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For 11 years, to love Ari Graynor has been to suffer the unsatisfied cinematic angst of wanting more. The scene stealer dances in and out of bit parts, elevating typecast, party-girl caricatures into engaging women with her preternatural ability to find the humanity in the stereotypical. Whether the drama of Mystic River or the audacious humor of The Sitter, Graynor’s stood to the left of the spotlight – until she teamed up with Lauren Miller for this week’s must-see comedy, For a Good Time, Call… Finally, Graynor isn’t the scene stealer, but the heart that holds the piece together.
Ari Graynor isn’t an actress who slowly grew into her craft; her talents (and inevitable typecasting) were evident from the moment she strutted into Meadow Soprano’s dorm room in The Sopranos. In her first moments on-screen, Caitlin Rucker is the drunken frosh, dancing into their dorm room, stripping to her underwear, and singing a bit of “New York, New York.” She’s the teen playing adult, spewing faux intellectualism while singing about her newfound college freedom. Five episodes later, Caitlin is pulling out her hair, overwhelmed by the darkness she sees in the Big Apple before running back into the arms of booze and party drugs.
It was a glimpse of the seriousness the actress was capable of, but in Hollywood, serious female-centric drama isn’t as loved as drunken, lascivious party girls. Libations prevailed, but didn’t conquer Graynor, and she infused her minor characters with a rare and palpable sense of humanity, never more apparent than her stint as Caroline in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. At first glance, she looks like the obnoxious partier we see so often – booze flows from her flask, she drunkenly flirts with strange boys, runs around wildly, and vomits so often that she has special places where she prefers to hurl. She’s the gross-out girl, so intent on saving her gum that she doesn’t care where it rests between bouts of chewing.
Oh, that disgusting little piece of gum…
On first watch, there’s little to do but writhe in your theater seat in disgust as Caroline fishes out her gum and slips it back into her mouth. But Graynor’s facial expressions allow the scene to thrive on multiple viewings. Caroline pouts, ashamed as she slowly opens her mouth and returns the vomit-infused gum. But the bliss of the candy cannot be conquered by circumstance, and Caroline’s lips curl into a smile as her eyelids close in happiness. The gag becomes the perfect delicate moment – her delicious comfort after running from assumed rapists and struggling to get home drunk and broke. The ludicrous setup almost toes the line of reality because her reactions are so idiosyncratically human. (See also the sandwich scene that comes before.)
Some of this ability is surely due to the fact that Graynor doesn’t consider herself a comedienne, no matter how comedically skilled she is. It brings to mind the late Madeline Khan, who found comedy “very hard work” because fun “is carefree. I am not carefree. I am not, in general, a funny person.” This isn’t to say she is Khan, or that she has the same combative relationship with comedy, but both speak to a dynamic between drama and comedy. These days, we forget how much dramatic skill is often behind the laughs, especially in a studio system that loves lazy comedy. Projects like Damages (where icons like Lily Tomlin and Martin Short appear) serve as our reminder that comedy isn’t just topping the ridiculous with more ridiculousness until reality is shot into space. Many of the old-school greats can rock serious drama as well.
Graynor isn’t just Hollywood’s cinematic party girl. Outside of Hollywood, she’s recorded books on tape, and fostered a stage career working with the likes of Woody Allen and Ethan Coen. When it came time to star in her first major feature film (the less than $10k-grossing Lucky doesn’t count), she was eager for the comedy to be more real and grounded than ridiculous and audacious, and the result is For a Good Time, Call… a wonderful, Bechdel-devouring female buddy comedy.
On paper, Graynor’s Katie Steele is just like the rest of the actress’ party girls. Katie reads like a typical caricature, and once again, comes to life through her actress’ talents. She’s the drunk girl Lauren Miller’s “Lauren Powell” drove home in college, so wild that she’ll urinate into a cup right in the car. She holds a million wacky jobs, and is uber-casual in any guise, even rocking one-piece pantsuits of denim and polyester as if they never went out of style. Graynor is at home not just because of her talent, but because the film functions much like she does – a cliché parade infused with enough heart that it’s relatable.
Nothing is ground-breaking. There is the wild college past, Manhattan money woes, the free spirit who dresses from another time and holds strange odd jobs, the uptight neurotic who loves her 9-to-5 lifestyle, the gay best guy friend, the condescending twit of a boyfriend, the inevitable bonding and inevitable friendship-testing miscommunication, but it’s all in good fun. It’s a chance to see women talking to each other, coming of age, and delighting in the bawdy, with Graynor’s Katie grounding the quirk.
The film infuses its clichés with humanity, and the comedy grows on you, likely because this is a story of women creating a story featuring women, about their experience, to fill a void in their professional lives. Costar Miller wrote the script with ex-college roommate Katie Anne Naylon. She was eager to have a better acting gig after many bit parts in then-fiancée Seth Rogen’s films, and the pair had a great, real-life experience to expand from – Naylon had operated a sex line from their Florida State dorm room. There are, therefore, no women-through-men’s-POV woes, and alongside films like last year’s wild hit Bridesmaids, female comedy is ripped out of tiredly infuriating habits. The women grow because of their influence on each other – not because of the men in their lives. They don’t need men to navigate the world or to teach them the “ugly truth.” They help to blur the line between so-called “women’s” and “men’s” comedy.
Miller’s character might fuel the story, but Katie is the heart that ties you to it. If this doesn’t help Graynor earn her own spotlight, well, Hollywood is wearing blinders.
Go see it, enjoy the romp, and bask in a film where women can talk to women, be their own people, and be damn funny doing it.