INDIE REPORT – THE UNDERSTUDY
Review by Justin Bowler
A Greek Drama all dressed up like a Black Comedy.
(No, not the Tyler Perry kind, the other kind of black comedy.)
At it’s base, the story of Elektra (by Sophocles) is about a woman taking power and control of her life after she feels she has lost it. She knows she can’t overpower the male sex, so she must persuade and appeal to others in order to enable her plans to come true. Thus, we have the story of “The Understudy”.
As the only unsuccessful child of a powerful family of lawyers and politicians, our main character, Rebecca (played by Marin Ireland), an actress in New York, struggles to achieve any notoriety that her family can appreciate. Even after landing the lead understudy in an off-Broadway production of Elektra (by Sophocles), they are not impressed.
(This movie was suggested to me by my wife (With my cartoon series, “Swampy’s Underground Adventures”, coming to an end, I am currently wondering about my next job) (So watching a story about a struggling actress is exactly what I want to do to relax) (No, seriously, it’s so escapist. How fantastic of my wife to suggest it) I bet after the holocaust survivors got out of their camps, they would have loved to have watched “Schindler’s List”). (Okay, that was a horribly unfair analogy, I realize that. But, I believe I’ve made my point.)
Our heroine, Rebecca, finds that “understudy” is synonymous with “production slave”. Meanwhile, the star of the production, Simone (played by Kelly Giddish) is an undeserving/untalented Hollywood flash-in-the-pan without any insight into the role of Elektra. Rebecca begins to covet the role she thinks she deserves and through a coincidental chance of fate (that Rebecca was slightly involved in), Simone gets injured and falls into a coma (literally).
(My wife told me she didn’t want me to play XBOX (specifically Skyrim (it’s awesome if you don’t have it, btw)). She said she just wanted to watch a movie with me while sharing a traditional holiday treat from my childhood. This specific holiday treat was some homemade butter cake, freshly delivered by my mother. Succumbing to temptation of butter cake and the persuasion of my wife, I agreed to put down my recently-found XBOX controller to watch this indie film.)
Rebecca, of course, is phenomenal at the role of Elektra and reviews are through the roof. But, productions are based on star power, and soon the understudy must resume her name as an American Idol-esque star, Greta (played by Gloria Reuben), is brought in to take over the role of Elektra. Laced with a sense of ownership, and jealousy, our heroine, Rebecca, begins her descent into empowerment as she half-heartedly dreams of different scenarios to take out the competition.
(While I’m usually the first one to say every movie he needs more female nudity, I am also a fan of parallels. In addition, I can appreciate the symbolism of something trivial in one story actually meaning something very profound in another. I think it is important to find meaning in triviality. But only where the meaning is intentioned. For example, is there a deeper meaning in that my wife does not want me to play Skyrim? Is this her way of showing that she wants to spend more time with me? Is this her way of saying that she feels we have lost a connection? The answer to all three questions is no. As the film progressed, I discovered, she merely wants to watch a movie. And my company is merely the aftereffect of NOT playing a video game. It has nothing to do with our relationship. One could ask… Does this tactic of my wife parallel the tactics of Elektra herself? Elektra was a woman of persuasion and ability to coerce those into doing things for her. And when mere persuasion failed her, she turned to physical power.)
(Flash to ninety minutes earlier when I couldn’t find my XBOX controller. For some reason it was covered between two cushions of the couch. Why? I don’t know. At no point did I…
1. Take apart the couch, then…
2. Decide to play Skyrim on my XBOX (without a place to sit), then…
3. Put the couch back together (accidentally putting the controller in it), then…
4. Abandon the idea of playing Skyrim altogether (only to resume it later).
While I would never accuse my wife of purposefully hiding the controller, such Elektra-like behavior seems like it could have taken place.)
Without giving away too much more of the film, Rebecca soon finds herself paralleling Elektra’s paradoxical journey of ascending into power while simultaneously descending into immorality.
The lead actress, Malin Ireland, is very likable, but almost too likable for a black comedy. The characters in ‘Seinfeld’, while funny and entertaining were, not always likable. They were always funny, but not always likable. And always got what they deserved. Furthermore, we never felt bad when they got what they deserved (usually, because they deserved it). Such are characters in a black comedy. In “The Understudy”, I found myself rooting for our heroine over and over again, hoping she would triumph, even though she wasn’t always forthright. That is the inherent problem of a black comedy… Who do you root for? I kept waiting for our heroine to wake up from a dream and decide to make all the opposite decisions. Unfortunately, that never happened.
The entire film is laced with recognizable names and faces. All of them were obviously attracted to the stellar script. Most of them are great (some unfortunately are miscast). Richard Kind, Aasif Mandvi and Tom Wopat are fantastic. You don’t need butter cake to realize there was a reason Tom Wopat starred in a number one series in the ’80s. And his charm is seen here. (He has also voiced characters on video games. (Skyrim not included.))
The entire film has fun indie written all over it. It has so many unrefined positives. The sound-a-like “Rebecca” film score was brilliantly inserted into a bouncy piano melody that emphasized black comedy. The parallels to the actual Elektra script were quite clever. And the ending of the film was perfectly written (but arguably a little too on-the-nose for the smart indie audience that would watch this film).
On the downside, as with many indies, the cinematic element (lighting, framing, etc.) was not at the quality of the rest of the film. This was probably due to budget, but unfortunately, it was noticeable. And at times, this movie felt like it was run by a committee. The comedy was a little all over the place. The humor of the film seemed to vacillate between subtle (effective) and over the top (less effective). With three executive producers, two producers, two co-producers, two associate producers, and two directors, there seemed to be a lack of singular, defined vision. It wasn’t enough to push me away, but once again, it was noticeable. And it was enough for me to want to eat butter cake, (which my wife ate ALL OF).
Overall, I think “The Understudy” is a clever and valiant effort. It is not without its flaws. But, I think this writing/directing team (David Conolly and Hannah Davis), with a few more dollars and an experienced single (as in solitary, not a reference to marital status) producer would fare nicely into the a-list comedy genre (black, romantic, or otherwise (Tyler Perry not included)).
My wife ate all the butter cake. No Skyrim, No butter cake. My life is a Greek tragedy.
“The Understudy” is available on AMAZON.