Though this is the feature-length directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, the latest addition to the actor-turned-director saga, it comes as no surprise when Adam McKay and Will Ferrell appear as executive producers when the credits of Booksmart roll. That’s no to detract from what is realistically a pretty impressive debut from Wilde, but more an indication of exactly what this movie is about. It plays very much like an early (good) McKay/Ferrell comedy in a variety of ways. From the exaggerated scenarios to the often deadpan delivery, their fingerprints are felt across the movie. And if your a fan of comedies like Anchorman or Stepbrothers, I can’t imagine that this will much disappoint.
As the tag-line suggests the movie largely centres around two “Booksmart” girls, played by Beanie Fieldstien and Kaitlyn Dever as they attempt to make up for all the all-night drunken parties and sexual encounters they’ve missed out on focusing solely on their studies. And it’s really the core chemistry between the two leads that makes the movie so entertaining. Fieldstien and Dever are charming (and hilarious) together and both actresses give a real sense of friendship and sisterhood that’s infectious from start to finish. It’s easy in comedies like this to be invested more in the jokes than the actual narrative or story, but Booksmart more than delivers a compelling coming of age story that dives deep into a number of delicate issues like sexuality, friendship and maturity, whilst also ensuring your left chuckling along throughout.
It’s a shame then that the rest of the supporting cast isn’t quite up to the standards of the two lead actresses. Skyler Gisondo in particular is played more as a caricature than a real person and serves little purpose to the story than to get a few laughs. It’s a problem I often have with comedy movies like these that just become a little to absurd for their own good. When compared to movies like Lady Bird which balanced laughs with real character and emotion, even among its supporting cast, it’s hard not to see the flaws in a movie like Booksmart.
It’s not just the supporting cast that pose a problem though. Several sequences just don’t land, especially a drug-fuelled trip that sees our two leads become animated dolls that again wouldn’t have felt out of place in one of McKay’s latest films like Vice that frequently interject exaggerated scenes like the Shakespeare soliloquy that just don’t quite stick the landing. It’s funny for sure, but played out just a little to long, and again feeling a little too absurd when compared to the relatively heavy subject matter of growing up.
But perhaps the biggest barrier to my enjoyment of the movie was cultural. Like last year’s Blockers I just can’t connect to these sorts of movies. In Britain we don’t have a graduation for ceremony, let alone throwing paper into the air and putting up banners up above. It’s a much more subdued affair, and whilst admittedly far less funny or cinematic, one that makes it hard to connect with these distinctly American graduation comedies. Perhaps that was just a personal takeaway, but once the movie lands in theatres on 31st of May here in the UK, I’ll be interested to hear if anyone else took away a similar problem to me.
Regardless though, the movie is entertaining. It’s absurd and frequently funny which is enough to keep its nicely paced 105min runtime moving along. It didn’t always connect to me personally, but the dynamic between the two lead actresses is superb and both are instant stars in the making. Wilde impresses in her debut and it’ll be interesting to see where she takes her directing talents next.
★ ★ ★