Saturday, October 10, 2009

Speed Skating: Whip It

Back when I was in college and music on the Web was in its infancy, hanging out with buddies often entailed going through our CD collections and playing songs for one another’s enjoyment. Sometimes that meant playing tunes we genuinely liked, but at least as often it meant playing songs off the albums of chart-topping, one-hit-wonders that we were ashamed we bought in the first place but couldn’t bring ourselves to throw away. Those extra-embarrassing yet nostalgically pleasing songs were called “treats,” as in, “I’ve got a treat for you,” or “Wow, that’s a treat!” The process went like this: a song would begin, the conversation would stop long enough to recognize the “treat” or perhaps to sing a few lines and then we’d return to talking as one of us flipped through our massive CD binders looking for the next “treat.” This would go on for hours – breathlessly catching up on one another’s lives and pressing play on a new song every few minutes. Unless my buddy Brew was playing deejay, that is.

See, Brew was always so excited about playing the next treat that he never gave the rest of us a chance to enjoy the current song in its entirety. With Brew at the controls, a song would get played just long enough to reach the first chorus (maybe) and then the CD would be removed in favor of a new “treat.” Instead of getting to a new song every three or four minutes, it was a new song every 45 seconds. What does this have to do with Whip It? Quite a lot, actually, because Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut unfolds with an equally staggering ability to shuffle through songs (75 of them in 111 minutes, according to the Los Angeles Times) and with a similar assaultive impatience. Like Brew playing “treats,” Whip It repeatedly sacrifices our enjoyment of the here and now in its almost constant rush to take us someplace else. The result is a movie that feels more like a highlights reel than a complete dramatic experience.

The root of the problem can be traced back to Shauna Cross’ screenplay. Whip It has more tired clich├ęs than it has songs. Ellen Page’s Bliss, for example, is at once (1) the small-town girl looking to break free of the sticks, (2) the ugly duckling trying to become a swan, (3) the micro-managed daughter seeking independence, (4) the raw athletic talent with untapped ability and (5) the girl who catches a few breaks and winds up hurting her best friend in the process. Then there’s Juliet Lewis’ villainous roller derby star Iron Maven, who magically pops up like a prairie dog whenever the plot requires a jolt of conflict, including a scene in which she hangs out behind the bleachers at the roller derby arena in order to deliver a threat right out of the villain handbook, beginning by menacingly repeating the hero’s name (“Bliss, Bliss, Bliss…”) and ending with the ubiquitous girl-movie guilt-trip that goes like this: “What do you think will happen when your friends find out you’ve lied to them?”

Still, Barrymore’s directing and/or the editing by Dylan Techenor do little to obscure Whip It’s paint-by-numbers design. As if acknowledging that we’ve all been here and done that, Whip It plows through plot points like a speed-eater chomping through hotdogs. Numerous scenes might as well be subtitled with “blah, blah, blah,” “yadda, yadda, yadda” and “bullshit, bullshit, bullshit,” and its only fair to question whether the rapid-fire soundtrack is meant to inject life into tired material or to simply distract us from it. The first half of Whip It truly whips right by, with nary any actual tension or even the pretense of it. Bliss proves to have no problem making the roller derby team, or commuting from sleepy Bodeen to Austin, or winning the acceptance of her teammates, or conning her parents or landing a boyfriend. But what’s depressing is how all this haste doesn’t take us to a pleasing destination. When about two-thirds of the way through Bliss proves her growing sense of self by escalating a food fight, an all too familiar comedic device that I’m not sure has delivered any genuine laughs since a 1986 episode of Cheers, the emptiness of this enterprise is unmistakable.

So how come by the end of Whip It I found myself choking back tears, as embarrassed by that pitiful display of emotion as by the fact that I once owned a Color Me Badd album? The answer is twofold. First, Page is irrepressibly charming as Bliss. Second, Barrymore slows down just enough to film a handful of effective Bliss-centric scenes, most notably an entirely implausible but undeniably romantic underwater makeout with Oliver (Landon Pigg), a sweet father-daughter bonding moment with Daniel Stern’s Earl and a perfectly conceived mother-daughter confessional with Marcia Gay Harden’s Brooke. Whip It doesn’t come anywhere close to fulfilling Howard Hawks’ “three great scenes and no bad ones” design for cinematic excellence, but it proves that one very good scene can often make up for two very bad ones.

