I judge comedy harder than probably any other genre. To keep me consistently laughing takes a lot of hard work, and a lot of comedies nowadays don’t like to try all that hard, throwing stuff to the wind they aren’t terribly committed to and hoping it sticks. So, when a comedy with a focused, specific voice comes along that has me laughing from start to finish, I am a happy guy. Fresno from director Jamie Babbit and writer Karey Dornetto managed to do that. It’s not a comedic masterpiece. I don’t want to overstate it. But it certainly is a funny 90 minutes that gives stars Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne a lot of things to play with.
Greer plays Shannon, a recovering sex addict trying to get her life in order, very reluctantly I might add. She has shacked up with her sister Martha (Lyonne), a hotel maid with a bit of a savior complex, and gets a job alongside her, cleaning people’s pubic hair off soap and other such extravagances. During a relapse where Shannon ends up having sex with a sleaze ball hotel guest (who even reuses condoms), Martha catches them, and Shannon claims rape. With a guy like that, it certainly is a believable scenario. Shannon tries to fight him off, but accidentally ends up killing him. Because she is a registered sex offender, for being caught by kids having sex with the headmaster of the school where she worked, she knows the court will not buy the rape story. Even if they did, she still would end up going to jail. So, the sisters have to figure out how to get rid of this body.
Going into this, I did not expect something as madcap as this ends up being. They go for it all: being crass for the sake of it, smart character jokes, and even broad physical comedy. How often do we get that nowadays, aside from fat people falling down? It’s refreshing to watch Lyonne poorly fake a seizure as well as funny. And that coexists perfectly with Aubrey Plaza‘s sly witticisms.
Now, all of the jokes don’t work. I’d say it’s about a 70-75% success rate, which is still incredibly high and something that should be applauded. But that 20-ish percent is not something one can ignore. For instance, there is a character we are supposed to laugh at just for his handicap. I thought this was the kind of thing we had moved beyond by now. I don’t have a problem with the movie being brazen with its targets, it just felt like a mean spirited jab that didn’t gel with the tone of the rest of the film.
With the male dominated world the film business exists in, I think it is important to mention this is a film directed by a woman, written by a woman, and centers on two women. How often do we get that? And the two don’t talk about landing a man the whole time! Granted, one is a recovering sex addict and the other is a lesbian, so them talking about that wouldn’t really make sense, but still! It is exciting to see fully fleshed out female characters who have a distinct female voice. Dornetto’s writing combines smart and raunchy in the best way, touching on subjects some people would not want to go near for fear of offense. Greer’s Shannon is an inherently selfish and unlikable person, and her caustic humor is always funny.
There is a subplot involving Plaza’s character trying to court Lyonne’s Martha that is very sweet, and you believe the attraction they have for each other. The very small subplot of Shannon kind of falling for another hotel employee (Malcolm Barrett) doesn’t work as well, but it doesn’t harm the movie in any major way.
The biggest setback is the balance between the film’s admittedly good humor, yet it lacks a similar spark in its story. Things don’t move nearly as fast as they should in what is essentially a caper comedy. Sometimes you forget they are even trying to deal with a dead body. These are pretty big stakes they’re dealing with, and a little too often you forget there are stakes at all.
So, if you want to sit in a theater and laugh, you could do a whole lot worse than Fresno. It’s a bit slight in its story presentation, but Greer, Lyonne, Plaza, and a host of other funny people keep you interested.