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 clichés 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.