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Friday, August 25, 2017

Review: INGRID GOES WEST, Ingrid Goes Wrong

Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) is fresh out of the mental hospital, where she was forced to go after assaulting a near-stranger she followed on Instagram for failing to invite her to her wedding, when she finds a new online obsession: Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Taylor is a SoCal Instagram Influencer, a trendy fashionista who eats at the hippest restaurants and shares her stories with her hundreds of thousands of followers. Flush with cash following her mother’s death, Ingrid picks up, moves out to Los Angeles, and remakes her life in Taylor's image. She slowly manages to worm her way into the lives of Taylor, her struggling artist husband (Wyatt Russell), and others as she seeks the Instagram-perfect lives she follows so closely online. But the arrival of Taylor's brother (Billy Magnussen) draws Taylor's attention away, and Ingrid's already-tenuous emotional state begins to slip as she finds flaws in her newfound friend.

Where Ingrid Goes West excels most is in its three lead characters. Plaza (Legion) is phenomenal, giving a performance that manages to be convincingly unhinged and desperate to fit her backstory while also being convincingly a part of the LA yuppie-hippie scene. Plaza’s best roles all give her a visceral intensity and then force her to sublimate it, and this one is high on the list of her best performances. Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) is a natural in the mellow fauxhemian lifestyle and cadence, giving impressive depth to a character who never lets anyone see beyond the picture-perfect surface; she's matched by Russell (Everybody Wants Some!), giving a soulful performance as a normal guy slipping into alcoholism as he tries to keep up with the image he wants to project.

Where Ingrid Goes West falls apart, unfortunately, is in the rest of its cast. Particularly wasted is O’Shea Jackson, Jr. (Straight Outta Compton), whose character, neighbor-turned-boyfriend Dan, never makes any sense at all. Jackson tries to give him some sort of pathos, even as the script makes him more and more pathetic, but the performance and his arc are completely at odds. Jackson has charisma and steel behind the eyes that never totally settles with the weak-willed dishrag he plays, a smitten dork willing to forgive anything and everything - and, given how abusive Ingrid is, I mean everything. And don’t even get me started on Billy Magnussen’s (Bridge of Spies) Nicky, a coked up frat bro who grates immediately and instantly and never, ever lets up. Magnussen’s performance, which vacillates rapidly between goofy and menacing, is a powerhouse, but I don't know if it's one that fits in the otherwise restrained movie. Watching a heartfelt scene about a burgeoning alcoholic bitterly bemoaning the past and jumping straight from there into Cocaine: The Human Embodiment is jarring, and not in a particularly good way.

Ultimately, the problems with Ingrid Goes West mostly land somewhere with the writers and the director. Sloppy characterization, jarring or ill-conceived tonal shifts, and an ultimately mixed message hamper what should be - and at times almost is - an excellent, relevant dark comedy. There are a number of excellent little jokes in the film, most of them foregrounding Plaza's barely-concealed desperation, but the scattershot nature of the film's tonal choices, which end up playing a number of scenes completely straight, make them feel like clever little islands in a dark, dramatic sea. 

The movie reminded me of a Black Mirror episode. I don't mean that generally; I mean, it reminded me of one, very specific Black Mirror episode: "Nosedive." The two share a number of observations, and even some scenes and supporting characters seem teleported wholesale between the two. But the Rashida Jones/Joe Wright "Nosedive" knows exactly what its satirical target is - the phony, faux-politeness expected of women at all times online - and the story is built to an enormously cathartic release as it strips Bryce Dallas Howard's character of all the surface-level nonsense that filled her feeds. Ingrid Goes West doesn't have the same kind of internal consistency, constantly getting distracted by its infatuation with its own characters. Billy Magnussen in particular belongs on a different planet than everyone else in this film, a complete and total distraction that allows the film to flirt with darkness without committing in any meaningful way. 

To me, what Ingrid Goes West was aiming for was to be a modern, social media savvy take on the iconic Scorsese/De Niro film The King of Comedy. Looked at through that lens, it's much easier to see where Ingrid goes wrong, pitting Plaza's Pupkin-analogue against the film's most egregious maniacal Bernhard-type and then chickening out before the thread goes anywhere. Indeed, nearly every thread the film follows, and there are far too many, peters out rather than reaching any heightened comic conclusion -- or any penetrating dramatic one.

Ingrid Goes West has plenty to recommend it, particularly for fans eager to see Plaza continue to burst out of her shell. While it lacks the range of her legitimately breathtaking turn in Legion earlier this year, it is still another step for a great young actor. And Olsen was surprisingly delightful as a shallow, catty hipster who would be much easier to dislike if not for Olsen's talent for mimicking genuine warmth, many of the film's best dramatic scenes allowing her fake genuineness to bounce off Russell's fake pretentiousness to fascinating effect. While it's a shame that the movie never comes together in any meaningful way, I still think the film manages, in its few great moments, to achieve a very genuine portrait of shallowness. The effect is effervescent, a mirage perhaps, something you think you catch for a moment before one of the film's more artificial constructs gets in the way, a wave lapping at the sand and erasing any trace of what you thought you saw.

Ingrid Goes West is in theaters everywhere starting today. Written by David Branson Smith and Matt Spicer and directed by Matt Spicer, Ingrid Goes West stars Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, and O'Shea Jackson, Jr.
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