Film Review: The Stand In is a tonally confused comedy unsure what to do with Drew Barrymore’s wild energy

Biding her time between newly found talk-show host duties and headlining the Netflix series Santa Clarita Diet (a show gone too soon) has kept Drew Barrymore busy enough that it’s been 5 years since we saw her in a feature film.  And though The Stand In gives the delightful star plenty of meat to chew on – she has no less than three roles to play with, all distinctly different in their delivery – it’s ultimately a film that sadly doesn’t know what to do with her energy.

Writer Sam Bain (who has predominantly written for television, penning such series as Peep Show and Fresh Meat) appears to be aiming for a satirical approach, and given that it’s centred around the film industry – a fallen star, no less – one would suspect there’d be more than enough comedic elements to work with; perhaps it’s a case of having too much as The Stand In toys with multiple moods and subplots that ultimately don’t really travel anywhere of worth.

Barrymore’s first role of note is as Candy Black, a legend of the comedy field who has scored a plethora of box office successes off her penchant for prat-falling and exclaiming her signature catchphrase in the process: “Hit me where it hurts!”.  Candy is essentially the female Adam Sandler, making ridiculously titled (and themed) movies – “Nun’s the Word” and “Pippi Bongstocking” just two of the shining examples – that somehow earn monetary prominence.

Comedy may be her forte but happiness is not her reality, and it’s within minutes of Jamie Babbit‘s tonally confused film that we see just how deeply miserable Candy truly is.  Fuelled by rage and a drug dependency, Candy’s career quickly becomes undone when a violent tantrum is caught on camera – she accidentally semi-blinds one of her co-stars (Ellie Kemper in an extended cameo) – sending her into an existence of reclusiveness.

You get the sense that Candy actually quite likes her new life of anonymity – there’s much to be said about her fame and fortune not nearly satisfying her as much as one may expect – and if it wasn’t for her whole evading taxes situation she’d be able to live out her days uninterrupted.  But she hasn’t paid her taxes you see, and if she wants to avoid a jail sentence she’ll need to man up and attend rehab.  Not wanting the responsibility nor the publicity that comes with such an act, Candy devises a plan with her long suffering on-set stand in, Paula (also Barrymore, just with a slightly altered nose and much whinier voice), who is desperate for work having fallen into homelessness since Candy went radio silent.

Candy utilising her look-alike stand in to act as her for both rehab purposes and on the subsequent “forgiveness tour” feels like a plot not far removed from her star vehicle faux films created within The Stand In, and the idea that Paula relishes this opportunity, ultimately letting it consume her to the point that she starts overhauling Candy’s life is both expected and a narrative ripe with possibility.  If you’re expecting Babbit’s film to be comedically broad then you’ll be disappointed. Instead Bain’s script takes a more sinister approach in showcasing how driven by fame someone can be – in this case, Paula – and how that can manifest into psychotic tendencies.

It’s a perfectly reasonable route to travel – The Stand In is very much acting as a cautionary tale for those seeking celebrity status – but the Single White Female-esque mentality it adopts doesn’t entirely feel earned when it constantly feels as if what it is presenting is meant to be funny.  Candy’s awfulness – her meltdown really is quite uncomfortable to watch, probably because it feels so real – and Paula’s meekness eventually trading temperaments doesn’t track, and the insistence of giving Candy’s incredibly boring love interest, Steve (Michael Zegen), a carpenter who meets her on-line during her “sabbatical”, therefore not knowing she’s a famed actress at all, prominence fails to inject the project with any heart – not that it actually deserves any.

Barrymore is giving it her all here (it really is so great to see her back in film) and if anyone could organically project what it is to be a wild talent that falls victim to the indulgence of the industry, it’s her, but The Stand In doesn’t deserve her energy.  The opening moments suggest a film that could’ve been incredibly hostile and not afraid to be unlikeable but, despite game work from Barrymore, it all plays out just a little too safe – a description we all know doesn’t represent the industry in the slightest.

TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Stand In will be screening in select US theatres, as well as available on demand and digital from December 11th, 2020.  An Australian release is yet to be determined.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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