At SXSW: ‘Fresno’ has all the right pieces in the wrong places
Shannon (Judy Greer) has had a lifelong problem with her sex addiction, and after being charged and classified as a sex offender for having sex on a school campus, she heads out to Fresno, Calif. to live with her sister Martha (Natasha Lyonne). They work together as maids in a motel until tragedy strikes and they’re forced to act quickly.
“Fresno” is a mixed bag of a film, filled with great performances from its leading ladies. Fresno being called the “Best Little City in the U.S.A.” has always made me chuckle, and the fact that it’s one of the central jokes in this film made me curious about this project, along with the fact that Judy Greer plays alongside the talented Natasha Lyonne. The performances are truly the most alluring aspect of the film, with the writing and direction taking the back seat.
Judy Greer seems like an extraordinarily sweet woman with a hint of a dark side, which comes out in full force here. She’s crass, offensive and downright dirty… but she absolutely nails the role. You can see Shannon’s disinterest in most of the sex she has, but it’s something that she can’t control and her facial expressions tell the audience how she feels about her addiction. Her lack of empathy outcasts her, but she does have glimmering moments of sobriety where she realizes the effect she’s having on the people who love her.
Natasha Lyonne has played a good number of lesbian characters, but we do get to see her playing up a different type of character. While preoccupied with her sister, Martha is also worrying about a case of unrequited love. She’s constantly being hit on by Aubrey Plaza’s character and can’t fathom why her girlfriend would be going after a man. Lyonne brings the most emotion into the film and does a great job of pushing the dramatic elements of the story. She’s also a genuinely funny person, which is obvious when you watch her have a great time on-screen.
With short cameos from Plaza, Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon, the film ramps up its selective humor. Everything about the cast and crew in this film should point to a movie that’s hilarious the majority of the time, but that’s not the final product. Instead, there are elongated jokes about dildos and a young Jewish boy who raps explicitly at his bat mitzvah. Screenwriter Karey Dornetto has written multiple episodes of “Arrested Development,” “Community,” “The Kroll Show” and two-thirds of “Portlandia,” so why didn’t her humor come out to play? Director Jamie Babbit has also excelled at TV comedy, directing multiple episodes of “The Gilmore Girls” and dabbling recently in HBO’s “Girls” and “Looking.” The talent is there, but it’s just not highlighted in this film, which is unfortunate given that this film could have been much funnier and far more dramatic. The script evokes some laughter, but ultimately leaves you wanting more.
‘Fresno’ is a very middle-of-the-road feature film that features two wonderful and different performances from two very great actresses. If anything, I’m more curious to go check out the TV shows Babbit and Dornetto have written for. As for the film, I don’t believe I’ll be making another stop in ‘Fresno’ any time soon.