Charles Bramesco


Woman of the Hour – first-look review

Anna Kendrick’s directorial debut, about a abused upstart actress and a serial killer in her midst, says all the right things, but too loud and too often.

Any number of factors can compel an actor to make the jump to directing — inspiration, hubris, a desperate need to be taken seriously as an artiste — but the case of Anna Kendrick doesn’t demand much guesswork. Woman of the Hour, a behind-the-camera debut that often plays like a cinematic equivalent of the aggravated roar that one character unleashes in the final act, gives her an outlet to expel her frustration with all the belittling misogyny she’s had to grin and bear over a career that began when she was an undoubtedly leered-at teenager.

In Ian McAllister McDonald’s script sweatily vamping a cocktail party factoid to feature length, a reworking overdrawn even at 89 minutes, Kendrick saw an opportunity to spin a true-crime file into a condemnation of less direct forms of violence withstood by women in her line of work as a fact of life. She introduces herself in front of the lens as struggling actress Cheryl mid-audition, seated across from as a pair of casting creeps appraising her with the withering evaluative frankness one might use to haggle for a used car. But hey, at least they’re not trying to kill her.

Long story short — well, short story shorter — Cheryl appeared on an episode of The Dating Game in which Bachelor Number Three also happened to be a serial murderer. The cold-blooded exploits of Rodney Alcala (Daniel Zovatto, looking like a young Vincent D’Onofrio) punctuate the conveyor belt of mistreatment pulling Cheryl through the evening’s studio shoot, and form an unsubtle link between his years-long spree of homicides and the entertainment industry’s ongoing campaign of objectification epitomised in the bum-pinching chauvinism of ’70s game shows.

With a camera slung around his neck and rangy hair down to his shoulders, Rodney sweet-talks a handful of seemingly-sensible women into driving out to the desert with a handsome yet unsettling stranger, where he then strangles them in a drably repetitive visual pattern. (Take a shot every time Kendrick cuts from a close-up to a pseudo-artful extreme wide shot with some obscuring element in the foreground, then back to a close-up.)

Back in the present of 1978, a time when lapels were wide and hosts could mouth-kiss other men’s wives on national television, Cheryl runs a gamut of on-set micro-aggressions starting as the master of ceremonies (Tony Hale) nixes the dress she’s worn in favour of something with a swoopier neckline. As in the like-minded yet far superior Toronto International Film Festival selection The Royal Hotel, all men are out to get women, the only question being their modus operandi. Cheryl’s nice-guy neighbour (Pete Holmes) makes a move on her, then gets pissy when she rebuffs him; the emcee instructs her to smile and be pretty, and busts out the C-word (in the serious, American way) after she goes rogue and flexes her intellect.

A subplot further padding the plushly-cushioned run time sounds out a call to Believe Women all but verbatim, really hammering home the points Kendrick has already made a half-dozen times over. She’s not wrong, of course; the authorities responsible for protecting the public regularly disregard female concerns, but she’s lunging at low-hanging fruit in terms of gendered media critiques.

It’s more than a little telling that an actress-turned-director would conclude her debut with one woman’s choice to turn her back on the craft and improve her life far away from the meat grinder of Los Angeles. And it’s certainly understandable, considering the film we’ve just seen. The cruel irony is that that experience also suggests she should not quit her corrosive, consumptive day job.

Published 10 Sep 2023

Tags: Anna Kendrick Tony Hale Toronto Film Festival

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