At the risk of making it sound better than it is, Christian Papierniak’s “Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town” is sort of like a Riot grrrl riff on “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Imagine if the Coen brothers’ lonely and embittered hero had once been in Le Tigre instead of a folk duo, and you’ll have a decent feel for the kind of emotional riptide that stirs beneath the surface of this ramshackle comedy. It’s broad and sloppy where “Inside Llewyn Davis” is specific and precise — linear where that film oozes in all directions like an open wound — but an electric lead performance and a growing sense of self make it worth your while to see that Izzy gets where she’s going.
Three years ago, Izzy (an erratic, combustible, altogether perfect Mackenzie Davis) was playing at SXSW with her sister (Carrie Coon). These days, she’s a couch-surfing L.A. transplant who’s been pulverized by the meat grinder of the city’s gig economy. Discounting the inexplicable, rose-tinted dream sequence that opens the film, we first meet Izzy when she wakes up in a stranger’s bed one afternoon. The good news is that the stranger is a nice helicopter pilot, and he looks an awful lot like Lakeith Stanfield (one of several notable actors who drops in for a playful bit part).
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The bad news is that Izzy doesn’t have anything to wear except for the white tuxedo she had on for her catering job the night before, and the uniform is splotched with somebody else’s blood. The even worse news is that her ex-boyfriend is about to get married to her ex-best friend, and she only has a few hours to get the f*ck across town if she wants to crash the engagement party. And she really wants to crash the engagement party.
So begins a mad jaunt down Miracle Mile and up through the hills of some Los Angeles neighborhood that Izzy hasn’t yet learned how to pronounce, our frazzled heroine desperately searching for any mode of transportation that might get her where she needs to be before it’s too late. It’s a wild goose chase that takes her from one chintzy, self-contained indie scene to another.
All the punk energy in the world can’t distract from the second-rate Sundance-ness of the bit where Izzy becomes Haley Joel Osment’s emotional support coach, or the one where — bowtie still slung around her neck — she stops to return a discarded memory box to the older woman who threw it away. Papierniak’s script often strains to force regrets into the foreground, the film unfolding as though fate has somehow decided this will be the day Izzy finally reconciles the differences between the path she wanted for herself and the one she’s trudging down.
“My life didn’t turn out the way I thought it would,” she says. “More and more, that seems to be everyone’s story,” comes the reply. The dialogue can be too instructive to feel as believable as the characters speaking it, but even the film’s worst moments are sparked to life by the wild-eyed desperation that Davis brings to them, and brilliant casting helps drag a lot of stale encounters over the finish line. Alia Shawkat outdoes her finest moments from “Arrested Development” as a sociopathic thief who never responds to things in the way you expect, her droll unpredictability emblematic of a film that always keeps you on your toes.
Later, the movie captures lightning in a bottle when Davis and Carrie Coon perform an acoustic cover of Heavens to Betsy’s “Axemen.” Not only do the actresses sound incredible together, but the pathos they mine from that song — and the way they use a pair of long close-ups to define and conquer the resentments that have kept their characters at arm’s length for so long — elevates Izzy above the easy tropes that have defined her to that point. After the duet, there’s no going back.
From there, it’s full steam ahead for Papierniak’s feature debut (the whole project representing a total pivot from the director’s past life working on the “NBA2K” video game franchise), as the movie finally digs through its topsoil of jagged cuteness and focuses on the dark core underneath. The less likable Izzy gets, the easier it is to care about her. It’s to Papierniak’s credit that “Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town” allows its heroine to make such a mess of things, especially in a third act that veers in an unexpected direction and holds true to its course. And while this is definitely one of those indies that ends with someone flashing a cathartic smile into the camera, Izzy goes through hell to earn that grin (it’s a testament to Davis’ generational talent that she’s as believable at ruining lives in this movie as she was at saving them in “Tully”).
Early in the film, Izzy snaps at someone that “Nothing is over until I say it is,” and you get the sense that she’s more determined to relive her past than she’s ever been to remake her present. Of course she’s going to learn that no one is living the life they thought they would, and of course she’s going to find something to build on from the rubble of what she’s left behind. But even when she’s buried in cliches, Davis makes it feel like Izzy is the first millennial who’s ever had to dig herself out of that hole. It’s an old song that she imbues with new life, the way that “Axemen” is transformed by how she plays it. “And I’m going crazy / Do you wanna watch? / Do you wanna come?” Heavens to Betsy wrote those words 24 years ago, but they’ve never sounded so inviting.
“Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town” is now in theaters.