Kelley Reichardt’s latest film comes billed as a comedy, which is a bit surprising because while her movies aren’t entirely bereft of humor, that is not exactly the first quality that comes to mind when thinking about them. Rather less surprising is the reality that onscreen, Showing Up is not just unfunny, it’s depressing—in fact it’s about depression.
Lizzy (the director’s frequent star Michelle Williams) is a sculptor of no great repute living in Portland, working at an art school for a boss she doesn’t like. It takes us a while to realize that boss Jean (Maryann Plunkett) is also her mother, which no doubt is a big reason why their administrator/administrative assistant dynamic is mutually resentful. But then, Lizzy doesn’t seem to like anyone. Unlike most of the other faculty here, she doesn’t teach, because that is presumably beyond her social skill set. Colleagues who are friendly towards her (among them Andre Benjamin, James LeGros, and Heather Lawless) are accustomed not to getting that vibe in return.
Wearing an air of perpetual harassment—and clothes that seem fished out of a bin circa 1983—Lizzy has the wary anti-physicality of someone who does not want to be noticed, yet also the envious irritation of the ignored towards everyone who can, you know, hold a conversation. Her longest communications are with the fellow-artist/neighbor (Hong Chau) who’s also her landlord, and those are mostly in the form of accusatory complaints. (Admittedly, her apartment’s current lack of hot water is a legitimate gripe.) Lizzie even feels ill-used by her cat. She is, in short, a pill.
Yet eventually we feel a degree of empathy, even if “liking” her is never quite an option. The faintly creepy, doll-sized clay sculptures that are her art become surprisingly engaging when painted, glazed, and baked in a kiln. Her retired potter father (Judd Hirsch) turns a deaf ear to her justified outrage when he takes in a couple old hippie types (Amanda Plumner, Matt Malloy)—he doesn’t seem to care that they’re blatantly exploiting his absent-minded hospitality. Then there’s brother Sean (John Magaro), who clearly has serious mental health issues both their parents would rather simply pretend don’t exist.
When all members of this dysfunctional family are finally in the same room, at a local gallery opening that Lizzy has spent the whole movie preparing for, we see exactly how each of them “got this way”: They drive one another crazy.
Showing Up somehow manages to end on an upbeat note despite the heavy burdens bourn by principal figures, and without suggesting any pat solutions to them—or even that they’re likely to get any better. In a way, this is the kind of screwball ensemble comedy Robert Altman often used to contrive (or people like Nicole Holofcener and Noam Baumbach do now), albeit with a more firmly central lead character, and virtually no pandering for laughs. Indeed, Reichardt’s latest is maybe only a “comedy” in comparison to her prior features, like Wendy and Lucy, Night Moves, Meek’s Cutoff, and Certain Women.
The last one, First Cow—a personal-best whose potential to become a sleeper hit got snuffed by the arrival of COVID lockdown—was another drama, but still warmer than Showing Up, because its protagonists weren’t withdrawn misanthropes like Lizzy. It is to this film’s credit that we walk away with the beginnings of some good feelings about its crabby, arms-length heroine. But then it is this director’s particular strength to make movies that, while sometimes seeming too muted, remote, or underwhelming in the moment, expand in the viewer’s mind afterward.
Reichardt has made eight features to date (most, like Showing Up, co-written with novelist Jonathan Raymond), and one doubts their total cost equalled more than the transportation budget on the last movie by Chris McKay, who started out in animation (Robot Chicken, The Lego Movie, Lego Batman). 2021’s The Tomorrow War was just his third feature, yet it cost an estimated $200 million, spent to currently-typical ends: An energetic sci-fi action spectacular with Chris Pratt fighting aliens in the future. Its 138 minutes of dumb fun would have been much better at 98 minutes, not to mention without all the maudlin “family is the most important thing” crapola.
His new Renfield, which also opens in theaters this Fri/14, is mercifully less bloated in all respects, from runtime to bottom-line. It, too, is fun. But one suspects its slick, splashy, bloody gore-horror-comedy pleasures will evaporate from the memory in record time, while Showing Up—whose photography is so grainy you feel like film stock was unearthed from a 1970s time capsule—lingers on.
If Michelle Williams is the kind of chameleon whose disappearing into each role seems to further obscure any “self” beneath, Nicolas Cage is the opposite: The actor whose eagerly anticipated new excesses only underline the larger-than-life essence of Nic Cage-iness. Sometimes his outsized eccentricities feel beside the point, and on the increasingly rare occasions when he sheds them, sometimes he’s just flat. (An exception was 2021’s underseen Pig, one of his best “serious” performances.) But when his gonzo approach finds the right context—recent instances include Mandy, Mom and Dad, and as “himself” in last year’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent—he remains one of the best very “special” FX to be found onscreen.
And that is pretty much what he is in Renfield, wearing a complicated series of prosthetics, green makeup and dental equipment that only render his line readings more amusingly hobbled. Nicholas Hoult plays the titular figure, whom an early sequence staged as a replica of scenes from Tod Browning’s 1930 Dracula (the one with Bela Lugosi) suggests has been the Count’stoadying-slave familiar since the Twenties—evidently he gets to enjoy some of “the Master’s” agelessness. But nothing else about the job is enjoyable, esp. since the boss is “convalescing” from yet another attack by Van Helsing types, wherein he was nearly burnt to a crisp by sunlight.
Hence Transylvanian and toady have had to relocate to New Orleans in order to start afresh. There, Renfield stumbles into a support group for people in codependent abusive relationships—needless to say, he qualifies. This inspires him to dare a wee bit of independence and stop enabling evil so much, aspirations encouraged by Awkwafina as seemingly the only uncorrupted cop in a city under the thumb of a crime family led by Shohreh Aghdashloo and Ben Schwartz. Those latter people are bad. But of course Dracula himself will prove the most formidable obstacle in Renfield’s makeover attempt.
This movie, written by TV comedy guy Ryan Ridley from a concept by comic book guy Robert Kirkman, was not originally McKay’s project—he took over directing when Dexter Fletcher of Rocketman dropped out—and there is something impersonal even in its flamboyance. It’s one of those films that is not anything in particular because it tries to be everything: A send-up, a garishly colored fantasy, an overblown action extravaganza… where everybody’s an MMA fighter… who can do flying fu… whose every kick turns bodies into exploding blood bags… that have no ick value because they’re just silly. It’s loud, cluttered, diverting, sporadically funny, and depthless—a hectic mishmosh, but still better than most such enterprises. In other words, not exactly good, but reasonably cheering in its not-bad-ness.
Playing a caricature of an iconic character in a cartoonish context, Cage has a free pass to be as hammy and odd as he wants—which of course is a lot, even if it still rates as second-tier stuff in his personal Hall of Outrageous Performance Fame. He will leave no one disappointed, though. You will get your money’s worth of Nicolas Cage doing his, you know, thing.
You may feel like you’ve seen him do this before, and indeed you have, though it’s a pleasant kind of deja vu. He did, in fact, play a bloodsucker (albeit a possibly-delusional one) previously in 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss. It was a cornerstone of his then-formative reputation for inspirational over-the-top zeal—although his turn in it was as much scurrying-rodent Renfield as magisterial Count. Conveniently, that cult favorite is playing this Sun/16 at the Balboa (more info here)…which is, even more conveniently, also playing Renfield itself. You probably won’t be the only patron wearing plastic fangs.