starring Olivia Munn, Luke Bracey, Erica Ash, Dennis Boutsikaris
written and directed by Justine Bateman
by Bill Chambers In her taped introduction to Violet, actress-turned-filmmaker Justine Bateman describes it as an immersive experience, tantamount to putting on a coat. I would say it's slightly more akin to having a pillow on your face. Though not explicitly autobiographical, the picture indeed betrays an insider's grasp of Hollywood politics in its portrait of a production executive plagued by self-doubt and industry sexism, including, fairly, the internalized misogyny of a female underling. Violet (Olivia Munn) has reached a ceiling in her current job that probably can't be broken. Her passion project is in limbo, the perfect man (Luke Bracey) is Just a Friend, and she's still shook from a relationship that ended badly when she accidentally burned down their apartment. A scene where her boss (the great Dennis Boutsikaris) gets her pumped up about the book of poetry she dreams of turning into a film only so he can sucker punch her in a meeting with talent, Scorpion-and-the-Frog-style, captures something essential of toxic power dynamics in the entertainment industry that a more straightforward lampoon of a Rudin/Weinstein type probably would not. Another truthful moment, opposite in effect, finds Violet making a move on Bracey's Red that surprises even her. It's genuinely swoony. Then she spends the drive back to his place worrying she'll be judged for dating beneath her station. (Red's a screenwriter.) The irony of Violet being an eminently relatable mess of insecurities in an Olivia Munn-shaped package fades over the course of the film, perhaps in a way it wouldn't have before "the great equalizer" of our current pandemic.
When I was growing up in the '80s, the Batemans, Justine and her brother Jason, were role models of a sort; depending on your proclivities, you tended to have a crush on one and want to be the other. They were both blessed with a rare comic deftness that made them stand out in a sea of showbiz kids, so it's been a surprise to see them emerge as directors with movies that aren't exactly light on their feet. There's a clumsiness to Violet's structure, especially when the unforeshadowed death of Violet's mother derails the proceedings with minutes left in the running time. I think it was a mistake, too, to squander Bonnie Bedelia--an actress with a totemic presence--in the role of a judgemental but ultimately irrelevant aunt, since her disapproving looks become symbolic of the shade Violet is accustomed to her mostly-offscreen mom throwing at her, anyway. What really makes Violet ungainly, though, is the decision to subtitle or narrate the title character's every waking thought, and I'm not speaking metaphorically. Scrawled on the screen are handwritten cries for help, while Justin Theroux gives voice to Violet's id. It's not quite as binary as showing an angel on one of her shoulders and a devil on the other, but it's in that ballpark, and the approach settles into patterns that start to feel like a drinking game. (So much talk of "skin"--dirt gets under my skin, shedding my skin, cotton hurts my new skin; you start to wonder if Violet needs a therapist or a dermatologist.) I applaud the attempt at a more subjective cinema, which also incorporates frequent Dadaist montages and fades to red (as if all the blood is rushing to Violet's head), but the motion-picture camera is already an emotional X-ray, and what Violet's actually doing with its relentless formal theatrics is gilding the lily. PROGRAMME: SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS