Her Smell (2018)
Written & Directed by Alex Ross Perry
I don’t think I have felt this sort of whiplash on my feelings about a filmmaker in a long while. When Alex Ross Perry is writing about literary people (Listen Up Philip), he’s nailing it. After watching Her Smell, I am curious about how much research he did when writing this picture. It felt like a cliched musician biopic and was absolutely grating by the end. It does have high points, but overall, I was pleased when the movie was over because it was so unenjoyable to watch. This is one where my wife had a lot to say and articulated some of the things I disliked so intensely about the movie—more on that in a bit.
The film is told in five acts, centered around Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), the lead singer of a punk-ish band called Something She. They have been touring for a few years and put out a few records, enjoying quite a bit of fame. However, things are at the beginning of the decline. Becky is going through a divorce and has limited custody of her daughter. She’s become involved in pseudo-spirituality, and recording sessions are a nightmare. Eventually, the drummer walks out, and Becky tries to glom onto a younger, new girl band to exploit them. Things escalate into self-destruction, and Becky walks away from the music business. However, she returns for at least one night to celebrate her record label’s anniversary, reuniting with all those people she pushed away over the years.
Her Smell feels like if I tried to write a story about rock musicians. I’d just fall back onto the lame cliches of mainstream music biopics with my characters losing any sense of the organic and become stereotypes. The amount of research I’d have to do to be able to write in those voices with honesty & wit would be tremendous. I question how much time Perry devoted to researching the people he is basing these characters on because it is corny to the point of being embarrassing in moments. Elisabeth Moss may be playing a trainwreck, but her performance is monumentally terrible here. Some of the lines she is given to say are delivered with extreme earnestness but fall so flat.
There’s a lot of shouting in the movie, which may be why so many critics praise it. So often, the louder characters are, the “better the performances.” I also think Perry is good when it comes to unlikeable characters, and Becky Something certainly is one. However, you need to make her voice sound authentic instead of a one-dimensional imagined rock persona. There’s a lot of tension building in the first half of the movie, with many missteps in the dialogue. The second half is entirely unbearable. The film is way too long, over two hours, for something that probably could have been done in an hour and thirty. In so many ways, this feels like a very corporate perception of what people think punk is. I am no fan of punk music, but this is much more like that 1990s GAP punk aesthetic, trying to mimic the genre.
My wife pointed out the presence of Alex Ross Perry’s first character of color in the four films of his we’ve watched. So, how does this character’s arc play out? Well, he’s a con-man posing as a shaman who gets arrested off-screen. That seems to hit on some gross tropes about Black people that Perry seemed completely comfortable including. There was a line in Perry’s The Color Wheel that made my wife and I both raise an eyebrow, but I tried to push it off as the character being intentionally unlikeable. Perry’s character in that movie is talking about he understands how black people can be objectively attractive, but he just never finds himself attracted or turned on by them. He also cracks a joke to his girlfriend in that movie about having a “black man-sized erection.” I thought this is meant to be a piece of character to show us how myopic this person is. Now, I am starting to wonder if that wasn’t just an honest admission of some of Perry’s own thoughts.
Then I came across this interview with Perry where, when asked about the racist dialogue from The Color Wheel, he says this:
“That is the way most people react to it, yes. I think somebody who speaks their mind and is comfortable enough to make off-colour jokes should be heralded as a hero, not ostracized […] I put in a joke where my character says that his sexual preference is only for white women, and of the 15 screenings of the movie I have been to, zero people have ever laughed at it. This probably has something to do with the liberal, PC crowd that attends festivals and their inability to laugh at something so insensitive, but the large black penis line tends to elicit some laughs.”
Welp, that sort of settled it for me. I think Perry is yet another “ironic” New York Millennial convinced they can’t be racist because they live on the East Coast. It’s only people in the American South that are the racists; therefore, he can make “jokes” about Black people as a result. I’m glad I watched these four films, but I can’t honestly say I would be willing to put up with more of him after this. He is all about girl power when it comes to white women in Her Smells, but he just doesn’t appear to have much time or give space to BIPOC anywhere in his work.