Rated R for being a teenage raunchy comedy. Yeah, it's got brains. But it also involves all kinds of sexual innuendo, sexuality, drug use, things that border on the pornographic, and stuff that I wouldn't want my kids watching. Raunch comedies have to have raunch and Booksmart, for all of its intelligence, can't avoid what makes the teen comedy so successful. I also will be discussing abuses in people of power within the article, so keep an eye out for that. Hard R.
DIRECTOR: Olivia Wilde
I remember this movie making waves. Like, everyone was talking about it. And when I mean everyone, my feed was full of people reminding me that Booksmart was still in theaters. We lead a fairly boring life in the best way possible. We're hip to nothing anymore. I can tell you that we got a Snoo. That's the level of cool we're at. But when I saw that Booksmart was on Hulu, I was going to take full advantage of the fact that this major movie that garnered a lot of attention was easy to watch. And you know what? It's pretty much worth it.
My big question for the movie (and, by proxy, this article) is, "How does something feel fresh when it might be one of the most time-honored stories in comedy history?" The losers who have one last chance at high school fame making their way to the party. It has taken multiple forms. Can't Hardly Wait, Superbad, and, if you squint, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. (I argue that White Castle is always a party and there's a high stakes need to get those tiny burgers.) I mean, I've seen Can't Hardly Wait a billion times when I was in high school, but nothing really sticks out for me right now. So I'm going to make the comparison to Superbad. Honestly, it's probably the closest movie in terms of plot right now. I loved Superbad, but I was one of those people who distanced himself once everyone loved Superbad. It's my hipster cred, y'all. I gotta maintain it. I remember thinking, "Man, for such a dumb movie, it's pretty smart."
I kind of got the same feeling about Booksmart. But part of me never wanted to acknowledge that it was a dumb movie to start with. I mean, there is some pretty base humor in this movie. Like all of these journeys of discovery, the protagonists get drugged and experience a different plane. I give Wilde and her team complete props for using the Barbie dolls as a means to explain what it must be like to have a drug trip. (I'm both straight edge and a hipster. What?) But the story is basically the same. In all of these stories (and I hate that I'm using the word "all"), there's a goal that they establish for themselves. Because they have vocalized their quest, that quest gains significance. The only real downside is the potential loss of self-discovery. There's something hyper-aware about the party quest. We all know that the party will both fail expectations and completely exceed expectations. But part of the conflict is the internal conflict. The protagonists in Booksmart are aware that there is something incomplete in their lives that they didn't know existed before this moment. (I actually hate that Molly vocalizes that she's going because of a crush because it almost minimizes the quest.) On the last day of school, Molly realizes that her obsessive study habits have led her to being basic. Everyone is getting into a school of choice. (I kind of love this and kind of don't believe it for a second.)
There's an agreement that we make as an audience when this quest is put out there. We all kind of have to lie to ourselves. The idea of the party becomes something far more grandiose than it actually is. Lives are made and destroyed at these parties. There's something ancient about this event that seems almost spiritual. From an outside perspective, we know that the people at the party are terrible people. Amy and Ryan aren't going to work out. We all know that one party can't do this. If anything, it highlights the inadequacies that Amy has been demonstrating her entire high school career. If it was ever going to work out, it would work out anywhere BUT the party. Molly and Nick also make no sense. If anything, Wilde and her team perpetuate a fantasy that really doesn't exist. Nick's complete character change is such an obvious red herring, meant to disappoint us because it is such a fantasy.
But these movies always tend to give us something potentially unearned. We see these characters go through the wringer. We fall in love with them because we've seen them at their highs and lows. Amy and Molly start out lovable, comfortable in the knowledge that they are better than everyone else. But they hit a series of lows. Molly evokes a sacred trump card and Amy follows. But Molly doesn't respect the rules. It becomes this uneven power dynamic between the two characters. Because Amy is doing something begrudgingly, Molly becomes this quasi-villain in the story. We know that Molly's goals are noble (kind of), but her means of achieving those goals is phenomenally selfish. What the journey to Nirvana does to the two girls is risk not only the potential of self-discovery, but a loss of what they had going into the mission: each other.
But all this being said, there is something really bothers me. Like, it's uncomfortable. Let's have a discussion about Miss Fine. Listen, Booksmart may be the first woke raunchy comedy. It addresses all kinds of antiquated notions and confronts them head on. It does very little laughing-at and does a lot of laughing-with. Good for this movie. It's taking a lot of steps forwards. But that being said...why is it okay with kinda / sorta statutory rape? I'm going for the heavy implication first because I don't want to dance around it. It really seems like Miss Fine slept with one of her students at the party. I know it said that he was 20. But the entire (uncomfortable) joke of her character is that she knows that what she is doing is pathetic. There's a power dynamic that is really gross in that situation. Miss Fine is disgusted by her own behavior, but she does it anyway. There's also the concept that Miss Fine is someone to be conquered. It's pretty gross. I have a pretty solid slam dunk on that one (even though I'm still convincing people that Call Me by Your Name is the same dynamic). But the real trouble comes from Miss Fine's behavior through the movie. Miss Fine, on the last day of school, gives some students her number and asks them to call her. Okay, I allow former students to be Facebook friends after they graduate, but even that is a distance from "Call me." Then, Miss Fine picks up these girls and drives them to a party where she knows that drinking is going on?
There's something about the mythical fun teacher that works in Hollywood but is really gross in real life. A lot of the younger teachers I meet who are considered the "cool teachers" try to bond with students by stressing their laissez-faire attitude. But these teachers end up being way more ineffective than they are supposed to be. The whole Miss Fine thing is uncomfortable because it normalizes sexual abuse. Also, for a movie that is so supportive of strong female characters, isn't it just degrading to women to say, "I guess I'll sleep with my student because I have nothing else going for me?" It's really gross. I don't know. I didn't laugh at any of the Miss Fine bits because it just read as counterproductive to the film as a whole.
Anyway, shy of this moment, I dug the film as a whole. I don't at all buy Amy's relationship with the mean girl. The whole myth of people who hate each other being perfect for one another, although Shakespearean, is the worst. These two barely know anything about each other and then they go at it. On top of that, the encounter involves Amy vomiting all over this girl. Why would she be back? Is it because Amy went to prison? I don't know.
But again, I liked this movie a lot. Maybe I like the formula, but Olivia Wilde puts forwards this absolutely fun movie that seems to show that comedy can grow up again while still being as immature as ever. It's well-written. It has phenomenal talent. Sure, it's a bit stupid at times, but it has a lot of heart where it needs it. Check it out, especially now that it is on Hulu.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.