‘Black Bear’ Review: Aubrey Plaza's Time to Shine
It’s been over a decade since Aubrey Plaza first appeared as the preternaturally sarcastic April Ludgate of Parks and Recreation alongside, a then still affable, Chris Pratt. Their subsequent career trajectories form a study in contrasts and a reminder that mediocre men can often fall upwards with stunning alacrity. Fast forward to 2020 and Pratt has secured the mantle of ‘the worst Chris in Hollywood’, while Plaza, is not just the best Aubrey in Hollywood (sorry Drake), but is finally building steam as a bonafide lead in a way that feels substantial, well deserved, and a long time coming. If Ingrid Goes West was a surprising reminder of her talents, then Black Bear is a genuine showcase giving her the freedom to dominate the screen in her unique inimitable way.
Though its cheeky pretensions make pinning down a genre dubious, Black Bear has clear roots in the Duplass Brothers / Alex Ross Perry school of heightened millennial angst. In fact, the first half of the film strikingly resembles the tones of Perry’s unsettling Persona-nod: Queen of Earth. Allison (Plaza) arrives at a lake house and effectively exacerbates the tensions between the seemingly happy couple of Blaire (Sarah Gordon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott). Through subtle, and not so subtle, prods Allison pushes both to an explosive breaking point while seducing Gabe in the process.
The strong casting and assured cinematography are ultimately let down by a story stuck on fast-forward, eschewing a traditional slow build, in favor of hitting its apex on the first night, and culminating halfway through the film. This is where writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine wants to wow us with a surprising second act, but if the screenplay is a bear, then this pitfall is its trap. One would think that by splintering the narrative you could combine two otherwise half-baked stories into a single meal, but it’s an illusion. Even if the disparate halves have intertwining ideas, they must either function as fully formed units or a cohesive dramatic whole; Black Bear accomplishes neither, hoping the genre-bending turn is jarring enough to impress.
But as I hinted earlier on, there is a saving grace to this misstep found in Levine’s fantastic lead actress. And so, the best way to create a cohesive whole and rescue the film from its pretensions is to zero-in on Aubrey Plaza’s chameleonlike singularity. While all three actors appear in both sections, Abbott and Gordon are less intriguing in their alternate roles, not necessarily a reflection of their talents, but rather that the script gives Plaza room to shine. From her icy playfulness in the first half to the ‘Gena Rowlands in Opening Night‘-style antics of the second; even when going big, Plaza shifts herself in more discrete ways than her counterparts.
‘I actually think I’m so easy to read, that people get confused and make it harder on themselves.’ Allison says early on but Plaza has repeated variants of this line in interviews herself. Later when her character admits to having been lying the whole time, one can’t help but wonder how much this applies to the actress as well. Plaza’s quiet and corrosive sharpness makes her ill-fit for the type of genial dumb-smarm roles that Chris Pratt so easily slips into, but as time goes on, it’s becoming clearer that there is immense power there.
For proof look no further than the way she stole the show from under a virtual who’s who of talented peers in Clea Duvall’s Happiest Season, her quiet dignity resonating even in the smallest of roles. A quick glance may lead you to believe that Black Bear’s pretentious conceit is not half as smart as it’s made out to be, and you may be right, but Levine has crafted a script that gives Aubrey Plaza nearly two hours to wield her considerable talents while showcasing a depth so rarely offered to her — pretty damn smart if you ask me.
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