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A clever one-two of a movie, Marmalade starts out looking like one thing, then turns into something else, but saves its best moves for the finale, when revelations come tumbling out at a rate of knots.

What it looks like is one of those dweeby, comic coming-of-agers of the early 2000s, movies like Elizabethtown or Garden State, in which uptight milquetoast guys are given an injection of va-va-voom by a force-of-nature free-spirit female.

The creation of the passive, sex-starved male writer, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – one dimensional, a catalyst in someone else’s story rather than a hero in her own and just incidentally as hot as lava – was so ubiquitous at one point that the MPDG even came with her own adjective, “adorkable”, as applied in turn to young Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman but most of all Zooey Deschanel.

So here we are in Marmalade, where dweeby milquetoast Baron is in jail telling his story to cellmate Otis, of how his smalltown life with a lousy job and a sick mother was discombobulated by the arrival in it of Marmalade, a hot-as-hell, hippie-chick-coutured, tits-spilling-ingenuously-out-of-her-bra whirlwind with pink hair and tattoos who no sooner had introduced herself than she’d convinced him that what the pair of them needed to do was rob a bank.

This they did, but they were almost instantly caught by the police, hence Baron sitting in jail telling Otis this story. It turns out that Otis, a mean mutha from the projects whose line in blackness seems a bit performative, can spring him free, or so he says. In return for which Baron will cut Otis in on the loot.

All is not as it seems. No one is really who they say they are in this movie and debut writer/director Keir O’Donnell is playing with stereotypes – the milquetoast, the brother from the hood, the MPDG – as much as he’s playing with plot.

Baron and Otis in prison clothes
Baron (Joe Keery) and Otis (Aldis Hodge)

So no more plot reveals, except to say that towards the end O’Donnell pulls about three switcheroos that are so effective you rerate the movie upwards with each one. Until that point O’Donnell lulls us into a false sense of security.

To do this he tricks Marmalade out like an early 2000s movie – Baron and Marmalade sitting on top of the car talking, or eating ice cream, the fizzy on-screen visuals, her little defect (she cannot smell) that just makes her more adorable, the bit where she puts on his trousers, all done montage-style with cartoon pacing.

Camila Morrone, who plays Marmalade, is the star of this. Yes, she is a catalyst in Baron’s story rather than the hero of her own, but she’s also much more (and much less) than that, and Morrone plays her with a wild intensity that catches the actual nature of this movie. If you don’t know her, she was in Patricia Arquette’s directorial feature debut, last year’s Gonzo Girl, and she was also in Daisy Jones and the Six, the Amazon show, where she got better reviews than the show itself. If you don’t enjoy her performance, admire her skin, which is a testimonial to the power of a proper hydration and a thorough cleansing regime.

Otis is played by the versatile Aldis Hodge, who is dependably great as cellmate Otis – you’ll possibly recognise him from One Night in Miami, where he convincingly played American footballer/actor Jim Brown. And Stranger Things fans, which seems to be half the universe, will need no introduction to Joe Keery, who plays Baron as a cute nerd it’s easy to like.

All three get something to do, and O’Donnell’s clever story switches the action between them, each time transforming into something slightly different.

Without the switcheroos, this would an enjoyable easy movie with good performances and plenty of pace, albeit possibly a bit too familiar to entirely hold the attention. With them it remains easy, well performed and pacey but gains an extra layer of pastiche with a purpose. This movie gets better as it goes on, and it starts out pretty good.

Marmalade – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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