Even with all the movies I’ve seen this year – and, yes, they have continued to come out amid a pandemic and cinema closures – I’m having a hard time recalling a louder audible reaction that exited my lips than when a CGI dolphin penis slaps the face of Nasim Pedrad’s lovelorn Wesley in Netflix’s new instant anti-classic “Desperados.”
On one hand, a movie is typically doing something right if it gets a visceral reaction from its audience, or at least achieving its intended effect. On the other hand, "Desperados'" intentions are suspect at best; this was a reaction induced not by narrative or cinematic ingenuity, but by my astonishment that a “comedy” that has limited its punch lines to *checks list* cultural stereotypes, shallow sexism, ostensible pedophilia and rampant vulgarity (and that’s just in the first 40 minutes) could find new depths to its baseless depravity in computer-generated dolphin genitalia. Whatever doubt there may have been up to this point that “Desperados” – a movie with tropes and turns that movies were making fun of 30 years ago – was largely trying to appeal to 12-year-old boys vanishes with a slap heard ‘round the world. The movie may as well have been written by 12-year-old boys.
The story – a fairly brisk one, if we're fishing for compliments – is centered on Nasim Pedrad’s Wesley, a young 20-something who suspects she’s been cursed with bad luck in love and life as her friends are meeting their soulmates while an ex calls to announce their engagement and a sudden storm brings a telephone pole crashing down on her car. (She can’t chalk it all up to cosmic jest; the first scene sees her talking her way out of a job at a Catholic school when she brazenly flashes a progressively forthcoming sexual attitude.) There’s no easy avenue to sympathize with Wesley, however; “Desperados,” written by Ellen Rapoport and directed by LP, has the emotional depth of an eggplant emoji and makes no effort to flesh Wesley out beyond a lonely urbanite trope of yoga mats and self-deprecation. (That might be too kind to the screenplay, actually. 20 minutes in, Wesley declares that the secret to charming men on first dates must be to keep her mouth shut, and not an ounce of self-awareness is observed in the moment.)
Wesley’s lovelorn existence begins to look up after your standard fantasy meet-cute; Jared (Robbie Amell) helps her out after an accident, takes her home, sparks begin to fly…and they’re quickly extinguished when he won’t respond to any of her texts after a romantic night of lovemaking. How dare he? He was the one! Wesley and her loyal friends, Brooke (Anna Camp) and Kaylie (Sarah Burns), respond in kind: With a rant-fueled email poking fun at Jared’s dead dad and deadbeat existence, with a #pencildick thrown in for good measure.
I assume the scene is meant to be one of gleeful catharsis between female friends, of liberation for a woman whom guys walk out on in the first five minutes of a blind date. In reality, they come off as just plain cruel—a result of Rapoport’s insistence that vulgarity and cynicism drive both the comedy and whatever semblance of drama there is to be found. That issue is nowhere more apparent than this scene. Vulgar can be funny (look at “Bridesmaids!” “Girls Trip!”), but not when vulgar is the modus operandi for the world of a movie, and the definitive mode of communication between personalities. At that point, both your characters and the audience are being neglected.
Nonetheless, Wesley immediately gets her comeuppance: Jared hasn’t been ghosting her. He’s been in a coma for the past five days after a sporting accident on vacation in Mexico (wait, I’m pretty sure he never mentioned a trip to Mexico beforehand). The damage is done—the email’s been sent. Naturally, Wesley now has a mission to get to Jared’s laptop to save face, and seemingly her last shot at a real relationship. It’s off to Mexico.
If “Desperados” was closer to the class of acceptable but forgettable Netflix comedy than a movie whose value maxes out as a game of outdated rom-com cliché Bingo, I could see my main criticism being along the lines of “This movie exists solely as an excuse for its cast and crew to vacation to a Mexican resort for a month or two” (the resort in question here being in Baja). LP’s film is more questionable, meaningless and dubious than that—even more baffling, it insists on being questionable, meaningless and dubious, almost as if it was concocted in the Netflix production labs as a behind-the-scenes in-joke on what their movies precisely shouldn’t be before someone having a bad day neglectfully clicked the “Upload to platform” button on the streamer’s servers.
Aside from sporting the uninspired visual palette of a travel brochure and a bland soundtrack of plastic pop ambience, “Desperados’s” humor reeks of tearing down Wesley when the movie thinks it's lifting her up. One running bit involves a fellow resort-goer and mother increasingly horrified at suspicions that Wesley is preying on her teen son, a cringeworthy attempt at laughs that climaxes when Wesley finds herself in the family’s room, wearing nothing but a towel, thinking she’d snuck into Jared’s. You can guess the awkwardness that ensues, and the skin that’s exposed, before Wesley escapes into the nightmare of being exposed to dozens of others with nothing but a bed comforter to cover herself.
For a movie that calls so much attention to its focus on sex – in conversations and insults, character motivations and lapses in judgement – its commentary is so one-note, if any legitimate commentary exists at all. By the time a horny dolphin crosses paths with Wesley, the movie is past the point of self-defeat; the big flaws are no longer a concern because we’ve moved on to questioning the artistic integrity of the most minute details, whether they deserve it or not.
There’s other flaws I can discuss – the strange dissociation between plot and character; the movie’s egregious belief that Mexico consists only of either fancy resorts for white tourists or urban hostels with “Hostel”-esque screams and chainsaws coming from next door; the fact Heather Graham plays a “Mexican fertility shaman”; how the movie course-corrects towards unearned dollar-store earnestness in its final scenes; the lack of self-interrogation that is so totally thorough it borders on being impressive – but I don’t want to linger too long in the movie’s realm of cynicism. Netflix’s original film catalogue has grown tremendously in quality in recent times, yielding more Oscar contenders and worthwhile projects with each passing year, and so misfires like “Desperados” are still inevitable, if not an increasingly stark contrast.
More than being simply unfunny or unoriginal, “Desperados” is a top-to-bottom conundrum—a movie with a smirk where its heart should be and one that feels like it would jump at the chance to extend its 100-minute runtime if it found another opportunity to turn its characters into tomato-splattered caricatures. Far more intriguing than anything that happens in the movie is wondering how it ever got green-lit in the first place, and that’s never a good place to start. In the case of “Desperados,” it’s where the movie starts, stumbles and eventually ends.
"Desperados" is rated TV-MA; swear words and sex. It's available on Netflix now.
Starring: Nasim Pedrad, Anna Camp, Lamorne Morris, Sarah Burns
Directed by LP
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