Film

Patti Cake$

Throw your hands in the air

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Imagine living in a world in which everyone you know is an idiot, including every single person in authority, every boss, every cop, even your mother and grandmother. And then imagine that all those tragically, achingly stupid people are convinced they know everything and they can’t wait to tell you just how stupid you are.

Imagine, further, that within this world you’re brilliant. You have poetry in your soul. You have dreams, talent and spirit, but you have no power, and everything that you see—every street corner, every building, every landscape—is repulsive. And then imagine that no one takes you seriously, that everybody is saying that you’re fat or you’re worthless, or both. So you want to get out, but you have nowhere to go, and even if you did, you have no way to get there.

This is the situation that the heroine, Patricia, experiences in Patti Cake$, a condition rendered with such bleak precision by writer/director Geremy Jasper that it presents a challenge, for the audience and for the filmmaker: Do you really want to go to this world? Do you really want to sit and look at nothing but awfulness and morons for almost two hours?

After all, this is not like going to see, for example, Dunkirk, which is also a trying experience, but it’s edifying. Patti Cake$ shows us something we already know about. It is hard to make an interesting movie about people who are incapable of expressing a single interesting thought. Yes, the heroine is the exception here, but how much fun is it to watch a person getting spiritually suffocated, in scene after scene?

Ultimately, Patti Cake$ becomes worth it, because it finds its way to some kind of uplift without losing its truth, but it’s a close call. Yet something in Danielle Macdonald’s performance keeps us in our seats, a truth, a yearning of the soul, a desperation to find the exit, which makes common cause with our own desire to bolt out of that ugly world and never look back.

Patricia is 23, obese and mocked for it—called “Dumbo” by people in her northern New Jersey town. She is doing menial jobs and living with her mother (Bridget Everett) and grandmother (Cathy Moriarty), who do very little but park themselves in front of the TV set and smoke. Patti wants something better, to be a rap star, but she is hemmed in by poverty, a culture of failure, and the world’s indifference to any talent that arrives in an unexpected package.

In its broad outlines, Patti Cake$ may sound like a female version of 8 Mile (2002), starring Eminem, but there’s one crucial difference: Danielle Macdonald isn’t a rapper. She’s an Australian actress who, for the role, had to learn how to rap. She does a good job, and yet, you can sometimes feel the strain. With Eminem, he just had to open his mouth, and you felt like you were blasted by a fire hose of verbal brilliance. With Macdonald, it feels like rooting for her and feeling relief when she stops, that she got away with it.

This becomes an unintended problem for the movie, because unless we think Patti is brilliant, we are liable to think that her hip-hop ambitions are deluded. This doesn’t quite happen. Instead, we become willing to accept Patti’s talent as a conceit of the story, even if we don’t really feel it.

Indeed, if you put aside rap, Patti Cake$ is more valuable as a story about what it’s like to be a woman in what’s close to being a man’s game, a white person in a black game, and a fat person in a skinny game. It’s less about music and more about how hard it is—and how bad it feels—to be absolutely and completely on the outside. And though the movie is uncompromising on that score—and shows its heroine going through a series of humiliations that are almost as painful to watch as they would be to experience—it’s not self-pitying. It’s dead-eyed accurate, and that’s its ultimate redemption.

So she’s not Eminem. There’s only one of those. Patti is something else, the patron saint of being on the outside looking in. And because every one of us knows that feeling, everyone can connect with her story.

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