There is a larger piece to be written about the emergence of quality comedy cinema in the 21st century. It is almost a genre in itself - one that does not confine itself to traditional genres like farce or screwball. Films in this genre masterfully avoid several pitfalls - of storyline fatigue, character banality, context unoriginality, representation and portrayal problems, and unenthusiastic tone. Beyond all this, these films, most importantly, get the jokes and writing right. But to cap it all off, these films don't take themselves too seriously, or else, they wouldn't be comedies after all. Comedies need to be fun, and these movies are, while being just good cinema in the first place.
Olivia Wilde's "Booksmart" exemplifies this kind of cinema. The very short way to describe this film would be to say that it is very good and a lot of fun. But then, that would be disrespectful. The movie’s good parts are a lot of fun for even the casual enthusiast of cinema. The movie’s fun parts get some of the best execution of the moment.
Let’s talk about the good bits. Admittedly, the movie takes a shortcut to ensuring an attractive plot and setting. It is the last night before graduation day in high school. Two bookworms, Molly and Amy, goofy in their own right, have consciously spent all of high school focusing on their future, while sacrificing all the fun school things. They realize they have one last night to rope in all the fun school things, before they are off to college with regrets that could last a lifetime. Needless to mention, it’s a lively night.
The night throws some splendid curveballs at Amy and Molly, not all unpredictable. But the movie consciously makes them quirky and delightful, peppered with layered characters and a snappy narrative. Plus proper laughs to boot.
The way "Booksmart" derives its humor is out of its characters and scenarios as opposed to tropes and ridicule. Yes, there are certain characters that we could laugh at, but we end up laughing with them. We also end up seeing the truer nature of these characters and in a way, start acknowledging them, adoring them.
It is also one of those things where it’s hard to tell if you’re adoring the characters or the actors themselves. Every character is perfectly cast - Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as the titular nerdy-goofy duo, Skyler Gisondo as the no-holds-barred Jared, Molly Gordon as the scruff Triple A, Billie Lourd as the ever-drunk and ever-wise Gigi; and just about everybody else! Also, how long before we get a sibling comedy with Beanie and Jonah Hill? - that movie is begging to be made!
The thing with comedies is, the untrained eye can’t always tell how much of the film is the director’s cinematic style or vision; unless we’re talking something extremely dark (“Dr. Strangelove”) or extremely weird (“Clerks”). Yet, comedies can also end up being easy caricatures.
“Booksmart” doesn’t tread that path thanks to Olivia Wilde (and writers Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman). Wilde keeps the film crisp, fresh, and thoroughly enjoyable, thanks to a heady blend of style, adept blocking, and sharp editing by Jamie Gross.
Finally, two-tenths of the sauce to making a good comedy is having a killer soundtrack. The music often makes the viewer go back to the movie. Thanks to an eclectic yet wonderful collection of songs, days on, I’m still grooving to the “Booksmart” soundtrack. And pondering a second viewing.
“Booksmart” is now streaming on Hulu.
Atlantic City says so much about two people in a relationship, without saying too much.
A comedy that is fun, while being just good cinema in the first place.