There’s always some way to reinvigorate an old genre, and anybody with the energy and imagination to do so should try. In Emma Seligman’s Bottoms, gay misfits and best friends PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) face their last year of high school with a typical teenage longing: they desperately want to lose their virginity before graduation. They’re gawky, socially inept. The objects of their affections, unfortunately, are cheerleaders who want nothing to do with them, lanky, blasé Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and sweet, adorable Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), who’s under the thumb of the school’s bullying, numbnuts football star Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine).
How many times have we seen some version of that scenario, only with gawky teenage boys as the protagonists? Bottoms reverses that equation at the start, and then pushes further. In a stunning and mildly amusing lapse of logic, PJ and Josie decide their best chances at getting laid lie in starting a self-defense club at school, which rapidly devolves into a teenage Fight Club: the young women let loose, punching one another out and getting a kick out of it. Chaos reigns, and jokes about bulimia, gray-area rape, and the emptiness of empowerment slogans fly as freely as the punches. Somehow, in the middle of it all, Josie actually gets a chance at romance with Isabel, who’s slowly beginning to see that her domineering beau isn’t all that. And PJ just may have a shot with Brittany, who states pretty definitively that she’s straight. But who knows? There’s always hope.
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It should all be hilarious, bloody, sweet, transgressive fun—but it isn’t. Bottoms was written by Seligman and Sennott, the director and star, respectively, of the 2020 indie comedy Shiva Baby, whose unassuming brand of humiliation humor was its finest asset. Sennott played an aimless young woman who agrees to show up at a funeral observance with her parents, only to learn that the older guy she’s sleeping with and her ex-girlfriend are both in attendance as well; calamity ensues during Kaddish. Bottoms is a bigger, more ambitious picture, designed to challenge and tickle a broader audience. But it works so hard at delivering shock value that its calculation becomes wearying. Bottoms spells out its themes in all-caps pep-rally lingo: Women can be raunchy! Women can be horny! Women can make jokes about all the things we aren’t supposed to laugh about! Even in a case, like this one, where excess is the point, comedy still depends on an indefinable subtlety. Bottoms, though it presents itself as a sort of sideways heir to comedies like Heathers and But I’m a Cheerleader, simply runs its jokes into the ground.
Sennott and Edebiri—the duo behind Comedy Central’s Ayo and Rachel Are Single, from a few years back—pedal hard to drum up the laughs, and occasionally a gag lands. Their best scene may be the opener, in which they lament their lack of hotness with a world-weary resignation that somehow churns into a whirlwind of let’s-give-it-one-more-try energy. Edebiri in particular—she has also appeared on The Bear—has a kind of loopy charm. But one of the actors who has the least to do may be the funniest. Gerber’s Brittany is a leggy supermodel type played by an actual supermodel, and there’s a good sport lurking beneath her cool-girl veneer. “I do not talk to girls in overalls,” she purrs dismissively as she gives sartorially challenged PJ the once-over. It’s an example of how a comedy’s silliest, most throwaway lines can often work better than the ones designed to score points.
If only Bottoms had more of that throwaway casualness. We can always use comedies that turn the old conventions inside out, opening space for new faces and fresh ideas. But you can’t buck the system just by kicking its ass; retooling the old formulas means working smarter, not just harder. As the plot’s ridiculousness accelerates, culminating in a goofy bloodbath that’s not nearly as bloody or goofy as it needs to be, Bottoms becomes less and less funny, and no amount of macho-sexy roughhousing can make it work.
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