Written by: James Roday, Todd Harthan
Directed by: James Roday
Starring: Lily Cole, Sutton Foster, and Molly Ephraim
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
You are what we eat.
Generally speaking, I don’t buy into the notion of “so bad it’s good” anymore, especially since so many people have latched onto it and turned it into an irony-soaked excuse to simply churn out legitimately bad movies. I think the scientific term for this is “bullshit.” However, I do believe some films can be so grating that you eventually develop some sort of Stockholm Syndrome with them. At a certain point, these films just throw themselves into their inanity so unabashedly that you can’t help but somehow respect it and grow some kind of twisted admiration for it. Gravy—a horror-comedy that isn’t particularly great at horror or comedy—is such a film: for much of its runtime, I felt like it had me trapped in its clutches, subjecting me to its one abrasive note until I finally just gave in and somehow started to enjoy it? Sometimes, I don't get how this works, either.
It’s not the sort of film that’s delicate or subtle about its assault on your nerves: from the outset, it’s loud and annoying, as Anson (Michael Weston) awkwardly flirts with a convenience store clerk (Sarah Silverman) for what feels like an eternity. It’s so obnoxious that one can hardly call it a “meet cute.” After the two make plans to date in the future, Anson (“like Manson,” the clerk says in an obvious bit of foreshadowing) heads off for some Halloween festivities. Where many folks are treating All Hallows Eve as an excuse to get plastered and pine over their wife leaving them for another woman (this is an honest-to-god subplot in Gravy), Anson and his cannibal buddies (Lily Cole and Jimmi Simpson) celebrate it as an opportunity to feast upon the unsuspecting patrons and employees of a Mexican cantina. With only their wits (not to mention a high tolerance-level for their captors’ bullshit chatter) at their disposal, the victims must band together to escape before they come this year’s treats.
Gravy isn’t so much a movie so much as it’s an endurance test. Shrill, in-your-face, and practically pointing out its own cleverness at every turn, it clubs viewers over the head with obvious and basic humor. Between its stunt casting (“hey, look, it’s Gabourey Sidibe” sets up the punchline for anyone who’s ever wanted to see someone go Roadhouse on Precious's throat, it would seem) to its commitment to making sure you dislike pretty much its entire cast of characters, the film feels like a calculated attempt to alienate under the pretense of humor. If you could distill Charlie Day’s twitchy, over-caffeinated shtick down to its essence and capture it on film, it would probably look, sound, and feel a whole lot like Gravy.
What’s more, its motor-mouthed, pop-culture laden dialogue (at one point, the psychopaths play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, making them the hippest cannibals from the year 2005) feels so stale and tired. It’s almost like someone went back in time to the mid-90s and convinced Troma to produce a knock-off of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith’s work. Twenty years ago, this was fresh, especially with those two at the helm—now, it just feels like present-day Smith’s work: uninventive, rote, and not nearly as clever as it assumes it is. Pop songs play over incongruently violent images to silly effect, and writer-director James Roday’s gift for gab is, well, not exactly a gift most of the time.
But at some point—probably when Lily Cole strolls in wearing a cat-suit and proceeds to steal the whole damn show—Gravy started to wear down my defenses. Perhaps because it practically peeled my eyelids back, burned right through my optical nerves, and directly infected my brain, Gravy had me occasionally laughing at the stupidest jokes. By the end, I found myself howling at some of the exchanges and somehow even enjoying the company of both the captives and their demented captors.
Cole is especially alluring in that she’s one of the few performers here dialed in on the perfect wavelength; even though she’s sometimes saddled with some weak dialogue (her character leans on racial epithets to make her “edgy”), Cole is sneakily aware of the absurdity unfolding around it but doesn’t plunge all the way into it. Remarkably, there’s a hint of pathos lurking beneath her maniacal eyes and glib posturing that makes her more interesting than her male counterparts, a couple of irritating psychos trying way too hard to let us know how psycho they are. On the other hand, Cole is so cool, slinking in and out of scenes with a wry smile, sort of patiently waiting to devour the scenery when the time is right (assuming her co-stars leave her any to chew on, of course).
That Gravy impossibly grows on you feels appropriate: after all, it’s a film about hostages (one of which feigns Stockholm Syndrome to gain an advantage) and a group of maniacs with personalities so loud that they become a bit undeniable. Somewhere buried beneath all of the gags and lame humor, there’s just enough affability to go around with the rest of the cast, with Molly Ephraim and Sutton Foster particularly emerging as a pair of bad-ass survivor girl candidates. As I watched the film unfold, I almost couldn’t believe that I suddenly cared for these characters, too, which only amplified how fucking nuts Gravy is. For a film that roars right out of the gate, it somehow escalates into a wicked, mean-spirited gorefest that isn’t afraid to dispatch characters at an incredible clip. Given the cannibal angle, it comes as no surprise that Gravy drips with blood, entrails, and mangled bodies, but it’s an especially ruthless piece of work that leaves you marveling and recoiling at the spectacular effects all at once.
If nothing else, Gravy is unafraid to embrace pitch-black comedy and finds the gory pleasures in zigging instead of zagging. It’s a testament to a film’s power to assert itself by sheer force of will: I’m still not quite sure if I like it, but I’m not dismissing the possibility that Lily Cole hypnotized me into at least considering it.
Gravy arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory, who has outfitted the disc with a trailer, a couple of short behind-the-scenes bits, and a commentary featuring Foster, Roday, and Simpson.
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