Monday 6 November 2023

Bumrush the show: "Bottoms"

It was clear from 2020's sharp-edged comedy of manners Shiva Baby that writer-director Emma Seligman and writer-star Rachel Sennott were an original, somewhat leftfield proposition. Still, we may have underestimated just how far out there they were prepared to go. Bottoms is the pair's take on the high-school movie practically everyone in the West is obliged to grow up watching (and maybe eventually make), but it's the high-school movie given a kick up the arse: wordier, larger than even regular movie life, cartoonishly violent, and performed from first to last at roughly 200mph. The influence of such queer-leaning teen comedies as 1999's But I'm a Cheerleader and 2004's Saved! is felt, but Seligman and Sennott have elected to crank things up another notch or fifty, in ways that appear to have split the critical ranks. I can see why: this tale of two outcasts (Sennott and Ayo Edebiri) who start a fight club for girls so as to get into their fellow students' panties rips up pre-existing definitions of feminism, rags on online paranoias about female victimhood, offers a goofy riff on the David Fincher film that was always intended as black comedy (before being taken at face value by some of the worst people in the universe) and puts in a two-footed tackle on notions of masculine sporting dominance. Our heroines become involved in clumsy acts of terrorism for beginners (at one point - amusingly - to the strains of Bonnie Tyler's aptly tempestuous "Total Eclipse of the Heart"), and after their afterschool club is accused of pulling focus from the big gridiron match pitting the school's whooping alphas against their local rivals - a fixture talked up on campus as if it's World War III - find themselves identified as a threat to the status quo that urgently requires neutralising. Both narratively and formally, the movie looks back beyond those turn-of-the-millennium markers to the devil-may-care work of John Waters. Nothing is sacred; nothing is childproofed, nothing even really finessed. Chances are, at some point in these 90 minutes, you'll encounter a barb or a fist that has your name on it.

The film operates most consistently as a showcase for its oddball comic performers, headed by the nervy, verbose Edebiri and the strikingly bolshy Sennott, who plays almost the entire film with two blackened eyes, and continues to give some of the zestiest line readings in modern American comedy. Liberated by the possibilities of a bigger budget, she and Seligman toss ideas at the screen like handfuls of powder paint. Some miss, and some are plainly as self-serving as those in certain films by male writer-director-stars: along the way, Sennott gets to flirt and make out with Cindy Crawford's daughter, and Kaia Gerber, tall, poised and droll as a cheerleading queen, proves many degrees more natural than her mom ever was in the movies. (Instagram Reels must be a great training ground.) The best ideas, however, stick and pop like the gags in Looney Tunes cartoons. Second time around, Seligman and Sennott reveal a particular gift for offhanded throwaway jokes, incidental to the main plot thrust yet illustrative of a cherishably wacko sensibility. An angrily discarded fruit cup prompts a sensitive artist type to tear up his sketchpad and instead scrawl what he heads "PLAN TO BLOW UP SCHOOL". Former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch plays a teacher - even the custodians here look like they could give and take a wallop - who's been too busy with a divorce to memorise his students' names, and so greets his female charges with a hazy, non-committal "girl". A graffito glimpsed in passing on his blackboard reads "FOOTBALL 4 PRESIDENT". The whole movie seems to exist in upper case, in truth - and I wonder whether that's what has caused some of my colleagues to back away from their earlier enthusiasm for this creative team. Notably broader and more raucous than the deft, Woody Allen-adjacent Shiva Baby - and clearly conceived as a potential Friday night crowdpleaser - Seligman's second film fair cries out for the descriptor "slaphappy", though I don't entirely mean that as a diss. The writing ratches up the stakes going into the third act, as our heroines' motives for starting the club are exposed, and if the big finale betrays this director's relative inexperience with shooting action, the whole evokes much the same sisterly spirit as one might witness at a roller derby. Bottoms knows there are certain contexts in which it's absolutely OK for women to knock seven bells out of those around them; whenever it connects, the resultant crazed spectacle proves entertaining, funny and rousing in unexpected ways.

Bottoms is now playing in selected cinemas.

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