Movies

Pandemic Movies Have Reached Their Awkward, In-Between Phase

We need more Bad Trips and fewer Locked Downs.

Stills from Bad Trip, Locked Down, and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn.
Bad Trip, Locked Down, and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix, Warner Bros. Pictures, and Sovereign Film Distribution/Magnolia Pictures.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Alison Willmore, and Odie Henderson—about the year in cinema. Below is Entry 12.

Dear friends,

It’d be a gross personal failing on my part, after those mournful observations about how comedy felt like a forgotten art this year, to not spend a moment on the one that did actually make my top 10 list. Bad Trip was even a studio product—although, in a familiar move, MGM offloaded it to Netflix after COVID apparently put the nail in the coffin of theatrical comedies. Man, do I wish I could have seen it in a theater somehow. The communal viewing experience may not be dead, but as it becomes the exclusive domain of spectacle, one of the things that’s been lost is the pleasure of being in a room full of people all cracking up at the same thing. And in Bad Trip, that thing frequently consists of Eric André, Lil Rel Howery, and Tiffany Haddish performing some act of inspired anarchy, and their oblivious costars reacting by… trying to come to their aid.

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As you pointed out in your review, Bilge, this is “downright shocking at a moment in time when we’ve all been told that we hate each other’s guts.” But I’d stop short of calling it “feel-good,” if only because that feels like too sappy a term to be applied to a movie whose highlight is a sequence in which André and Howery get their dicks stuck in a Chinese finger trap. What I felt, when watching, was something closer to relief. I have trouble with cringe comedy — my acute secondhand embarrassment makes me want to cover my eyes through things like the Borats, as though they were torture porn sagas. But Bad Trip presents a vision of the world in which everyone unwittingly conspires to tell a joke rather than line up to be the punchline of one. It’s also a movie in which so many reliable tropes of fiction—musical numbers, impulsive buddy road trips, declarations of love to long-ago crushes, and, well, going undercover as white women—are allowed to look downright deranged in the bright light of day.

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Maybe there was an adjacent thrill to that, as well, when it feels like narratives have more of a hold on us than any sense of shared reality. I’ve been waiting for the pandemic to yield worthier work when it comes to movies, especially as we’ve gotten out of the first shared, claustrophobic rush of lockdown. I can’t imagine we’re going to get another Zoom movie that’s better than last year’s freaky seance-gone-wrong flick Host, but that didn’t stop people from trying with fare like Safer at Home and Untitled Horror Movie. In January, there was also Locked Down, that grating heist movie starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor as a couple whose breakup gets stalled out by quarantine requiring their continuing cohabitation. I’ve watched more variations on that theme, from The End of Us, in which two former BuzzFeeders perform a shabbier (but less shrill) version of the same set-up, to Taylor Garron’s low-key As of Yet, which is less about the romance its Brooklynite finds her way into and more about the toxic friendship/roommate situation she struggles to find her way out of.

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These movies have ranged from unbearable to okay, but what’s felt clear this year is that when it comes to art about life under COVID, we’re in an awkward in-between phase. There’s no longer any novelty left to simply rendering the experiences of pandemic life in loosely scripted form, but we don’t yet have the distance to get a real sense of what the last 21 months has done to us, individually or globally. But when Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn arrived in November, it captured something I hadn’t even realized I longed to see on screen: the soul-deep exhaustion and burned-out rage that simmers in the movie’s unlucky heroine and in pretty much everyone I know.

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Bad Luck Banging isn’t about COVID. It’s about how Emi (Katia Pascariu), a teacher, has to endure a rough day and a humiliating parent-teacher conference about the future of her career after the sex tape she made with her husband ends up on various porn sites. But it was born out of COVID, which is there in the background, and the brittleness of months of stress and denial and begging strangers to please, for the love of god, just put their masks back over their noses. When the movie basically breaks in the middle, giving way to an acerbic and unforgiving glossary of terms about historical and present-day hypocrisies, it’s bitterly satisfying. The pandemic has emphasized how much was already broken about modern existence, and Jude’s film got at the feeling of wanting to dash it all on the ground so that it shatters completely and we can start over with building something new.

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Whew, well, that was a little more apocalyptic than I’d planned. Let me wrap this up by saying that it was lovely to get to talk movies with you all, even at this strange stretch when it feels like the clock’s been turned back to March 2020 and we’ve all gotten unstuck in time. Here’s to re-affixing ourselves, to my someday being able to see your faces without the need for masks or video conferencing, and to finding something to laugh about in 2022. Maybe it’ll even be a movie!

All the best,

Alison

Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.

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