The Sundance hit Patti Cake$ is the saga of an overweight female New Jersey rapper who goes by the name “Killa P” but is saddled with “Dumbo” by nasty Jersey boys. It’s a real crowd-pleaser, and I hope a lot of people will be inspired by its mixture of grittiness and uplift. But it also demonstrates that showbiz go-for-it stories are more alike than unalike, even when they have a vivid countercultural vibe and feature actors who don’t conform to (Hollywood white male) studio ideals. The feel-bad-to-feel-good ratio is relatively strong, but there’s a bushel of formula corn in there, too.
Danielle Macdonald plays Patti Dombrowski, who lives with her alcoholic, has-been-singer mom Barb (Bridget Everett, best known for her raunchy comedy) and immobilized grandmom (Cathy Moriarty — yes, that one). Patti drives around in a ramshackle red Cadillac and has to work long hours to keep her ramshackle family structure from collapsing. Her whole existence is ramshackle. But she dreams of being a rap star. Literally: garish, green-hued dreams of her coronation as a rap queen by the celebrated O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah). Patti is white, by the way. Well, maybe that’s not a by the way: The fact looms large when she bumps into O-Z in the flesh and tries to make inroads in the rap world.
How are Killa P’s raps? She has killa confidence and killa speed, but does assault and battery on the language, which is heavy on brand names, celebrities, Sopranos references, etc. (There’s a nice dig at Daffy Don and the Trump Crime Family if you can make out the words.) For all her sass, Patti is horribly lonely in her quest, buoyed only by her close friend, Jheri, an assistant pharmacist played by Siddharth Dhananjay. Patti Cake$ gets pretty ugly at times, as in the shock cut from Barb singing beautifully (Everett has a rich, soulful voice) to Barb puking into a cruddy bar toilet. People say vile things to Patti about her weight, talent, and prospects. It’s hard to deliver obscene, machine-gun rap when you have the blues.
But crossover indie hits like Little Miss Sunshine often come down to finding the warmth of a family (or surrogate family) in a cold, cold world, and the young writer-director Geremy Jasper has put together a killa rainbow coalition. First there’s Jheri, who’s Indian-American. Then Patti meets an astonishing outcast (Mamoudou Athie), a pierced, ringed black guy with one milky eye who delivers obscenity-filled rants and goes by the name “Basterd the Antichrist.” Offstage, he gazes out of sorrowful eyes and barely speaks, and he can’t muster the energy to throw Patti and Jheri out when they stumble into his recording/bat cave with its skulls and monitors playing Night of the Living Dead. The fourth member of this ungainly quartet is none other than grandmom, who’s wheeled in to rasp the name of their band, PBNJ. When the four stride (and roll— grandmom’s in a wheelchair) confidently down a path, the audience whoops at such a mismatched but fierce collective. You can almost hear the director say, “We need a montage!” and voilà, there they are cutting tracks in between bits in which Patti negotiates the obstacles of her life.
Jasper is smart to shift the conventions enough so that they’re not clichés — just cliché-adjacent. There’s a long history of cliché-adjacent inspirational movies. I often think of the ’80s teen pic Lucas, which was lauded for its comparative realism in a sea of formula teen pics. Here — and this is a Lucas spoiler — is how it’s more “real”: After the lonely, bullied title character finds some confidence (and friends) and gets a hit for his baseball team, he finds himself in the outfield under the fly ball that will end the game in favor of his team — and drops it. How stark. How un-formulaic. Except that getting Lucas under that game-ending ball required one go-for-it Hollywood convention after another. Patti Cake$ uses the same mold. What’s false is not what happens in the end, but how the pieces are arranged.
If you can get past that — and many people can — you’ll applaud at the end like the preview audience with which I saw the movie. It’s not just a one-woman show: The whole cast is treasurable. Everett — who’s obscenely confident in her act — goes to some dark places. Moriarty uses that whiskey-soaked voice to project both mordant wit and fragility. And though his character is finally too dear for my taste, Athie has a gentle, hangdog presence.
The fairy tale that winning go-for-it movies like Patty Cake$ push is that the flesh can be transcended, that regardless of body size, race, level of wealth, or physical infirmities we can, with talent and persistence, remake ourselves and our surroundings. I was going to say something sour here, but I got nothing. Go for it.