When it comes to good decisions, the brass behind “The Stand In” made quite a few, from casting a bonafide mega-star like Drew Barrymore to play a fictional one, Candy Black, to snapping up a talented director like Jamie Babbit (“But I’m a Cheerleader,” “Silicon Valley”) to helm it. The screenplay, a tongue-in-cheek Hollywood send-up from “Four Lions” breakout Sam Bain, likely sounded like a safe bet, too. And who wouldn’t want to see a film that includes talents like Holland Taylor, Ellie Kemper, and Michelle Buteau in amusing supporting roles?
The ingredients, oh boy, are they there. The results? Perhaps it would be hyperbolic to call a film like “The Stand In” one of the biggest disappointments of 2020 — that’s a low bar — but given the windfall of prime material and talent that went into the creation of such a messy, mirthless, and just plain mean final product, there’s no other way to put it. “The Stand In” is both one of the biggest disappointments of 2020 and a feature that may one day be remembered as being emblematic of a year filled with waste and pain. And, like 2020, it had so much promise.
It starts with a clever idea, brought to life by not just one, but two Drew Barrymores. First, there is Barrymore as Candy Black, the leading lady of such pratfall-ridden comedy classics as “Pippi Bongstocking” and “Nun’s the Word.” Candy is a major box office draw when we first meet her, an Adam Sandler rip-off who has made her bones falling face first into innumerable piles of movie-ready animal poo and coming out smiling on the other side. She’s even got a catchphrase — “hit me where it hurts!,” a better summation of the film you will not find anywhere, even in this review — that she deploys with whimsy and ease.
Off-camera, well, Candy isn’t nearly as much fun. Years spent in the public eye — she compares it to being spread-eagle on “the gynecological table of life,” an early joke that is never topped — has made Candy mean and scary, an addict prone to screaming things like “fuck you!” and then also “fuck you!” and even a “fuck my life!!,” all the better to explain that she is very, very unhappy. In her shadow, often quite literally, is the soft-spoken and accommodating Paula (also Barrymore), Candy’s long-time, long-suffering stand in, who has pinned all her dreams on turning her gig as fill-in Candy into being her own actress someday.
Both of Barrymore’s roles are initially presented as outsized to the point of being unbelievable (and also, quite unlikeable), with Candy casually blinding a co-star and Paula simpering her way through every possible interaction. They are both horrible people, caricatures that never quite work either as individual characters or zippy emblems of a rotten Hollywood system. Not that Barrymore, Babbit, and Bain don’t try, and “The Stand In” has enough moments of stellar acting (when Barrymore is not forced to go so broad) and natty observations about the industry as a whole to hint at a much better, much smarter film underneath all the crap. Hit me where it hurts!
Five years after a drunk Candy blinded a co-star during a booze-fueled on-set rage, effectively ending her career (and Paula’s), “The Stand In” finds her very much on the outs, though her “stunning fall from grace” is still analyzed by every E! News chat show. Likened to a modern-day Howard Hughes, Candy is still at the mercy of one last scandal (she was “too drunk” to file her taxes) and now must attend court-mandated rehab. That puts a pin in the last good thing in her life: a secret romance with a shaker furniture-obsessed love interest whose adoration for classic wood furniture eventually feels just kind of icky (by the third time star Michael Zegen is forced to sexily crow about a “papa bear chair,” you’ll want to burn it, and every other wooden item within a 20 foot radius, to ashes), and who has no idea who Candy really is and why she would need to disappear for two to three months.
You can see why someone like Candy might need, well, a stand in. The set-up itself is amusing and full of promise, a black comedy life-switching Hollywood send-up with a talent leading lady jumping between very different parts, what could go wrong? But increasingly convoluted complications muddy the waters, the humor, the tone, just everything. The entire cast in “The Stand In” is constantly taking the stupidest, cruelest possible way out of any situation, and the result is nothing but pain (with zero laughs to boot and chintzy effects work to really make the hurt stick).
Indications of a darker film linger, and the fakeness of Hollywood often emerges as a compelling target, though one that Bain — who recently wrote the similarly thin, tonally confused “Corporate Animals” (another dark comedy that boasts a clever conceit and a starry cast and nothing else) — and Babbit never effectively interrogate. “It doesn’t matter that she’s fake, this whole business is fake,” one of Candy’s dim compatriots exclaims late in the film, about as close to an ethos as “The Stand In” is willing to announce. It’s also a natty way to gloss over some of the film’s stupidest conceits, like that Candy’s long-time agent or her budding paramour (who has talked to her on the phone for a full year) wouldn’t immediately notice that Paula is very, very much not Candy.
Barrymore, game as ever, is saddled with a horrible prosthetic nose when playing Paula, plus a bad wig and a worse baby voice, and yet everyone just buys it. That’s something to explore, surely, and to have Barrymore on hand to do it, well, that seems like quite a gift. But whatever “The Stand In” wants to announce itself as, no amount of bald-faced lies and winking observations about Hollywood can change what it really is: a bad movie, made worse by all the wasted possibilities.
Saban Films will release “The Stand In” in select theaters and on VOD and digital on Friday, December 11.
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