Coming-of-age tale Patti Cake$ would be overwhelmed by its quirks if it weren’t constructed of them. An overweight white battle rapper and bartender, Patricia (Danielle Macdonald), seeks the escape from New Jersey and her family (singer/burnout mother Barb, played by Bridget Everett, and grandmother, played by Cathy Moriarty) that fame and fortune could provide her. The most interesting part of this played-out tale is that its musical genre—even within the greater genre of aspirational musician movies—fits so well with its motivations. Rap (at least the rap in which Patricia is interested) is built upon bravado and escapism; the film’s brushes with dream imagery and stylistic edginess only make its narrative shortcoming more disappointing.
Patti Cake$ cannot distance itself from the superior 8 Mile no matter how often it returns to the shallow differentiation of its portly female rapper. Rap—and the entertainment industry in general—is toxic towards its beautiful, skinny women. Any other body type? Good luck. Patti Cake$ takes its star’s disadvantages in this patriarchal structure and does even less with them than it does with its acknowledged problem of a white girl idolizing and (as her African American rap idol later accuses her of in the film) scavenging a culture that does not belong to her. Uncomplicated, the film brushes past too many thorny, complicated topics for it not to expect an audience’s attention to snag onto one of them.
Instead, it focuses on the ragtag group of friends and musicians Patricia (going by stage names Patti Cake$ and Killa P at different times) assembles to reach her dream. This crew, collectively known as PBNJ, helps Patti move from parking lot rap battles to recording singles and playing shows.
There’s her one friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), who works as both hype man and R&B wannabe. There’s Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), who is perhaps cinema’s first black metal Magical Negro thanks to his underwritten character and penchant for solving every problem Patti runs into. Patti speaks to Basterd (whose real name is Bob, a taste of the film’s sense of humor) like a child, her tone altering completely to a patronizing coo. Making this choice even odder, a romance springs up between the two (almost directly after Patti is lambasted by her idol), giving her the black approval of her art previously denied to her, only now with a weird, unearned sexual underpinning.
The only character (besides Patti) who shows any promise for director/writer Geremy Jasper’s chops as a scribe is Barb. The film’s mother-daughter relationship is the one successful narrative component in a playlist of cliches thanks to the right combination of embarrassing interactions, sniping comments and well-buried affection. Macdonald and Everett play off their characters’ loneliness so well that their familial ties grow naturally.
It’s also worth noting that these character moments only work apart from Patti Cake$’ music and jokes. The film’s overplayed central track (a throwback to self-titled movie singles that explain the plot of the film) is created before our eyes in a montage of melded styles, the characters all bringing something to the table to make the film’s proudest (if aural quantity is to be considered) achievement.
This track attempts to function as Patti and her cohorts’ ticket to stardom and a punchline, while having neither the quality nor deadpan cringiness needed to walk that tightrope. The song is a grating, smug bastardization of rap music while the lyrics are the half-clever scribblings of an English major dropout who listened to Watsky once. Jheri’s singing sounds more like Aziz Ansari’s R. Kelly impression than the criminal crooner himself and the fact that they roped Patti’s raspy-voiced grandmother into the proceedings is just an eccentric bridge too far. Patti Cake$’s failure to engage in anything but its least interesting implications is as boring as its climactic rap-off.
While Jasper creates a few decent aesthetic riffs on the rap life and its oft-juxtaposed lower-class mirror, Macdonald’s winning performance isn’t enough to carry a movie that can’t think beyond its simple passion. Patti Cake$ clearly loves music, but fails to translate that into a compelling narrative. It’s an album filled mostly with half-baked skits.
Director: Geremy Jasper
Writer: Geremy Jasper
Starring: Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, Cathy Moriarty
Release Date: August 18, 2017