With Good on Paper, a film about a comedian, written by and starring a comedian who’s done a handful of specials for Netflix, Iliza Shlesinger appears to be walking in Amy Schumer’s shoes. She’s about the same age, blonde, Jewish and deploys a scalpel wit in comedy that veers between self-deprecation and attack. The “yeh, what of it?” style. She’s also likeable, which isn’t the main difference between successful and unsuccessful comedians – that’s good material – but it helps.
Like a lot of comedians moving into new territory, Shlesinger goes down the Jerry Seinfeld route, of a fictional story with cutaways to Shlesinger doing her stand-up routine, which acts as a commentary on what we’ve just seen, a progress report on how it’s going so far, where mistakes have been made, how the fictional Iliza (called Andrea, just in case we get confused) compares to the real Iliza, and so on.
This is a transition, in other words, perhaps out of nervousness of being able to pull off a fully fictional set-up in one fell swoop, or perhaps out of a worry that the audience won’t make the leap with her (which is the sort of thing TV execs worry about more than comedians). The material, too, plays safe by making relationships, Shlesinger’s stock in trade, its subject.
Andrea, a standup comedian and endlessly auditioning actor, meets a guy called Dennis (Ryan Hansen) on the flight back from her latest disastrous try-out for a TV series. He’s a hedge fund manager, nice, chatty, smart and they hit it off instantly. He’s a bit preppy and nerdy but he’s fun and – big plus – he likes a drink. He becomes a fixture in her life, but there’s nothing romantic going on – she finds him physically unattractive, one of her standup interludes makes clear.
But Dennis would like there to be something romantic going on – he even pitches their relationship to her the way a money man might, as if a Powerpoint presentation were coming any second. But as another standup interlude points out, often the difference between romance and no romance is a few glasses of hooch. In the case of Andrea and Dennis, psychoactive mushrooms are what breaches the dam.
Dennis is not quite who he seems, though. He probably isn’t a hedge fund manager, he probably doesn’t have a house in Beverly Hills, his mother probably isn’t dying of cancer. He’s obviously spinning Andrea a line, in the way all men spin all women a line when they’re out to impress them, except Dennis doesn’t seem to know when to stop.
That’s the situation in the situation comedy side of things – we watch as she works it out. The problem being that we’ve all worked it out a lot faster than this supposedly very smart woman manages to. From the get-go Dennis is obviously a creep. His clothes, his unshaven features, his bad hair, everything about him says “this guy is not managing a hedge fund” and it ruins the enjoyment a touch that Andrea isn’t working that out. At one point the story threatens to become a thriller, with Shlesinger as a kind of Hitchcock blonde, and then it pulls back into safer comedic territory again.
It’s fun, funny, smart and never quite as dangerous or satisfying as it feels like it ought to be. Margaret Cho adds spikey attitude as Andrea’s bar-owning (handy) outspoken confidante, Rebecca Rittenhouse is the airhead acting rival she is fixated on – in the best bit of the film these three form a kind of wonky sleuthing team – and on the fringes, as two women who know Dennis better than most, are Beth Dover and Kimia Behpoornia, both of them very welcome squeezes of citrusy sharpness.
The women in this tend to be smart and unconventional; the men who aren’t Dennis tend towards the baying jock, from hecklers at the comedy club, to guys on the street, to the Yale graduate (“Bow wow wow”, he barks) Dennis should really know but doesn’t (because he never really went to Yale).
Men are oikish lying scumbags; woman are sweet-natured and thoughtful. One’s from Mars, the other from Venus. Puppy-dogs tails; sugar and spice.
Does Good on Paper sound good on paper? Regardless, it is a good comedy. It’s likeable and funny. But it feels like it’s holding back its best ideas and wants to be more – more adventurous, more daring. Maybe next time.
© Steve Morrissey 2021