Friday, July 30, 2010

Whip It Stirs and Settles

Whip It
Directed by Drew Barrymore
Running Time: 111 minutes
Originally Released: October 2, 2009

* * ½ (out of four)

Life in Bodeen, Texas is anything but blissful for 17-year-old Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page). Wrapping up her senior year in high school and working nights at the Oink Joint, Bliss could use a little excitement in her life. The beauty pageants she dutifully participates in at the behest of her former-beauty-queen mother (Marcia Gay Harden) don’t quite fit the bill, even when Bliss shocks Mom and the judges alike by showing up with blue-dyed hair. Yes, there is tension between Bliss and her mother, which is why Bliss keeps it a secret when she decides to attend a gritty, female roller derby event in nearby Austin. There, Bliss finds herself transfixed by the tough-as-nails athletes who flaunt their sexuality with tongue-in-cheek stage names like Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore) and Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). She also meets Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), who informs her that the Hurl Scouts derby team is holding tryouts the following week and encourages Bliss to participate. Inspired, Bliss does just that and, thanks to her speed rather than her strength, secures a spot on a team that has never yet won a match. Let the games begin.

Whip It has a much more exciting premise than its onscreen incarnation conveys. Featuring the bone-crunching sport of roller derby, where participants ruthlessly knock the wind out of each other and attempt to leave their opponents prostrate on the floor, the movie is surprisingly devoid of zeal. People are making quite a fuss over Whip It’s being Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, and she succeeds in almost every department except where it matters most—capturing the energy of the game. It is a subtle failure that arises from a string of near misses—the brutality of roller derby is understood by the audience rather than felt, the competitions are displayed rather than brought to life, and Bliss practices, rather than struggles or fights, to become a better player. Coupled with a fairly by-the-book script, these minor infractions make a big dent in the strength of the film. Although Whip It remains pleasantly upbeat, the sport of roller derby, with its cyberpunk veneer, demands more pizzazz than Barrymore delivers. The girls look and act mean, sure, but the derby competitions themselves feel more innocuous than they probably should.

It’s sad, really, that Whip It isn’t a better flick, because this one should have been in the bag. Page is a rare combination of girl-next-door charm, funky charisma, and down-to-earth intelligence; had Whip It packed more momentum or been even slightly less formulaic, one suspects Bliss Cavendar would have been a character to remember. As it is, this is the first time Page has been outshined by any of her co-stars, though it is primarily because Bliss is too blasé a character for Page to wow us with. Genuine kudos must be given to Harden, who shines as Bliss’s perfectly imperfect perfectionist mother. Daniel Stern also impresses as Earl, Bliss’ laidback but non-confrontational father, who all too happily lets his wife reign over the home. As the Hurl Scouts’ coach, Razor, Andrew Wilson is a likeable, less quirky version of his younger brother, Owen. (He reminded me of Owen Wilson before I knew he was a Wilson brother. In fact, I was going to describe him as a cross between Owen Wilson and Aaron Eckhart, which still seems appropriate.) As for the rest of the cast, the performances are fairly middle-of-the-road. This will disappoint fans of Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat, who plays Bliss’ best friend, Pash, but never gets the chance to flex her comedic muscles. Nearly the same can be said for fans of late night talk show host and Saturday Night Live alumnus Jimmy Fallon, who plays roller derby announcer Johnny Rocket. Fallon has ample opportunity to demonstrate his comedic chops, but he largely comes up short.

Whip It is a fun movie with a thread of mediocrity woven throughout. It has all the right conceptual components, but the script itself skates too safely down the middle, taking all and only the obvious turns. The cast is talented and certainly seems to be having fun making the movie, but this only makes it more baffling that some of that energy doesn’t translate to the screen. Perhaps Barrymore’s personality has infiltrated the film more than it should have. At first blush, it would seem Barrymore’s trademark blend of sass and spunk would be a perfect complement to a movie about female roller derby, but somehow she makes the sport look more mischievous than menacing. For a movie that aspires to be a sports film with an edge, Whip It’s edges have been surprisingly dulled.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't decide if this movie looks good or not. Doesn't sound like it's quite worth it.
    We don't get Netflix or anything. We rent a movie here and there when we come upon $4 and can spare it. Sometimes we watch stuff on t.v. (they have satellite here). So, we're pretty limited in our movie watching. I have to wait for the baby to go to bed anyway to really pay attention and then I usually fall asleep! :( Still loving your reviews!