Tuesday, February 27, 2024

“LISA FRANKENSTEIN”

THE STORY – A misunderstood teenager and a reanimated corpse embark on a murderous journey to find love, happiness and a few missing body parts.

THE CAST – Kathryn Newton, Cole Sprouse, Liza Soberano, Henry Eikenberry, Joe Chrest & Carla Gugino

THE TEAM – Zelda Williams (Director) & Diablo Cody (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 101 Minutes


Diablo Cody has a way with words. With an effortless combination of heartfelt emotion and quippy zingers wrapped up in an unmistakably feminist (but not too feminine) style, her writing is easily identifiable. Six years after her last film (the brilliant, underappreciated “Tully“), Cody finally graces us with her presence once again, returning to the horror-comedy/coming-of-age mash-up style of her sophomore effort “Jennifer’s Body.” A critical and box office bomb at the time, “Jennifer’s Body” has become a cult hit in the intervening years as the culture slowly caught up with the film’s wild tonal shifts and barbed social commentary. The packaging is much more audience-friendly this time around, taking Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein” and reimagining it as a goth girl fable set in the 1980s. Taking inspiration from several recent pop-culture touchstones (“Stranger Things” and “Wednesday”), “Lisa Frankenstein” could have been an insufferable retread designed to remind you of other popular things. Instead, thanks to Cody’s perfectly tart, tonally tricky screenplay, it’s a funny, original take on one of the most adapted works of classic literature.

Lisa (Kathryn Newton) hasn’t spoken much since the horrific break-in that took her mother’s life. Her father (Joe Chrest) didn’t take long to remarry. Still, Lisa doesn’t get along with stepmom Janet (Carla Gugino) and her beauty queen daughter Taffy (Liza Soberano), both of whom are very concerned with keeping up appearances and presenting a pretty smile to the world no matter what else is going on. Taffy has tried to take Lisa under her wing, but Lisa, too preoccupied with her feelings, rejects her in favor of hanging around an unkempt old bachelor’s cemetery, making rubbings of gravestones. Lisa has taken to talking to one of the men buried there, whose handsome bust sits atop his gravestone. One evening, after a particularly awful party, she tells his bust she wishes to be with him. By “with him,” she means dead and in the ground, but after a massive thunderstorm, his reanimated corpse (Cole Sprouse) comes looking for her. His tears may smell toxic, he may be covered in grime, and he may be missing a few appendages, but having him in her life brings Lisa out of her shell. Before long, she’s borrowing Taffy’s clothes and making moves on her crush, Michael (Henry Eikenberry), the school literary magazine editor. But, with her creature stuck in the house all day with nosy clean-freak Janet, how long before things start going horribly wrong?

Cody’s hilarious screenplay never goes for the easy joke. While the film makes fun of the ’80s, it does so primarily through design choices instead of topical humor or wall-to-wall references. The jokes come from some incredibly clever wordplay that puts most big studio comedies to shame: “He’s not a jock; he’s cerebral,” Lisa says to Taffy about Michael, to which Taffy incredulously responds, “He’s in a wheelchair?” Cody has the soul of an old-school sitcom writer from the Norman Lear era, able to toss off jokes at a steady clip but also unwilling to pull punches when it comes time to delve into characters’ emotions. On its shiny, neon-colored surface, “Lisa Frankenstein” does not seem like a film with anything especially profound to say about grief. Still, Cody gives Lisa an absolute gem of a line anyway, and Newton nails the delivery. Unfortunately, Cody isn’t able to do so consistently throughout.

The screenplay’s arch tone requires an ensemble of performers who understand stylization and how to play around with genre tropes, as the film gives a good-natured ribbing to ’80s teen exploitation flicks in the John Hughes vein. Gugino, who has always been a master at stylized performances that don’t provide the character short shrift (see “Sin City” or the recent Netflix series “Fall of the House of Usher”), is the ace up the film’s sleeve, maximizing the potential of every second she spends on camera. Every gesture, no matter how minute, communicates who this woman is while encapsulating a specific brand of ’80s femininity in such a way that you have to laugh. Soberano likewise fully commits to Taffy’s buoyant airheadedness in a way that reads as “generic ’80s teen girl,” but she brings such vivid shading to her relationship with Lisa that Taffy becomes much more than that.

However, Newton has trouble navigating Lisa’s tricky tonal shifts. Like every character in the film, Lisa is both an ’80s archetype (a Lydia Deetz-like Goth girl) and a specific person, and Newton doesn’t always choose the most compelling moments to lean into the archetype. This becomes especially apparent in the film’s second half when Lisa moves through the world more confidently due to her relationship with the creature. In the film’s early scenes, Newton adopts a flat affect when she speaks, conveying Lisa’s loneliness and depression. As the film goes on and Lisa spends more time speaking to the creature, her voice and body movements become more animated. This is a solid acting choice, but the speed with which Newton switches between these two registers within a single scene can cause whiplash, making Lisa seem insane. An uneven performance in the central role could have been a liability, but these missteps are only occasional, mostly leading to nothing worse than a bungled laugh line.

In the way of Cody’s best work, it’s not the jokes but rather the rapport between Lisa and the creature that turns out to be the film’s spine. Lisa hasn’t had anyone to talk to in the wake of her mother’s brutal murder, with her father almost immediately getting married and her new stepfamily pushing her to get over it and be happy just as they are. The creature is the only person in her life who listens to her (albeit with only one ear), and Newton’s sweet rapport with Sprouse — an absolute hoot, fully embracing the character’s out-of-time qualities and having a blast communicating in grunts and gestures — sells the audience on the importance of their relationship and how it helps Lisa come out of her shell, for both good and evil. While Cody’s hilarious, clever jokes and the memorably over-the-top characters may make the film entertaining in the moment, the care taken with the central relationship is what gives “Lisa Frankenstein” life beyond the first viewing. That sweetness perfectly cuts through the screenplay’s tartness, producing something so tasty you’ll want to come back for more.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Diablo Cody's screenplay is full of hilarious laugh lines. The story is a fun twist on a classic.

THE BAD - The cast doesn't always nail the tricky tone.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Makeup and Hairstyling

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>Diablo Cody's screenplay is full of hilarious laugh lines. The story is a fun twist on a classic.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The cast doesn't always nail the tricky tone.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-makeup-and-hairstyling/">Best Makeup and Hairstyling</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"LISA FRANKENSTEIN"