Patti Cake$ Review: They Can’t All Be Winners

Aw Snap.
Aw Snap. Fox Searchlight Pictures

Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$ is a prosaic undertaking, both absolved and hindered by the trailblazing production company that released it, A24. By no means is it A24’s black sheep, thanks in large part to the objectionable misstep that was 2012 ’s Tusk, and the sort of sunday-driver charm of its lead actors. The film teases a valuable motif that its vapid third act ultimately betrays. The quality of the “dope beats” our titular hero doles out notwithstanding, Patti Cake$ aspires to depict the harsh impartial nature of the music industry and a life lived in the lower class yet can’t help but indulge in the tired underdog tropes welcomed by audiences. This causes an abrupt tonal shift that denounces the narrative effectively established in the first two acts and unmasks the lack of foresight that went into the film’s mission statement. What is it that Patti Cake$ is trying to say? Unfortunately for me and the critical hot streak achieved this year by A24, not a whole lot.

The film is not without its redemptive qualities. Jasper directs with an appreciated degree of vivacity, retooling the dreary slums of New Jersey into a surreal urban playground. While the many dream sequences often felt inordinate, they served as welcomed visual diversions whenever the plot began to drag. The film is tempered with a sort of restless movement, which lends itself quite nicely to the element of duress that informs Patricia “Dumbo” Dombowki’s motivations. At it’s worst, the cinematography feels a bit like the studio attempting to dispel allusions to other films like 8 Mile or Lords of Dogtown, but for the most part its frenetic energy masterfully fortifies the tone of its story.

As you might have guessed by the trailer the story isn’t a revolutionary one, though it makes no pretense in this regard. That in and of itself isn’t a problem. In fact, I found the hopeless lense it used to present this age old tale to be both compelling and refreshing. For most of the films running time, the movie sees Dumbo and her crew of talented outcasts work hard towards a goal the movie insists is merely a pipe dream.

This is highlighted by Patricia’s rancorous failed rockstar mother, Barb, portrayed by Bridgett Everett. While Everett might be the standout performance of the film, the other actors, the majority of which are newcomers, do admirable jobs boosting the forlorn charisma a film like this needs. Danielle McDonald is an impossibly likeable fuckup, conveying a sense of undeterred passion that we all can relate to. Unfortunately Patti Cake$ doesn’t quite nail the “when it rains it pours” device in a way that ever feels organic, and kind of arbitrarily decides when Patricia needs to have a falling out or a falling in love moment with another character, with no real setup or payoff. The performances and the uniquely bleak outlook of the film keep Patti Cake$ teetering in the neighborhood of “pretty good” until the third act comes close to squandering every last bit of goodwill garnered by its first two.

In contrast to both Menashe and It Comes At Night, two films also released by A24 this year, Patti Cake$ seems to be more concerned with propitiating audience expectations than logically and effectively ending its otherwise gripping human story. I was hoping for a different kind of underdog tale, one that dared to suggest that the fame and fortune yearned by both Danielle and her mother were delusions about what they really wanted. In one scene, the film makes a point to touch on the concept of artistic integrity (and cultural appropriation, albeit briefly) in a way that feels like it was meant to shunt Danielle’s focus and motivations, except it doesn’t.

The film closes with the burgeoning hip-hop star cavorting with her pals as their song gets played on the radio for the first time, seemingly marking the beginning of massive success for the trio. Is that what I’m supposed to get out of an hour and 48 minutes of runtime? If you work hard, all of your dreams will come true? The movie isn’t quite engaging or funny enough to be pardoned for such banality, especially in consideration of the sheer masterpieces that precede it in the A24 catalogue.

If pressed I think I’d recommend the film, with the caution: Don’t let its alt-y predilections fool you. Patti Cake$ is another perfunctory Hollywood crowd pleaser, masquerading in perspicacious clothing.

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