2021 | unrated (R equivalent) | starring Iliza Shlesinger, Ryan Hansen, Margret Cho | directed by Kimmy Gatewood | 1 hr 32 mins |
When Eliza Shlesinger first jumped out of the TV competition show Last Comic Standing she carved out a niche – one that started as cringe and matured and refined over the course of her first 3 stand-up specials – taking on the secret, catty, vindictive life of female mean-girl culture that exists away from male eyes. Whether it’s accurate or not it was a take nobody else in the pop culture sphere was touching and Shlesinger molded into a comic weapon with wit, imagination and precise delivery. We never got a movie from that phase of her career, but around 2016 Shlesinger seemed to decide “If you can’t beat them, join them” and pivoted away from original material to join the mainstream pop culture and deliver the same Men are Pigs jokes that has proliferated since the 80s. Now instead of manipulating everything behind the scenes, the women of Shlesinger’s acts were perennial victims of a patriarchal society and every minute of every day was a torture for them.
Which brings us to Good on Paper, Shlesinger’s film debut, written by her and directed by TV alum Kimmy Gatewood, the film side-steps and twists the traditional rom-com while remaining dull and blunted, Shlesinger unable to go for the jugular in relationship commentary and gender dynamics that she used to do so well.
The “semi-autobiographical” tale stars Shlesinger as, yes, a stand up comedian named Andrea who after a series of the usual failed relationships and cynicism meets Dennis (Ryan Hansen, Veronica Mars), a dorky but successful and wealthy guy caring for his ailing mother. The two become fast friends with Dennis helping Andrea audition, until things turn romantic much to Andrea’s surprise. The closer they get the more evasive Dennis becomes conveniently coming up with excuses to let Andrea see his house or meet his mother so Andrea and her friend (Margret Cho) set out to find out who he really is.
That Good on Paper eschews a rom-com format for a catfishing story investigated by a makeshift Scooby gang is a lot more fun than the alternative would have been, but Shlesinger, curiously enough is so busy rustling together plot mechanics of the mystery and make side-swiping pot shots at larger gender themes, that she doesn’t hone in on the comedy of the situation. On the rare occasion they do arrive, the jokes are broad and flat. Even the Hollywood commentary brings nothing new to the table, with Andrea being cast in some sci-fi weekly procedural called Space Cadet to get back at her acting rival. We get jokes about sexist writers stealing her ideas and jokes about how she looks older than her age. But in a post-Weinstein Hollywood era all of this could have been even more caustic, in a post-Weinstein era we know that you’re lucky if some sleazebag Hollywood producer only stole your jokes. The villain here is Dennis for going to outrageous lengths to deceive this girl into thinking that he checks all of her relationship boxes, when Shlesinger of a decade ago would have satirized a woman’s box-checking exercise itself as part of the problem.
Good on Paper waivers between a mystery, a thriller, a gender commentary, a romance and a comedy without hitting any of those particularly deep. It’s entertaining, and I was moved along by the film’s solid pace to keep going and find out the truth and what Andrea would do when she learns truth – at which point the movie takes an even stranger tonal turn. If this wasn’t Iliza Shlesinger I wouldn’t have expected more, I wanted her first movie to make an impact. To be bold and incisive. However, none of the film’s turns pop the movie to life beyond an effortless, easy Saturday night diversion.