Whether it’s crazed Communists threatening to rain nukes on half the planet or overgrown frat boys bullying the other half of the world into cowering submission, there’s not much humor to be found in contemporary world affairs. Clearly what’s needed is a pointed satire highlighting the inherent absurdity governing global politics today, and Coup d’Etat may just fit the bill.
Equating a long-simmering political rebellion with the war zone that is the American public high school system, Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse’s feature creatively cribs from the Mean Girls and Election playbooks, humorously skewering international despots just as gleefully as teen queen bees.
Recognizing that high school freshmen make for overly familiar targets, the filmmakers instead single out sophomore and sworn rebel Tatiana Mills (Odeya Rush). Tat has a problem, or more precisely, several of them: the three super-popular girls led by Sarvia (Fish Myrr) who call themselves the “slushies,” a mashup of “sluts” and “lushes.” Inspired as this moniker may be, the real problem is that the trio doesn’t really live up to their chosen representation, neither hooking up nor drinking up with any regularity, so it’s no wonder Tat remains convinced that they’ve got no business ruling the school. However, their constant humiliations to ensure that Tatiana remains relegated to outsider status aren’t just totally annoying, they’re totally succeeding.
Shunned by most of her classmates for her vaguely anarchist leanings and devotion to classic hardcore punk, Tat's not about to attain prom queen status anytime soon. And while that’s totally okay with her, her single mother Darlene (Katie Holmes) would prefer if she’d try rounding off some of her rougher edges, but that would mean giving up her self-consciously alternative fashion choices and surly attitude. So in her continuing campaign to foment disruption, Tat begins a regular correspondence with reviled Caribbean dictator General Anton Vincent (Michael Caine) as a tactic to hijack a class assignment ineptly conceived by her social studies teacher (Jason Biggs). Surprisingly, Vincent responds to Tat’s handwritten missives enthusiastically, as they begin a frequent exchange of letters, vociferously sharing complaints about their perceived rivals and opponents.
When one imagines Caine as an international villain (a highly entertaining undertaking even in itself), he’d likely be an erudite, Bond-worthy operator, not the scruffy communist strongman with a straggly gray Castro beard that General Vincent is made out to be. Caine of course plays the strongman as an entitled, misunderstood borderline psychopath badly in need of some real-world readjustment.
So when Vincent’s violent and corrupt government collapses under assault by U.S.-backed rebels, he flees to the only safe haven he’s sure is totally under the radar: Tatiana’s suburban Georgia home. Shocked to find her pen pal skulking around outside her house, Tat secretly takes him in, right under her mother’s nose. They rapidly form an unexpected alliance after she agrees to help Vincent regain control of his country and in return, he promises to coach her on how she can single-handedly subjugate her classmates.
Although dominating high school social circles may not compare with the widespread suppression of human rights in an island backwater, Tatiana and General Vincent have a good deal in common, from their disdain for posers to their appreciation for a good takedown. Rush, who’s been gradually gaining momentum with several indie releases this year (including a supporting role in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird), latches onto Tatiana’s rebellious antisocial campaign with enthusiasm. Although she mostly plays it straight, she’s not above taking a pratfall or two as Addario and Syracuse mix in some slapstick along with all of the political agitation.
Admittedly, these scenes can’t touch shots of Caine attired in an ill-fitting tracksuit and wearing a ridiculously inadequate wig and moustache disguise, or furiously riding an adult three-wheeler in front of rear-projected street scenes. Caine, in fact, hasn’t had a chance to push a performance this far into the realm of absurdity in quite some time. So it’s a delight to watch him take on this caricature of an unhinged strongman with abundant brio and apparent conviction, even if events may lead General Vincent in unexpected directions. Holmes slips smoothly back into a substantial comedic role by rejecting the humiliations thrust upon her by her creepy boss (Seth Green) and finding the determination to stand up for her nonconformist daughter.
Married writing-directing team Syracuse and Addario, who experienced a bit of a misfire with 2016’s Amateur Night, prove they can totally bring it with Coup d’Etat (even inserting a play on Tatiana’s nickname in the title). Playful, irreverent and unafraid to be politically incorrect, the pair script with assurance and direct with stylish understatement, pairing character and physical comedy to entertaining effect.
Production companies: Aloe Entertainment, Coastal Film Studios, Fortitude International
Cast: Michael Caine, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Jason Biggs, Seth Green, Fish Myrr, Jackson Beard
Directors-writers: Lisa Addario, Joe Syracuse
Producers: Mary Aloe, Lucas Jarach, Robert Ogden Barnum, Jorge Garcia Castro
Executive producers: Paul Brett, Wayne Chang, Michael Clofine, Nadine DeBarros, Paul English, Anders Erden, Kevin Scott Frakes, Sean Glover, Lila Janakievski, George Nedelkovski, Alan Pao, Buddy Patrick, Tim Smith, Peter Stewart, James Swarbrick, Nicolas Veinberg, Adrian Voo
Director of photography: Wyatt Troll
Editor: Kent Beyda
Music: Sebastian Kauderer
Venue: Napa Valley Film Festival