It was like a major league hitter batting off a tee and getting a hit. That’s how easy it should have been to make a one-night right-of-passage movie — a “Superbad” or an “American Graffiti — with female characters, during this cinematic Tough Women year.
But somehow Olivia “13” Wilde, the director of the new film “Booksmart,” has managed to swing the bat and whiff. One feels substantial sympathy both for the project and for Wilde, who has entertained us for years as an actress. But we shouldn’t mistake our desire that the movie succeed for our enjoyment of the final product.
The film features Beanie Feldstein (known to us from “Neighbors 2” and “Ladybird”) and Kaitlyn Dever (from the TV show “Last Man Standing”). They play high school friends at suburban Crocket High in Los Angeles. Molly (Feldstein) is senior class president. The film begins on the last day of classes for their final year.
The friends have neglected all things social in order to study hard, their goals being admission to name universities and, eventually, life in Washington, D.C. So right away we mistrust and may even dislike them. Name somewhere an 18-year-old version of yourself would less like to end up than D.C.
Moreover, they seem to have appointed themselves as the judges of all teen action. Moreover the transition they make to fun-loving is established in a scene, in the unisex bathroom, where Molly discovers all the school’s slackers have also been accepted into name colleges.
This convinces her that she and Amy (Dever) need to pack all the wild living they missed the last few years into one night — the night before graduation. So they set out to find the party that is being thrown by Nick (Cuba Gooding Jr.’s son Mason). That’s where the almost uniformly starlet-material girls and the “jocks” (there is never anything athletic about any of them) will be celebrating.
There’s your set-up. How can Wilde and her four writers have failed?
Well, they don’t bother to set important facts up. Has Molly been fantasizing about Nick? Is that guy they saw a wanted criminal? What hallucinogen makes one think one is a Barbie doll and then loses its effect in 10 minutes?
There are more significant failures of preparation. How does Gigi keep showing up at the different parties, and what does this mean about her given that the movie’s thespians also seem to be able to jump instantly from celebration to celebration? And explain that raid by the cops.
This last is not just baffling because the viewer can’t understand what the police are doing there. He also wonders how the house is configured so that the bulk of party-goers are trapped without an exit. And how Amy’s actions once the cops arrive help her classmates.
Then there’s a no-ending ending, something movie fans are known not to like. The movie is colorful. It has some interesting characters. It moves pretty well. But it isn’t very funny. Ticket holders have to shrug off some poorly prepared turns. And they will have to like the Molly character only because she is frustrated romantically.