As I’m sure a lot of us did during the pandemic, I found a number of new ways to pass the time during lockdown. Among them, I went through a phase of browsing stand-up comedy routines on YouTube. This is where I first heard about Iliza Shlesinger and her dating misadventures with “Lyin’ Brian“. You’ll want to click that link — I’m sorry to say it will be required viewing for the review and for the movie.
Because last night, I heard that Shlesinger had written/produced/starred in Good On Paper, a feature-length dramatization of that true-life story (with significant embellishments), and it just hit Netflix. And the film was directed by Kimmy Gatewood, a multihyphenate with a respectable work history of directing/writing/producing/acting in a long list of successful comedy TV shows. (Though personally, I know Gatewood best for her fleeting stints on “Epic Rap Battles of History“.)
Yeah, I’m on board for this. Let’s go.
Shlesinger plays a character named Andrea Singer, though it’s perfectly clear that she’s basically playing herself. “Andrea” is a decently successful stand-up comedian who’s been struggling to start an acting career. On a flight back from New York — fresh from bombing yet another audition — she has a chance encounter with Dennis (Ryan Hansen), a clean-cut Yale alumnus who manages a hedge fund. Yet he somehow has the time to always be around whenever Andrea needs a friend to talk to or hang out with.
Andrea’s friendship with Dennis starts out as strictly platonic, but things escalate quickly until he starts talking marriage, and that’s when things get weird. Slowly but surely, we start to learn that Dennis is a pathological liar and a manipulative scumbag whose entire life is basically false.
I want to stress first and foremost that the movie is funny. This is a fantastic vehicle for Shlesinger and her brand of comedy. Granted, that’s due in large part to the fact that she rarely shuts up and she constantly talks in voice-over through the whole movie. Still, her jokes and her insights are genuinely hilarious. In particular, that climax had me rolling on the floor.
It certainly helps that Shlesinger has surrounded herself with no end of talent. I was never a fan of Margaret Cho, but she dominates the screen in the role of Margot, Andrea’s best friend (apparently a composite of numerous players in the actual real-life story). Another highlight is Rebecca Rittenhouse, here playing the vapid and cheery young blonde who somehow manages to get every single part that Andrea auditions for. Yet Serrena does get a sweet little “mask-off” moment at the end, and her face-turn from rival to comrade was nicely handled.
But in all honesty, the real star here might be Ryan Hansen. He’s more than charismatic enough to play such a dangerously skilled con artist, and it’s frightfully easy to fall in love with him right alongside Andrea. But then he turns on a dime to become an unrepentant hate sink and the transformation is uncanny. This is a genuine tour-de-force performance, and he takes in the audience so easily that we can perfectly understand why he took in Andrea so easily.
Which brings us to the deeper themes of the film. And this is where things get a little rocky.
First of all, it’s important to note that the film is set in Los Angeles. It’s notoriously a city of artifice and ego. Everyone there is trying to puff themselves up to get a job or a part or a business deal or whatever. And our protagonist is played/written by Ilisa Shlesinger, who (as she herself stated in the above video clip) is “a seven without makeup”.
The filmmakers go on for a significant length of time about how “Andrea” can’t achieve her career goals, she’s single and alone at the age of 34, she’s not attractive enough to cut it as a model or an actor, and so on. But later on, we start to see her from another perspective. She may not have a reliable presence in film or TV, but she’s got a pretty steady gig going as a stand-up comedian. She’s independent, she’s still relatively young, and she doesn’t have a team of managers making every decision for her. And even if she’s not attractive by Los Angeles standards, that’s not exactly saying much. It’s entirely possible that some guy might look at her and see a gorgeous blonde way out of his league.
What we’ve got here is a case of the time-honored cliche in which somebody exaggerates or outright lies to impress somebody on a first date, but taken to psychotic extremes. In fact, it’s taken to such an outrageous extreme that it prompts a number of discussions about truth and reality on a personal level. (ie: Who Andrea’s real friends are, what blessings and skills she really does have, how much of her life is built around deluding herself and fooling others, who she can bring herself to trust and how she can ever trust again, etc.)
The problem is that all of this comes so late in the game. It’s all more or less dumped into the third act. By that point, the film has built up so much comedy momentum that it crashes into the heavier stuff and the themes come off as an unwelcome distraction from the laughs. The filmmakers simply aren’t capable of handling that balance. This is most clearly obvious roughly an hour in, when the filmmakers try to somehow leverage Andrea’s self-doubt into a fight with Margot. That came out of nowhere, it makes no sense, and it’s resolved in less than five minutes anyway.
For comparison, consider The Big Sick. There was another semi-autobiographical picture in which an actual comedian (namely Kumail Nanjiani) dramatized a significant event in his real life. The first immediately obvious difference is that a girlfriend rendered comatose by an unknown illness is inherently less funny and heightened than a con artist duping a woman into a relationship for no apparent reason at all. Yet The Big Sick is so much more effective because it did a better job at earning its pathos and balancing that with Nanjiani’s brand of comedy.
And of course there’s the teensy minor detail that Good On Paper is clearly a vanity project. The whole movie is built on the fact that this is Ilisa Shlesinger in a role that she wrote and produced, in a role that’s transparently meant to be her, and she’s acting out something that actually happened to her, with embellishments that she wrote in. There’s definitely a self-indulgent miasma coating the film, as if the screenplay was Shlesinger’s flailing and desperate attempt to make any kind of sense out of this whole implausibly incomprehensible scenario. Which it very probably was.
Even so, I don’t think any reasonable person could fault Shlesinger for taking this ludicrous and frankly traumatic episode of her life and trying to mine it for anything of artistic value. And on those terms, the end results may be shaky, but they’re certainly not bad. Moreover, this is a romantic comedy that’s genuinely funny with an empowering feminist streak, and that’s always worthy of praise. If nothing else, the film is more than worth seeing as a showcase for Ilisa Shlesinger and Ryan Hansen.
So, yeah. Good On Paper is okay. Give it a watch and see what you think.