For its first act, it appears as if Andrea Dorfman’s “Spinster” is really leaning into an anti-romcom ethos, offering up a standard “sad gal can’t find a mate!” plot with a big twist (what if said sad gal was kind of a jerk and perhaps not even deserving of love?). Such is the prickly start of this Chelsea Peretti-starring comedy, which initially unspools as a non-romantic (and also not very funny) romantic comedy, before changing course after a gruesome first act to land somewhere much more predictable — yet more satisfying as well.
Written by Jennifer Deyell (who previously penned Dorfman’s “Love That Boy” over a decade ago), “Spinster” opens in a familiar space, as 39-year-old Gaby (Peretti) is a perennial loser when it comes to love, and her inability to find a suitable mate has turned her sour on most aspects of her life. It’s well-trod romcom territory, the sort of concept everything from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” to “The Apartment” has approached in different ways — but for a while there, it seems as if Dorfman has found a unique angle: What if Gaby isn’t just unlucky in love, but such a total asshole that she’s not even really worthy of it?
She’s crass, rude, and dismissive — and that behavior extends toward everyone in her life, from her best friend Amanda (Susan Kent) to her slightly clueless brother Alex (David Rossetti), and even the nice older lady upstairs or potential clients at her catering business. While Deyell’s script hints at some reasons why Gaby is so awful, few of those elements pan out until much later in the film. Instead, she’s just dead boring to be around, and even Peretti, a gifted natural comedian, can’t breathe much life into such a purely unlikable character.
That sort of dark twist on romcom plotting could have resulted in a more interesting, tongue-in-cheek story, but for one major problem: It’s just too damn depressing for the comedy to work, and it’s painful to watch someone as likable as Peretti flounder in such dark waters. Fortunately, as the film moves into it second act, “Spinster” change tactics and offers its heroine a chance for real redemption.
Gably seems to realize that being a jerk isn’t exactly helping her station in life and certainly makes the effort to turn things around. She’s nicer when she’s around her young niece Adele (Nadia Tonen, turning in the film’s most refined performance), even if kids as a whole aren’t her thing. She’s always wanted a dog, but felt hamstrung by her romantic status, so it’s definitely time to adopt a cute pup. And her career is in the toilet, so why not go for broke on her big dream of owning a restaurant?
Shot in and around Halifax, the film makes fine use of charming exteriors and plenty of natural beauty, opening up Gaby’s world to all sorts of pleasure. It’s the sort of stuff the film’s first act, set in dark apartments and bars, never ventures toward. Along the way, Deyell’s script makes some attempts at interrogating deeper issues around the concept of spinsterhood, and while Gaby is probably not the best example of that worn-out trope, “Spinster” occasionally pokes at some revelations. A misbegotten dinner party during which Gaby goes head to head with a rude dude who feels entitled to comment on her life choices is infuriatingly believable, and Gaby’s evolving bond with some of the women in her life adds real heart to her journey.
The film’s inherent messiness and unpredictability eventually settles into more expected charms, but “Spinster” is at its most appealing when leaning into the very ideas it seemed hellbent on rejecting early on. Gaby finding her way and realizing the value of her life (with or without a paramour) hardly makes for new material, but Peretti is more than deserving of a leading lady role that’s both funny and sweet. While it takes some time to get there, “Spinster” eventually delivers on that promise.
Vertical Entertainment will release “Spinster” on VOD and digital platforms on Friday, August 7.