Ever since her breakout role on the Hollywood insider comedy “Hacks,” comedian Meg Stalter has pretty much cornered the market on lovably annoying characters. She pretty handily steals the whole show as incompetent assistant from hell Kayla on the Emmy-winning HBO comedy, turning blasé clueless rich girl into an archetype, a lifestyle, and a personal brand. It was only a matter of time before some enterprising writers gave her a star vehicle of her own, and she proves herself just as funny as the main character in “Cora Bora.”
A conventional quirky comedy about a struggling musician trying to win her girlfriend back, “Cora Bora” follows a fairly predictable formula, right down to a kooky detour at an orgiastic poly commune. Stalter is a whirlwind and a universe unto herself, and the other players merely respond to whatever zaniness she throws down. Though reliably funny, her unique brand of uncomfortably confident loser isn’t quite enough to carry a whole film, but her charisma goes a long way towards elevating the familiar material.
Set between Los Angeles and Portland, “Cora Bora” follows flailing musician Cora (Stalter) as she drags her acoustic guitar around a smattering of poorly attended open mics. “It was kind of a big fish in a little pond situation,” she says of her recent move to L.A., though her manager drops her the second she can get a word in. Her remaining ties to Portland include her parents and long distance partner Justine (Jojo T. Gibbs), who is saved as “Justine Girlfriend” in her phone. Though they’re non-monogamous, Cora remains willfully ignorant about the mystery woman’s voice piercing the background of Justine’s distracted phone calls.
After deciding to surprise Justine for her graduation party, Cora hops a plane north, where she meets (and ignores) a cute musician (Manny Jacinto) after stealing his first class seat. Waltzing into her old home like she owns the place, Cora gets a rude awakening when she interrupts a cozy domestic scene, as new girlfriend Riley (Ayden Mayeri) folds laundry and offers her tea. Both adept comedians, Mayeri and Stalter enjoy an awkward dance as Cora continually changes Riley’s name and pretends to know her way around the house.
Most of the film’s comedy is derived from Cora’s wild delusions of grandeur, which she shamelessly shares with anyone who will listen. “L.A.’s amazing,” she boasts. “I mean, the people are really real. They’re like all trying to be something that they’re not…yet.” Underneath her off kilter phrasing and awkward pauses, Stalter barely allows the tiniest shadow of doubt, revealing that Cora’s tenuously constructed reality is hanging on by a thread. Exhausted by her shenanigans, the people around her hardly keep the illusion alive, though she doesn’t seem to notice or care.
Unfortunately, the humor rarely rises to laugh out loud proportions, aside from a brief scene between Cora and her dad, played by Darrell Hammond. Cora is incensed to learn her parents have become close with Riley in her absence, even partaking in her massage services. “I’m sorry, you’ve massaged my dad?” she exclaims, completely unmoved by his earnest response: “I can finally walk again.”
An ill-fated sojourn with a chihuahua named Taco, whose gender Cora is constantly changing, ends predictably poorly. After accepting a ride from some shady teenagers and exhausting Portland’s swiping options, Cora ends up at an off-grid polyamorous commune, complete with beaver meat and taxidermy. Even a brief cameo from Margaret Cho can’t save the aimless diversion from feeling woefully out of place, and instead of providing extra color it just calls attention to the threadbare narrative.
Written by Rhianon Jones and directed by Hannah Pearl Utt, “Cora Bora” is a valiant effort at an inclusive queer comedy. There is certainly no dearth of stoner comedies about loser young men, and it stands to reason that women filmmakers would want to try their hand at the genre. Stalter is a formidable presence onscreen, but her charms seem better suited to wacky character roles against a tightly scripted “straight man.”
With a thinly sketched premise and a Hail Mary pass at emotional depth arriving late in the final act, the film feels like a series of vignettes draped around Stalter’s charms. Unfortunately, charisma alone doesn’t make an interesting narrative. “Cora Bora” is as aimless as its protagonist — and as grating as well.
“Cora Bora” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.
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