Alas, Whip It has too many poor scenes to break even. The roller derby action is confusingly staged and is overly reliant upon the mostly lame commentary of Johnny Rocket (Jimmy Fallon). Even worse, it all feels inconsequential anyway. Still, amidst this hyperactive mess there are moments, like when Bliss and best-friend Pash (a scene-stealing Alia Shawkat) dance around and turn Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” into a song about getting out of Bodeen, that Whip It delights. Those treats just pass too quickly.


Mark said...

I kind of liked it.

Hokahey said...

"First, Page is irrepressibly charming as Bliss."

Well, to prove that great minds think alike, here is a quote from the notes I wrote after seeing Whip It on Saturday with my daughter (who loves Drew Barrymore):

"Charmingly engaging in her quirky way, Ellen Page tries very hard to carry this overlong trifle all by herself, as she plays Bliss, a girl from a nowhere town in Texas who discovers a passion for roller derby, a sport and lifestyle that is the antithesis of the boring place she comes from. In her directorial debut, Drew Barrymore knows how to employ Page’s charms, but she doesn’t know how to trim her scenes or act; her part as a roughneck skater is the film’s most irritating element. Besides Page’s touching presence, the best the film has to offer is an artful depiction of a town going nowhere. When Bliss takes an elderly bingo shuttle to Austin to engage in her brutal, sleazy pastime, we see the details of her stultifying environment through her eyes. These images are much more effective than the lackadaisically depicted roller derby contests, which aren’t as suspenseful as their raucous audiences seem to suggest they are."

Also, I enjoyed the scenes you praise - and I especially enjoyed the swimming pool scene. Page makes Bliss a real character; I could see her; I've had students like her. As I said, she carries the film.

Fox said...

Was Brew's last name Darrymore?

Hee hee... sorry.

I'm still anxious to see this b/c it's the first time I saw Ellen Page in a trailer and didn't get annoyed. However, your take on Whip It kind of answers some of my suspicions.

Nonetheless, 75 songs in 111 minutes sounds intriguing. I just hope there is some Weezer in there like there was in the trailer.

Jason Bellamy said...

Mark: Well, I "kind of" liked it. But only kind of. And there was a heck of a lot I disliked about it. But glad to have you back commenting.

Hokahey: Yes, great minds! This is true, and something I didn't get into: "Drew Barrymore knows how to employ Page’s charms, but she doesn’t know how to trim her scenes or act; her part as a roughneck skater is the film’s most irritating element." With her "food fight" moment, Barrymore seems to think she's channeling Belushi here. Not so much.

Fox: No, Brew's last name isn't Derrymore. But in 1992 he got a rash caused by Tom Skerritt. Close enough.

I can't recommend Whip It, as parts are truly painful. But listening to the soundtrack a bit has allowed my favorite scenes to bubble to the surface, and I'm thankful for that.

darci said...

I really enjoyed the film - not only was it a lot of fun, but it had some heart, too. No, it's not an amazing cinematic achievement, but I felt like I got my money's worth.

Juliette Lewis was amazing, and surprisingly, Kristen Wiig was also excellent, straying from her annoying nervous character that she always seems to do.

Still, the highlight of the film for me is the music, especially since Drew Barrymore used “Unattainable” by Little Joy – that was my favorite song of 2008, and it's cool to see it get some more exposure. There were something like 75 songs in the movie, and for a music lover like me, I thought that was pretty cool.

Jason Bellamy said...

Darci: Thanks for the comment. We'll have to agree to disagree on Lewis, but I agree with you here:

"Kristen Wiig was also excellent, straying from her annoying nervous character that she always seems to do."

Very well said. Also, the music is the heartbeat of this movie, for sure. Impossible to imagine the movie without it. Whether that's a compliment or an insult, I'm not sure.

FilmDr said...

I like the Joleen Bodene song bit too. I find myself rapidly forgetting the movie, but some things do linger in the mind: Page's performance, the odd way that Drew inserts herself in the movie (the ultimate Hitchcockian multicameo), and the occasional hipster design of a shot. Whip It views like Drew wanted to make an indie album in cinematic form, and there were times I was strongly reminded of Cameron Crowe's work.

Information Review said...

I saw the movie in the theater and I enjoyed the movie from beginning to the end, very inspiring and fun to watch. Drew Barrymore did an excellent job on directing Whip It! It had me laughing a lot, which is always a good thing.

Great review