The visual and narrative language of romantic comedies on the silver screen is so ingrained that I can’t really think of another way to describe Andrea Dorfman’s Spinster even though it’s pretty much exactly the opposite of a romantic comedy. It’s a movie that explores the notions of singledom in a way that almost no movies do: by arguing for its merits rather than setting it up as the condition that must be vanquished by the end of its 90-minute runtime. In order to make its points and explore the life of newly single Gaby (Chelsea Peretti), however, Spinster has to go through the motions (or the slightly skewed equivalents) of a romantic comedy — for better or worse.
Gaby has lived her entire life in Halifax, living under the spectre of her alcoholic mother’s death and her father’s (Bill Carr) new family. A caterer with a fairly uneven schedule, she has lived for the last three months with Nathan (Eugene Sampang), a humourless drip who leaves her on her 39th birthday for an ex-girlfriend who “appreciates his love for board games.” Rudderless and approaching 40, Gaby finds herself surrounded by people (especially her best friend Amanda, played by Susan Kent) who are willing to bend over backwards to help her meet someone and start a family — something that Gaby has always been reticent about and is growing less interested in by the day.
Almost every major romantic comedy ultimately espouses relatively conservative values – in nearly all of them, the ultimate goal is to “find the shoe that fits” and settle down. Even the most subversive studio rom-coms will ultimately boil down to “we’re both crazy — and perfect for each other!” The only happy ending imaginable for a romantic comedy is one where the protagonists end up together; in Spinster, the goal seems to be quite the opposite. Director Andrea Dorfman and screenwriter Jennifer Deyell are keen to explore the unspoken parts of such a dynamic: the awkward conversations, the unwanted advice, the idea that one can like kids without wanting kids, and so on. Once again, none of this stuff is exactly unexplored in the genre, but it usually serves as something to counter — the work-obsessed playboy who hates children only needs to meet a cool kid to change his mind, etc. — whereas here it exists as a thesis.
Unfortunately, Spinster could certainly use a little less conservatism in its form. Shot rather plainly and scored with the usual piano-y Regina Spektor-y anthems, Spinster doesn’t do much to separate itself visually from the kind of cookie-cutter rom-com it seems to deliberately want to avoid being. Ditto the writing, which tones down Peretti’s comic persona by a fair measure and brings its debates forth in a rather schematic and didactic way. The film even finds a little space for a powerfully Nancy Myers-esque subplot about Gaby opening her own restaurant – which is so glossed over in the final product that it barely registers as a stab at lifestyle porn at all. (It is pretty funny, however, that Gaby’s description of her ideal restaurant is literally exactly the same as every Top Chef contestant’s: not complicated, familial, good ingredients, home-style and absolutely not fancy in any shape or form.)
One dinner party scene shoehorns in a masculinist blowhard strawman in the least organic way possible — nothing about any of the characters present in the scene suggests that they would ever hang out with this talk-radio goon to begin with. Generally speaking, whenever the film needs Gaby to be in an uncomfortable situation and have a “real” conversation, the film slips into a didactic tone that’s hard to shake, though tempered somewhat by Peretti’s performance. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how else Dorfman could have approached the material without making a significantly different film with significantly different conclusions, but the anti-romcom approach to the material has a visible ceiling on it.
It’s nevertheless interesting to see Peretti bring a somewhat different perspective on her genuine comic persona. Like her best-known character, Gina Linetti on Brooklyn Nine Nine, Gaby is outspoken and sarcastic and easily riled up by disagreements of any stripe, but it comes across less as unfettered confidence and more like a shield she wields to get through life. One of the biggest criticisms that can be lobbied at essentially any comedy or dramedy starring a character whose life has gone “off the rails” is that it’s often impossible to imagine how the character we’re presented with could ever allow their life to go so thoroughly off the rails. Not so here – for all of the film’s schematic writing in its broadest strokes, it creates an actual flesh-and-blood character out of its lead. (It probably helps that, this being a relatively low-budget Canadian film, the supporting roles aren’t filled with showy cameos from Comedy Bang Bang or UCB alumni as it would’ve had the film been American.)
I would have liked for Spinster to be better, or maybe more unexpected, if only because it has a sense of follow-through to its ideas and what it explores that few movies of its tone and type are able to stick with from start to finish. As it stands, it’s charming but thin — a pretty good pilot for an HBO show, perhaps. But if Spinster was an HBO show, it would have to work extra hard to contradict the things that Gaby wants. You can’t run four seasons without her falling in love, right? Perhaps this imperfect version of Spinster remains the purest one. ■
Spinster is on VOD as of today, Aug. 7. See more about the film here, and watch the trailer below:
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