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From What’s New Pussycat? to Dressed to Kill, Silence of the Lambs to Basic Instinct, the big screen hasn’t lacked for memorably twisted shrinks. Suffice it to say that the latest psycho psych, Dr. Judy Small (Michaela Watkins) in the film Bad Therapy, won’t be joining those ranks.
That’s not the actress’ fault. Watkins (Sword of Trust, Brittany Runs a Marathon) is the kind of performer whose timing — whether in the service of sarcasm, self-deprecation or sweetness — is so finely tuned she elicits giggles, and curiosity, even when you don’t know exactly why or how. Indeed, it’s a bit baffling to see her wasting time on this stale, grimly unfunny black comedy, in which her character, a malevolent marriage counselor, experiences a ferocious case of erotic counter-transference with a patient (Rob Corddry).
Directed by William Teitler with anonymous functionality yet no trace of spark or wit, Bad Therapy seems to fancy itself très naughty but feels formatted to within an inch of its life, from the glib title to the Beach Boys-accompanied opening credits to the predictable pivots of the plot. Nancy Doyne’s screenplay has a stiff, nudge-nudge/wink-wink obviousness — a bit like aliens approximating earthling humor — as well as a streak of misogyny: The women in the film are either sex-starved loonies, materialistic shrews or vapid teens. (The men are also insufferable, but less lavishly so.) It’s sour and perfunctory from start to finish.
Susan (Alicia Silverstone) lives with second husband Bob (Corddry) and a daughter, Louise (Anna Pniowsky, so good as the mini mean girl on Hulu’s PEN15), from a previous marriage. (Her first husband died in a freak boating accident.) A realtor (Susan) and head of programming at the Nature Channel (Bob), they’re one of those upper-middle-class movie couples who constantly moan about their financial stresses but appear to live in a roomy historic craftsman on the Westside of Los Angeles. World’s smallest violin, anyone?
When Susan learns that her snooty best friend Roxy (Aisha Tyler, trying hard to get this party started), who’s pregnant with triplets, is in couples counseling, a light bulb goes off: Maybe that’s just what she and Bob need to sort out their issues, which seem to stem from the fact that he wants a baby while she would rather focus on saving money.
Susan and Bob book a consultation with Roxy’s therapist, the aforementioned Dr. Small (Watkins), who initially comes off legit: composed, clinical and sleekly dressed, with an eye-catching collection of neck scarves. At their first appointment, Susan voices her concern that Bob has been ogling her daughter, an ill-judged moment that introduces a queasy — and wholly unnecessary — dynamic the film never shakes. Things go downhill from there, for characters, movie and viewers alike.
Switching perspectives in a way that feels haphazard rather than clever or purposeful, Bad Therapy proceeds to show us Dr. Small discussing her new patients with her own (out-of-frame) psychoanalyst. “Their problems are very ordinary. As is she,” she sniffs about Susan in one of a measly handful of amusingly withering — and in this case, alas, accurate — throwaway lines. “But there’s something about the husband…” Dr. Small adds. So begins the therapist’s mission to divide and conquer, alienating the spouses from one another — first step: insisting on seeing them separately — and scheming to seduce Bob.
There’s a barely coherent backstory involving Dr. Small’s past professional misconduct and a former supervisor trying to track her down (David Paymer, always welcome). But Bad Therapy struggles to commit to a tone or point of view. Are the filmmakers aiming for a satire of L.A. quackery, as suggested by the Frank Lloyd Wright epigraph that opens the movie (as well as Dr. Small’s quip, when reminded that she no longer has a license to practice, that “It’s California, nobody here cares about licenses”)? A farce about sexual harassment featuring a female culprit (a rather tone-deaf narrative these days, for evident reasons)? Bad Therapy never decides whether it’s going for Solondzian misanthropy, John Waters-esque outré-ness or the glossy accessibility of a Nancy Meyers joint — and ends up stuck in a middle ground of mediocrity.
Corddry underplays affably enough, though Bob is far too feckless a figure to root for. (The actor’s fans would be better served by streaming an episode or two of Childrens Hospital on Amazon.) Watkins has fun with the sole authentically bonkers moment the screenplay gives her (it involves a permanent marker and a public bus).
I wish I could say Silverstone, to whom we owe an eternal debt of gratitude for her Cher Horowitz in Clueless, emerges unscathed. But Susan is a problematical role — a thuddingly boring nag — and the actress is misdirected, all cartoonish grimaces and overly feverish exclamations. (A low point in the performance comes when Susan gets loopy after popping a few pills with her champagne — though, to be fair, Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids set an unmatchable standard for how to play sedative-alcohol intoxication for laughs.)
No matter how tongue-in-cheek, and toothless, the pic’s sardonic view of mental health care feels unfortunately timed given our mass anxiety-inducing current circumstances. The truth is, we could all use some good therapy right about now; Bad Therapy, on the other hand, is not indicated.
Production companies: Teitler Film Inc., Varient
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures (available for VOD purchase Friday)
Cast: Alicia Silverstone, Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, Anna Pniowsky, Haley Joel Osment, Aisha Tyler, David Paymer, Angela Oh, Marcelo Tubert, Jack Axelrod, Paris Bravo
Director: William Teitler
Screenwriter: Nancy Doyne, adapted from her novel
Producers: Gina Resnick, William Teitler
Executive producers: Rob Corddry, Lisa Van Allsburg
Director of photography: Rob C. Givens
Production designer: Alison Sadler
Costume designer: Aggie Guerard Rodgers
Music: Nathan Larson
Editor: David Leonard
Casting: Avy Kaufman, Emily Schweber
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