The Foxy Merkins: Sundance NEXT WEEKEND Review

Variable quality of this largely improvised comedy won’t deter its target audience.

Writer-director Madeleine Olnek’s sophomore feature is a lesbian streetwalker buddy movie.

Clearly a late-night comedy magnet for its niche demo, The Foxy Merkins, with its lightweight premise about the unusual exploits of two lesbian hookers, may to some extent also draw the curious, perhaps mistakenly expecting a distaff John Waters-style romp. Leveraging wider exposure will be tricky, however, making theatrical release iffy, although digital platforms may beckon. The film made its world premiere at the Sundance Institute’s Los Angeles NEXT WEEKEND event, a four-day festival for short films and low-budget features.

Recently arrived in New York City, broke, homeless, heavyset Margaret (Lisa Haas) -- lacking any employable skills -- decides to start hooking to earn a bit of cash, but she’s a complete newbie and repeatedly fumbles even enthusiastic come-ons from potential customers. Fellow streetwalker Jo (Jackie Monahan), who’s straight but only dates women, takes Margaret under her wing (although she’s just marginally more successful herself), coaching her on picking up Park Avenue matrons and suburban soccer moms alike and suggesting they both crash on the floor of the women's restroom at the Port Authority bus terminal.

Margaret’s forays into the streets of the city meet with mixed success, as she gets both shorted on her ridiculously reasonable fees and showered with generosity. Run-ins with a prim middle-aged woman who pays for services with gift cards from preppy women’s clothing retailer Talbots and another with a haughty blue blood who has a cop-and-handcuff fetish enliven the plot, such as it is. Meanwhile, the friendship between Margaret and Jo deepens, potentially to a more intimate level.

The inspired looniness of writer-director Madeleine Olnek’s first feature, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same -- a microbudget black-and-white B-movie sci-fi tribute -- is largely MIA here, in what’s supposedly a riff on typical male hustler movies. Initially more a series of gags than a cohesive narrative, Merkins gets by on its considerable wit and a few genuinely hilarious moments for the first hour, then tries to play catch-up in the final 30 minutes by attempting to capitalize on marginal subplots concerning Margaret’s search for her estranged mother and Jo’s shifting romantic alliances.

Potentially promising scenes, such as those involving a merkin-selling creeper in a trench coat and a CNN reporter (both incongruously played by Alex Karpovsky) interested in the possibility of a sex tape involving Margaret and a Republican politician, fizzle once the sketch-comedy moments pass, and several repeated gags, including the Talbots joke, eventually wear thin.

Although the film shifts almost randomly between fictional and vérité “reality” perspectives, it remains visually undistinguished, with unevenly skilled handheld camera work capturing spontaneously staged scenes. The script by Olnek and the two lead actresses proves equally improvisational; it initially impresses as rather refreshing, but lacks staying power, to paraphrase one of the film’s weaker wisecracks.

Klutzy, thickset Haas, who also played the lead in Codependent, reprises a similar, wide-eyed role, but is so effective at drawing out some of the film’s more ridiculously awkward moments that it’s hard to imagine any established actress outdoing her. Monahan (also of Codependent) makes a fine comic foil, but scant impression otherwise; Karpovsky’s suitably sleazy demeanor, while unremarkably derivative, adequately suits his brief, bizarre appearances.

The film title’s reference to pubic wigs -- both literal and metaphorical, as far as the lead characters are concerned -- is little more than a mild provocation, rather than an indication of any outrageous tendencies.

Venue: Sundance NEXT WEEKEND

Cast: Lisa Haas, Jackie Monahan, Susan Ziegler, Alex Karpovsky, Sally Sockwell

Director: Madeleine Olnek

Screenwriters: Lisa Haas, Jackie Monahan, Madeleine Olnek

Producers: Laura Terruso, Madeleine Olnek

Executive Producer: Tobette Feinberg

Director of photography: Anna Stypko

Music: Dan Bartfield

Editor: Curtis Grout

No rating, 90 minutes