'The Stand In': Film Review

THE STAND IN - DREW BARRYMORE and MICHAEL ZEGEN
Courtesy of Saban Films
This satire misfires.
12/11/2020

Drew Barrymore stars as both a famous comic actor and her on-set substitute in a comedy directed by Jamie Babbit.

In theory, The Stand In might sound promising. It stars Drew Barrymore, was written by Four Lions and Peep Show scribe Sam Bain and directed by Jamie Babbit (cult queer classic But I'm a Cheerleader, plus some excellent TV episodes for Silicon Valley and Russian Doll). There are a ton of names in cameo roles (Ellie Kemper, Andrew Rannells and Lena Dunham to name but a few), all enlisted in what could have been a smart rethink of those sclerotic comedy tropes: the lookalike-role-swap and the ambitious-understudy-who eclipses-the-star.

Alas, it is a weirdly inert, obstinately unfunny work, starting from the opening montage of unconvincing pratfalls by Barrymore right through to the ironic comeuppance conclusion visible from outer space. It's not so much that the end result crosses a line somewhere in taste — in fact, it could do with more vulgarity — or that the basic premise is entirely awful. Rather, an ineffable joylessness suffuses the proceedings, making if feel like a weak, mainstream sitcom of old that isn't quite finished, waiting for a laugh track to be dubbed in.

That opening show reel, styled to look like video clips from an online listicle, features Barrymore's grumpy movie star, Candy Black, thudding to earth in an assortment of fake film clips, each time finding a new way to deliver her catchphrase, "Hit me where it hurts!" The idea seems to be that her Black is a sort of female version of Johnny Knoxville in physical comedy terms, with a dash of Melissa McCarthy's star power, but with Patty Duke's drug-addled temperament from Valley of the Dolls. While coked-up and high on her own supply of rage and entitlement, Candy manages to blind her co-star (Kemper) in one eye by accident as the crew, her sleazy agent Louis (T.J. Miller, starting his own rehabilitation tour after a sexual assault allegation derailed his career a few years back) and her stand-in Paula (also Barrymore, but with a prosthetic nose) look on.

Time passes, and Candy has withdrawn from the limelight in the wake of the scandal, as well as charges for unpaid taxes. She can only get out of going to jail if she attends rehab. However, during the enforced hiatus, Candy has not only discovered a passion for woodworking but forged a romantic relationship with Steve (Michael Zegen), another woodwork enthusiast and aspiring novelist, whom she has only interacted with either on the phone or through the internet. Steve doesn't realize she's a famous actor at all, and in order to keep communicating with him she secretly hires Paula to attend rehab for her.

Predictably, Paula, who wants to be a proper actor but has been struggling ever since her stand-in work for Candy dried up, finds she quite likes being in the spotlight impersonating Candy. With Louis' encouragement and the willingness of journalists and onlookers to believe that a leopard can swap spots for stripes, she goes on a media apology tour, prompting a series of fake TV appearances with Savannah Guthrie, Meghan McCain, Jimmy Fallon and Andy Cohen.

She even manages to fool Steve into believing she's Candy. Instead of dumping him as she originally plans, she goes full Single White Female and starts to date the hapless, and quite frankly clearly a bit dim, himbo who can't quite put his finger on why her voice now sounds breathy, high and dulcet and not like the salty contralto he's been used to hearing on the phone. Indeed, the fact that she seems to have had a total personality transplant and not remember any of their private jokes troubles him not at all.

The idea that men can't tell women apart, even in bed, was problematic back when Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure. For all The Stand In's gags about celebrity fan bases, social media and the general gullibility of our catfishable culture these days, it's curiously old-fashioned, and switcheroo shenanigans don't do any favors for the characters' likability quotients. In fact, Barrymore's own irrepressible cool-girl amiability as a performer makes her a little hard to swallow either as Black's bratty diva or as the initially mousey Paula.

The latter is never properly developed as a character anyway, but maybe that's an inside joke about stand-ins. She's just a "coat stand" on which everyone projects their desires. In perhaps the film's funniest and cruelest gag, Miller's Louis doesn't even care when he finds out she's not really Candy, because she's more than willing to get on with work and keep earning for the agency. But that also means ultimately the film isn't satirizing star egos and prima donna behavior — just the little people who work for them, which leaves a nasty, classist taste behind.

Cast: Drew Barrymore, Michael Zegen, T.J. Miller, Holland Taylor, Ellie Kemper, Andrew Rannells, Michelle Buteau, Sarah Jes Austell, Charlie Barnett, Richard Kind, Lena Dunham
Production: A Saban Dilms, Ingenious Media in association with Polyphemus Productions, Wrigley Media Group presentation of an Exchange, Flower Films production
Director: Jamie Babbit
Screenwriter: Sam Bain
Producers: Tom McNulty, Caddy Vanasirikul, Brian O'Shea, Ember Truesdell, Chris Miller
Executive producers: Nat McCormick, Giovanna Trischitta, Sam Bain, Drew Barrymore, Nancy Juvonen, Christelle Conan, Anders Erden, Simon Williams, Misdee Wrigley-Miller, Jayne Hancock, Ross Babbit, Danny Tepper, William V. Bromiley, Shanan Becker, Jonathan Saba, John Jencks, Joe Simpson, Jay Taylor, Tara Finegan, Tim Hegarty, Alastair Burlingham
Director of photography: Eric Moynier
Editor: Patrick Colman
Production designer: Lisa Myers
Costume designer: Sarah Mae Burton
Music: Daniel Wohl
Music supervisor: Brienne Rose
Casting: Richard Hicks
No rating; 101 minutes