Ingrid Goes West + The Little Hours: Aubrey Plaza’s Summer Fun

Image courtesy of Neon.

Ingrid Goes West (** 1/2)

In this Age of Facebook, everyone knows someone with an unhealthy obsession with social media. But even then, watching Ingrid Goes West will probably leave you gaping in disbelief. First-time director Matt Spicer has set his sights on doing what Paddy Chayefsky did decades ago in Network: satirizing our overly intimate relationship with electronic screens. And you gotta give him credit – in Ingrid Thornburn (Aubrey Plaza), a 20-something woman we first meet when she’s pepper spraying an Instagram friend who forgot to invite her to a wedding, Spicer has created a character who makes Howard Beale look quite reasonable. It’s not every day, after all, that you get to watch someone move halfway across the country, squander a $60,000 inheritance, and kidnap dogs just so she can become BFFs with a photographer (named Taylor, played by Elizabeth Olsen) who happens to have a cool Instagram profile.

On the whole, Ingrid usually proves quite funny, and Plaza’s performance always commands your attention. Yet in spite of all this, Spicer’s attempt at satire suffers from an excess of sociopathy. Unlike Howard Beale or the characters in Wild Tales, Ingrid is not an ordinary person turned mad by external circumstances. Rather, she’s always so willing to do anything it takes to woo Taylor that you can’t help but feel she’s inherently a lunatic. And while that does make for plenty of facepalm-worthy comedy, it also ensures that this satire loses any chance it might have had at prodding you into examining your own digital consumption habits. The absurdity of Ingrid’s behavior, in other words, gives you an excuse to believe that her problems are an anomaly with no bearing on your own life; Spicer’s story could be the spiritual cousin of A United Kingdom, which depicted racism as the quaint problem of a few messed-up jerks instead of the pervasive ill it really is.

Image courtesy of Neon.

The other problem with Ingrid arises from its overly gentle portrayal of screen addiction and its effects. As anyone who’s ever had trouble controlling time spent online can tell you, being forced to relinquish hours of your free time for the sake of an empty compulsion is anything but fun or fulfilling. Ingrid occasionally alludes to this idea, particularly in a scene in which Taylor’s husband (Wyatt Russell) angrily claims that Instagram has ruined their lives. Yet the only problem we ourselves ever see in Taylor’s life is that she claims to read books she hasn’t: otherwise, there’s very little indication that the husband’s accusation is warranted. Meanwhile, the overall craziness of Ingrid’s personality makes her constant phone-checking seem more like a deliberate act of quasi-comical psychopathy than the dangerous, mind-numbing, and irresistible impulse it probably actually is. However you look at it, this movie never demonstrates an awareness of the grisly realities that underlie its humor, and it feels rather toothless as a result.

Still, despite Ingrid’s many flaws, one thing could at least partially redeem it: it’s an attempt at satire, which means Ingrid’s personality might look more reasonable in time. When Billy Wilder first released Sunset Blvd., after all, people initially thought that Norma Desmond was a needlessly dark caricature. And the rise of Donald Trump has made clear that Howard Beale was anything but the absurd exaggeration he must’ve seemed back in ’76. The digital era has only just begun bearing its fruits; if social media continues to grow as it has, there may very well be people who find themselves willing to do risky or criminal things to salvage their online relationships. We’ll have to wait and see if Ingrid has enough prescience to make up for its fumbles.

 

Image courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky.

The Little Hours (***)

As one of the best-kept secrets of world literature, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron has always provided a testament to the indelible role hormones play in shaping our behavior. And in Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours, a comedy based on two of Boccaccio’s stories, you get a movie that, in true Boccaccian style, illustrates this idea in the silliest way possible. Baena follows the lives of three medieval nuns (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci) who, far from being the stern figures you’d expect, drop f-bombs, experiment with each other, and binge drink. When an attractive young man (Dave Franco) becomes their convent’s gardener, moreover, they each decide to pursue him with a single-mindedness that leaves you wondering whether you stumbled into an episode of Gossip Girl. Fast forward past several awkward sex scenes and an extravagant witches’ bonfire, and you’ll find your conception of the Middle Ages as an era of stultifying piety has been utterly destroyed.

For all the silly antics it indulges, however, The Little Hours is smarter than it looks. Baena, unlike Matt Spicer, always keeps the comedy firmly anchored in the realities of the era. These nuns may talk and act tough, but they’re completely dependent on the men in their lives, a fact poignantly highlighted when the father of Brie’s character tells her that he still hasn’t earned enough to marry her off with a suitable dowry. Moreover, the story generally depicts the church as a corruptible institution that people openly flout, but the actions of a visiting bishop (Fred Armisen) serve as a comical yet meaningful reminder that the actual church often proved quite willing to punish the unfaithful. Baena never forgets that these nuns are trapped beings: beneath the laughs, there’s a layer of tragedy to their lives, and that gives their actions an emotional resonance that their modern-day frat/sorority counterparts often lack.

It’d be a stretch to suggest that The Little Hours will end up being considered a “classic.” As funny as they are, nearly all of its jokes arise from the disparity between our stereotypical conception of nuns and the things Brie, Plaza, and Micucci do on screen; moreover, if you’re a fan of medieval parodies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you might not find Baena’s work particularly groundbreaking. Still, the performances – watch for Chicago’s John C. Reilly as a priest who loves a good drink – are wonderful to watch. More importantly, Baena never apologizes for his plot’s many absurdities, and the end result provides much more fun than other, better-publicized “comedies” (cough cough, Big Sick) that try too hard to be respectable. Sometimes, all you need is a good laugh – and by reviving a neglected classic, The Little Hours delivers that with ease.

Image courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky.

***

The Little Hours (2017) Ingrid Goes West (2017)
Starring: Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Nick Offerman Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen
Running Time: 90 minutes 97 minutes
MPAA Rating: R R
Produced by: Elizabeth Destro, Aubrey Plaza Aubrey Plaza, Jared Ian Goldman, Tim White, Trevor White, Adam Mirels, Robert Mirels
Written by: Jeff Baena Matt Spicer, David Branson Smith
Directed by: Jeff Baena Matt Spicer