The laughs are the least effective element in the coming-of-age comedy Booksmart. Don’t misunderstand me: Booksmart is a funny movie. There are several gags and one entire sequence in particular that is downright inspired. But with four different screenwriters – Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman each supplied rewrites and revisions to Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins original script during the preproduction process – the movie feels a little overwritten. The comedy style is too frenetic and never settles down enough to deliver really big laughs.
The other facets of the story all work splendidly. In addition to being a raunchy high-school comedy, Booksmart is also about the bonds of friendship and teenagers testing the unexplored parts of themselves that will define who they become. On both those scores, it’s a total success.
The chemistry between the two leads, Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, is the real strength of the film. They play high-school seniors and best friends Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein). The two overachievers spent their high-school years focused on academic perfection at the cost of all else. On the eve of graduation, they now have regrets about missing out on all the fun, so they vow to attend at least one blow-out party before they walk the stage to get their diplomas.
Dever and Feldstein have the kind of on-screen harmony that makes it easy to believe their characters really have been friends since before they learned to walk. Amy and Molly’s friendship is even closer and more believable than Seth and Evan’s, the main characters from 2007’s Superbad, a movie with which comparisons to Booksmart are all but inevitable.
One of the best examples of Amy and Molly’s comfort with each other comes when Molly good-naturedly plays on Amy’s parent’s mistaken assumption that the two are a romantic couple. Amy has been out for two years, but Molly is straight. Feldstein is a riot as she suggestively caresses Dever’s body while describing Amy and Molly’s plans for the evening. Actors Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow are hysterical as Amy’s parents. They support their daughter’s sexuality but awkwardly try to avoid any of the details.
Good-natured is probably the best way to describe the comedy in Booksmart. Although some of the jokes don’t quite land, it’s refreshing that almost none of them punch down.
Still, several moments expose a movie that often tries too hard and strains credulity. One involves Jared, a fellow classmate whom Amy and Molly call for a ride when they realize they don’t know the address of the biggest party of the night. When they get in his car, Jared promises to get them pumped up with music. He turns on his stereo, which is playing an audiobook. To make the joke work, the character has to do what no real person would by letting the audiobook drone on before he shuts it off.
Come to think of it, jokes in cars that don’t work is sort of a theme in Booksmart. After Jared takes our heroes to the wrong party (read: his own), Molly calls a Lyft. There is a surprise reveal when they realize they know the driver. The movie expects its audience not to know that ridesharing apps feature pictures of the drivers and customers, making the whole joke unbelievable. There’s also an extended bit about Amy and Molly watching porn in the Lyft which features a climax (pun very much intended) that is easy to spot from the next town over.
Those misfires aside, the movie does feature some inspired gags. Amy and Molly come up with an ill-advised plan to get the address of the party from a pizza delivery driver, but they want to keep their identities secret. In one of the biggest laughs of the picture, they use their hair as masks. The movie also kicks into high gear during an extended sequence using stop motion animation after Molly and Amy unknowingly ingest a hallucinogenic.
Booksmart also shines in the heart department. As you might guess, Amy and Molly have a falling out in the third act. It involves one trying to shield the other from hurt involving a long-time crush, which leads to a very public airing of grievances that feels like it was years in the making. The messiness of long-term friendships and the emotions involved is something that the movie’s writers, actors, and director – Olivia Wilde, making her feature debut – explore in a touching and heartfelt way. It’s those kinds of feelings and the movie’s effective examination of them that make Booksmart as rewarding as it is. The film’s rousing climax is earned in every sense.
Booksmart is also unique because of its distinctively feminine perspective. The long tradition of raunchy coming-of-age comedies – from Animal House to Porky’s to Superbad – has been framed almost exclusively by the male gaze; the Amy Heckerling directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a notable exception. Booksmart provides a fresh new voice in the genre. It proves there’s only one thing to say to the opportunity for women to be included in the conversation and given the resources to tell their own stories: more please.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Booksmart is fun and funny. It also has wit, charm, and a big heart. And lots of dirty jokes.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The porn-in-the-Lyft bit I mentioned in the review includes one character looking at the phone that’s playing the porn (we never see it) and commenting, “I didn’t know you could do that from that angle.” Can we please retire that particular joke? It’s. been. done.
- There is a sequence in a swimming pool that becomes downright ethereal. Director Wilde, her cinematographer Jason McCormick, and editors Brent White and Jamie Gross work together to give the scene – which becomes more melancholic the longer it lasts – a beautiful, almost experimental quality.
- There is a hilarious, hilariously disgusting sex scene in the movie that is so effective because it’s in no way geared toward a male gaze. That fact stands out even more because it’s a lesbian sex scene. How the scene plays out really brings to the fore what having a female director and a female perspective adds to the movie.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- The audience (which was pretty big) seemed into it, a little more into it than me, actually.