Tag Archives: Jamie Babbit

CHANNEL 366: “RUSSIAN DOLL” (2019)

There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten
We never thought it would end then
We never thought it would end

–Harry Nilsson

DIRECTED BY: Leslye Headland, Jamie Babbit, Natasha Lyonne

FEATURING: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley

PLOT: After dying in a car accident the night of her 36th birthday, video game programmer Nadia finds herself alive once more, back at her party; a series of sudden and violent deaths demonstrate that she is trapped in a time loop, and increasing complications make it more challenging and essential that she understand why this is occurring and how she can emerge with her life and soul intact.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: “Russian Doll” is technically a TV series rather than a proper movie, and only slightly weird. It’s worth discussing, however, because it takes a shopworn premise and injects it with a combination of energy, quirk and unabashed heart that makes it feel fresh and worthy of the urge to jump into the next chapter.

COMMENTS: To even hear the plot to “Russian Doll” is to directly confront the woodchuck-shaped elephant in the room. Yes, it’s the recurring time loop, matched up with the repeated attempt to “get things right”. There may be hundreds of examples of the device across every medium, including some that ought to be listed somewhere. But one looms monolithically above the rest, the highest order of high-concept storytelling. The trope is even named after it. So if you’re gonna come at Groundhog Day, you best not miss.

It’s a measure of what a delightful experience “Russian Doll” is that not only does it not miss, it transcends this starting point to become very much its own clever, compelling creation. It does this through a combination of techniques and tricks, but the fulcrum of the whole enterprise is the impossibly-good Natasha Lyonne. With her Muppet-pelt hair, aggressively over-the-top Noo Yawk accent, and the attitude of a barely functional alcoholic with a permanent middle finger extended to the world, Nadia should not be tolerable even in eight compact episodes of television. But Lyonne has natural charm that quickly makes it apparent why her put-upon friends and rejected paramours remain drawn to her. She’s very funny (at a bar, her simple demand of the bartender is “More drunk, please”) and fiercely loyal, so much so that she frequently hurts others to spare them the greater pain she knows she tends to inflict. So once she realizes the nature of her predicament, we’re invested in her because we like her, not just because we’re eager to solve the puzzle. It helps that her redemption arc doesn’t shave off her sharp edges. (In addition to creating the show, Lyonne scripts and directs the final episode, putting her firmly in charge of her own story.) Nadia is still Nadia—sarcastic, impulsive, damaged at her very core—but she’s finding out how to be a better version of herself.

With the series’ focal point in strong hands, the show can invest in its other strengths, like a deep bench of interesting characters, a rich and absorbing lower Manhattan milieu to occupy, and a series of twists that compound the time-loop and lift the show out of the shadow of that Punxsutawney rodent.

The full shape of the streaming revolution is not yet clear, as shows have to hit a narrow sweet spot of buzzy and gimmicky just to hold on to the public’s attention. In some cases, this has resulted in series that rely on familiar brands, adapt controversial source material, or drop famous names into offkilter plots. (To say nothing of wild entries from across the sea.) What is has certainly done is inject a whole lot of why-the-hell-not bravery into a TV landscape dominated by procedurals, game shows, and rich people being awful. Streaming TV is making the tube safe for the weird, or at least the different, and while “Russian Doll” may not be the strangest thing you can find on Netflix, it goes a long way toward mainstreaming the fund of offbeat choices and audience challenges that have traditionally lived only on the fringes.

The series was co-created by Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler. A second season has been promised, which will be quite a trick. Season 1 is a shining little jewel box of a show. Having seen what I’ve seen, I’m confident in Lyonne’s abilities. But the risk is out there that the delicate balance of weird and palatable will be upended. But if they screw it up… well, I guess they can always start over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s funny, warm, and strange, growing deeper and more resonant across its eight episodes.”–Ned Lannaman, The Stranger (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE QUIET (2005)

DIRECTED BY:  Jamie Babbit

FEATURING:  Elisha Cuthbert, Camilla Belle, Edie Falco, Martin Donovan, Katy Mixon

PLOT: A deaf girl becomes ensnared in her adoptive family’s amoral dysfunctions.

Still from The Quiet (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:   The Quiet is an artfully produced, comparatively non-formulaic independent film, but it’s not a dramatic enough departure from the thriller genre to constitute a truly weird viewing experience.

COMMENTS:  Strong sexual themes ground this strange tale of a family slowly going insane.  After her father’s untimely death, deaf-mute teenager Dot (Belle) is taken in by her godparents (Donovan, Falco) who from outward appearances have a conventional, affluently idyllic suburban life along with their cheerleader daughter Nina (Cuthbert).  Dot’s transition is derailed by increasingly disturbing conflicts and revelations. Her new family has dark secrets.

A sick, twisted dysfunctionality plagues the household.  Trapped between an opiate addict mother, licentious father, homicidal sister, and perverted new beau, Dot struggles to keep her perspective.  Unable to readily communicate, and with no outside party to turn to, Dot is at a disadvantage when her demented new family draws her into a sordid web of immorality and charade.  The line between spider and fly becomes blurred, however, when it turns out that Dot harbors her own eerie enigma.

The Quiet rips the facade from blissful, suburban tranquility in the tradition of movies such as American Beauty and The Safety Of Objects.  Less satirical than the former and not as convoluted as the later, The Quiet is a suspenseful drama with an hypnotic narrative tone reminiscent of One Day Like Rain and Make-Out with Violence.

The Quiet is a well produced film with a perverse story.  It does not set out to be a black comedy, or a sophisticated social indictment of suburbia, although it contains some elements of both.  Neither is it a movie with a message or mere exploitation.  The Quiet is a simple, racy, psychological thriller.  With some hauntingly memorable dialogue, it is arty yet lucid, brooding and visually dark.  While more twists and turns would have provided greater depth, it is structurally complete enough to be worthwhile for patrons seeking a departure from blockbusters, crowd-pleasers, and annoying Lifetime Network potboilers.

Feminist director Jamie Babbit’s other films include But I’m A Cheerleader and Itty Bitty Titty Comittee.  Viewers will recognize Cuthbert from the sensational The Girl Next Door.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…flirts with the trappings of exploitation cinema without going all the way. The director… suggestively crowds her two talented leads together, but can’t push them or the film into the fairy-tale surrealism to which she seems to aspire.”–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)


The Quiet trailer