'Unlovable': Film Review

Great co-stars only go so far in unconvincing recovery tale.
11/2/2018

An intimacy addict tries to sober up in Suzi Yoonessi's navel-gazer.

A look at sex-and-love addiction that might also function as a metaphor for approval-seeking in the social media age, Suzi Yoonessi's Unlovable reportedly springs from the personal experience of star and co-writer Charlene deGuzman. That doesn't mean she's the ideal choice to play the part onscreen, though, and viewers' opinions on her performance will polarize responses to this therapy-centric tale. Thinly dramatizing what was surely a much deeper experience offscreen, deGuzman is upstaged by tag-team supporting performances from Melissa Leo and John Hawkes, the latter of whom offers genuine eccentricity amid self-consciously cutesy surroundings.

DeGuzman plays the ironically named Joy, who starts things off by limply trying to kill herself. Can you die from bingeing on dessert, cough syrup and tap-dancing? Probably not, but you can definitely work up a lethargy that will get you fired from a job requiring nonstop perkiness.

Joy quickly sabotages her relationship as well. Not getting sufficient attention from her nice enough but distracted boyfriend Ben (Paul James), she heads down to a neighborhood restaurant, gets drunk and falls into bed with a stranger. This is not a new routine, and when Ben sees the leftover dumplings in the fridge, he dumps Joy on the spot.

Homeless and jobless, Joy seeks help at a local 12-step group. Maddie (Melissa Leo), who is much further along in recovery, says she won't be Joy's sponsor, but she offers a place to get her act together. She sets Joy up in the empty apartment behind her grandmother's house and issues a strict challenge: Go 30 days without sex, masturbation or contact with anyone she might normally run to for affection (texts and social media included). Under the watchful eyes of the dozens of stuffed animals she brought from home, Joy places a stripe of hot-pink tape on the wall to mark day one. Predictably, she'll have to peel lots of stripes off the wall before she hits her goal.

Viewers who accept everything the script tells them should have little trouble from this point out. But Joy's inchworm progress toward clarity can only matter if we believe where she began. While Unlovable nails the shame and self-pity of Joy's mornings after, the pathology that leads to her random hookups is more stated than demonstrated. We never see what transpires after Joy takes her usual barstool — we see her order shots and pierogies, start to get loose and then awaken groggily the next morning. While this may accurately reflect Joy's blacked-out memories, it does little to put us in her shoes.

(About her pickup joint of choice, and the foodstuffs she associates with it: The film understandably means to show how patterns of bad behavior become ritualistic, transforming innocent objects into potent triggers. But after a few overlong, ominous shots of this restaurant's facade, one feels like organizing an anti-defamation suit on behalf of pierogi-hawkers everywhere.)

Quickly after moving into the new place, Joy spies Maddie's brother Jim (Hawkes), who lives in the house and cares for their dementia-struck nana (Ellen Geer). A recluse who can barely meet the gaze of anyone but his grandmother (with whom he is poignantly tender), Jim writes songs and plays guitar in the garage. Joy doesn't respect his privacy, and casually invades his little studio, but (as with a more serious violation later) the film only lets Jim register one instant of anger before inviting her in.

Jim shows Joy how to accompany him on drums, and the two build an easy rapport around occasional jam sessions. The most enjoyable scenes in the film by far, these interactions pull Joy out of her narcissistic bubble and contrast her troubles with those of another damaged soul. Too quickly, Joy loses this refuge as well — but here, the disruption is just violent enough to trigger a familiar "This time I mean it" rebirth.

DeGuzman shares screenwriting credit here with executive producer Mark Duplass, who presumably helped shape Unlovable's conventional, indie-commercial flow, and with Sarah Adina Smith. The latter is best known for writing and directing 2016's Buster's Mal Heart, in which Rami Malek played a character with far more extreme issues than the ones Joy suffers. Despite dealing with mental states that should be much harder for viewers to grasp, that picture was much more convincing than this one. A lack of psychological depth probably isn't fatal for a lite get-your-act-together dramedy, but it might've made this hard-to-love protagonist easier to at least care about.

Production company: Duplass Brothers Productions
Distributor: Orion Classics
Cast: Charlene deGuzman, John Hawkes, Melissa Leo, Paul James, Ellen Geer
Director: Suzi Yoonessi
Screenwriters: Charlene deGuzman, Sarah Adina Smith, Mark Duplass
Producer: Jen Roskind
Executive producers: Cary Anderson, Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, Ian Michaels, Sarah Smick, Suzi Yoonessi
Director of photography: Moira Morel
Production designer: Nino Alicea
Costume designer: Francesca Roth
Editor: Kristina Davies
Composer: Christopher French
Casting directors: Sunday Boling, Meg Morman

82 minutes