Knight at the Movies Archives
Drew Barrymore's directorial debut is slight yet charming, Anne Fontaine's biopic of the early days of designer Chanel falls flat
Drew Barrymore is having a great year at the movies. She started off with one of her signature ditzy roles in the stereotypical but
easy going relationship comedy hit He’s Just Not That Into You (which her company produced), triumphed as Little Edie Beale giving a
career altering, Emmy nominated performance in HBO’s Grey Gardens, and now brings forth her directorial debut, the slight but
endearing grrrrl power comedy Whip It.
The movie stars Ellen Page who plays Bliss Cavender, a shrinking violet high school teen in tiny Bodeen, Texas driven by a pushy,
pageant worshiping southern belle mother (Marcia Gay Harden) who yearns to break free of small town life and the traditional role
mom and pop (Daniel Stern) have mapped out for her. She works at a barbecue pit with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) and
endures the taunts of her pageant rival, the high school beauty queen.
What Bliss really, really wants to do is join the Hurl Scouts, the local female roller derby team, whose members she has briefly and
memorably encountered in a resale store. After a night in nearby Austin, the big city, hanging out with Pash and watching the team
in action, Bliss practices on her old Barbie skates, gathers up her courage, hops aboard the senior “bingo bus” and aces her try out.
Soon she’s renaming herself Babe Ruthless and trying to learn how to toughen up and go for her dreams, following the examples of
the other players who have names like Rosa Sparks, Bloody Holly, and Maggie Mayhem.
Along the way Bliss finds romance with a cute indie musician, learns about life from her teammates, particularly single mom Maggie
(played by SNL’s Kristen Wiig), learns how to overcome adversity thanks to a competition with the nasty reigning derby queen Iron
Maven (Juliette Lewis) and even perhaps, figured out a way to tell mom and dad what she’s been up to all those nights she was
supposed to be studying for her SATs.
Barrymore, not surprisingly, shows her greatest strength as a director in the way she handles her actors. The normally whiny Page is
suitably toned down (this is the first movie I’ve actually been able to tolerate her in), Shawkat as the gal pal really shines as does
Andrew Wilson as their hilariously serious coach Razor, and Barrymore allows Jimmy Fallon as the announcer plenty of time to throw
out enough fast, funny patter so that many of his lines get laughs. Offering key roles to good actors like Stern and Lewis that suit
their strengths is another plus.
Director Barrymore doesn’t try to hype up the gentle, familiar coming of age story and gives it some nice twists along the way (there
is a nice montage of the mundane small town stuff Bliss emotionally leaves behind during the first bus trip and a playful but sexy
underwater love scene, for example). She also gives herself a great little comedic part as the ditzy but fearless skater Smashley
Simpson who enters with a bloody nose and never seems to hesitate to jump into the fray.
Whip It doesn’t really have much of the vicarious thrill and fun, salacious, tough vitality of the riveting female roller derby action I
remember watching on local TV as a teenager (the Hurl Scouts are so non-competitive they cheer when they lose) but this charming,
light film, a sort of benign variation on Slap Shot, skates along just fine without the bloodsport nevertheless.
Director Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel could have used some of Whip It’s lightness. Fontaine’s dry biopic of the early days
of the fashion doyenne hints at the legend in the making but the by the numbers script and Audrey Tautou’s performance in the title
role straps her into a personality so cranky and unsatisfied with seemingly everyone and everything around her that it’s a wonder the
little pugnacious Coco ever rose beyond her humble beginnings.
After a prologue in which we see the orphaned, petite little Gabrielle abandoned by her adored father, we cut to 15 years later when
Gaby, now nicknamed Coco, is a saloon singer with her sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain). Soon Adrienne catches a French nobleman
but the obstreperous Coco has only been a diversion for her rich, elderly suitor.
Kicked out of her job for refusing to sleep with the customers, Coco brazenly arrives at the estate of her rich suitor unannounced and
moves into the guest room and proceeds to bewitch his titled guests. This includes the strikingly handsome aristocrat Arthur Capel
(Alessandro Nivola who is barely recognizable with his hair dyed black and mustache) who becomes her patron and lover. But
Fontaine doesn’t even allow us to luxuriate in the romance (there’s nothing of the junky pleasure to be found in the 80s version of
the same time period in Coco’s life, Chanel Solitaire).
The one note movie never veers much from its portrait of a contrarian. Chanel seems less inspired than dogmatic and though it
works toward the moment when Coco creates the first of her signature black dresses (this one for a dress ball), we never see how
this sour, determined fussbudget who never seems happy charmed the pants (or skirts) off anyone. Perhaps a sequel will give us
the creation of the Chanel personality and her famous fashion triumphs – the suit, the clunky jewelry, etc. – will be more satisfying
than this portrait of a contrarian. Independent she may have been but as essayed by Tautou through Fontaine’s lens, this Chanel is
dry as toast and the antithesis of her sensual sartorial creations.
Ladies with an Attitude:
Whip It-Coco Before Chanel
Expanded Edition of 10-7-09 Windy City Times KATM Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
CHECK OUT OTHER KATM FILM REVIEWS IN THE ARCHIVES