that cause Sloane to go through various forms of torture. But then Melanie figures out that the Sloane she’s seeing isn’t a hologram but the real person.

JD and Brax are taken to a massive pool party that looks like a commercial for a Hedonism II Resort, where they’re surrounded by gorgeous people (women for JD; men for Brax, who is openly gay) and whatever they want to get intoxicated. JD and Brax provide most of the comic relief in the film, although some of their poorly written jokes fall flatter than Mr. Roarke’s emotionless voice.

Meanwhile, Patrick isn’t having as much fun as the Weaver brothers. He’s been taken into the jungle by soldiers who start off by treating him like a prisoner, and he has to earn their respect to be part of the squad. As for Gwen, she wakes up to find herself reconnecting with someone she thought she would never see again.

The movie switches back and forth between all four fantasies until some of the fantasies start to overlap with one another. Some characters come and go without much explanation. Some characters might be real or they might be part of a fantasy. And the last 20 minutes of the film are absolutely bonkers with all the plot twists that try to tie in what happened earlier in the story.

“Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” is like a giant tangled, rotting ball of yarn that keeps gathering dustballs of bad ideas on top of more bad ideas. You can try to untangle it to sort it all out, but it’s not worth it, and it’s best to avoid it altogether.

Columbia Pictures released “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” in U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.