In 2015, stand-up comedian Iliza Shlesinger went on the TV show This Is Not Happening and told a story about a Yale-educated hedge fund manager she met on a plane, then subsequently dated. He turns out to be none of those things. The story is kind of amusing—the audience laughs at least a few times—but mostly confusing, because why wouldn’t someone in the 21st century with access to the internet Google a potential partner? It also takes five minutes for her to tell it, from set-up to epilogue. It’s a fun bad-date story, perhaps a little more dramatic than some, but in the intervening years it became a pet screenplay project for Shlesinger. The resulting Netflix film, which stretches a tight five to a shapeless hour-and-a-half, is horrible. It makes sense, because Good on Paper isn’t even that.
Made from Shlesinger’s first produced script, the rom-com/wannabe thriller pits Shlesinger, effectively playing herself, alongside the Talentless Mr. Ripley that duped her, played by Ryan Hansen. As you might have already guessed, the film is so thin as to be completely transparent. Transparent as in you can see all the behind-the-scenes efforts taken to turn this story into a stand-up bit, then into a feature film making a case for Shlesinger: Writer/Star. Each step on her journey from meeting this too-good-to-be-true guy to her final catharsis is a trial, either because it serves a purely practical purpose to the script (Get A to B! Make sure C finds out about B’s lie!) or because it serves a purely practical purpose to Shlesinger’s comedy. It’s always an eye-rolling experience to watch a stand-up construct a shaky narrative framework to inject more of their stand-up into, but when all that stand-up—on and off-stage—is artless hackery, it becomes detrimental to ocular health.
Trite observational jokes and quips so ancient your grandfather’s probably declined to repost them on Facebook because he doesn’t want to get dunked on cloud the film like smog, preventing any kind of thrillery mystery as to what exactly is going on with this guy or why anyone would fall for his façade. Maybe these things could be sold or elevated with different actors. It would’ve been worth trying, and if they forgot their lines, that’s all for the better. Shlesinger is an excruciating screen presence, even in her ostensible element on stage where she’s filmed in weird medium shots that look like they didn’t fork up the cash to actually put her in a room with an audience. You’d think that was a contributing factor to why these interstitial scenes are crushing black holes of charisma and humor, but Shlesinger’s mannequin-like riffing with her bartender friend (Margaret Cho) is just as stilted. Obviously Shlesinger’s found some success as a comedian, so maybe she just needs the adrenaline of a live audience. Maybe she simply thrives in that performance space. Maybe she got really into character as the comedian trying to book acting gigs but just isn’t any good.
We don’t even get any visual life in this limp and overwrought bit, as debut feature helmer Kimmy Gatewood’s dismal direction can’t get her cast to sound like people (Hansen’s also unconvincing throughout) nor draw any kind of comedy, suspense or thrill from the vapid script. It’s an empty well, so it’s hard to expect much from the visuals or performances. The cheap and ugly movie mostly stages its explanations—be they in courtroom monologues, robotic dialogue or straight Sex and the City-esque voiceover—through a lot of standing around, leaving us all ample time to heckle the film as it musters up its Screenwriting Basics to enact some half-hearted set-ups and pay-offs. Rebecca Rittenhouse, who plays Shlesinger’s far more talented rival that gets roped into the skullduggery, is the sole exception. She toes the line between A-list Hollywood weirdness (grating lingo, a constant state of lovey-lovey schmooze) and self-effacing charm, all sold with a blissfully ignorant earnestness.
Most of the time when comedians make movies, they’re gag-laden gross-out comedies of the Adam Sandler variety. At least there’s the novelty in that Good on Paper is certainly something different. It is an embarrassing, boring, utterly misguided film that at no point ever capitalizes on either side of its “rom-com…or is it?” premise. There are no laughs. There are no smiles. There is only Shlesinger’s character moving through her terminally L.A. life, treating everything as a bit to be gathered and monetized. Good on Paper wasn’t that good as a stand-up segment; as a movie, it should be permanently erased from the memories of anyone unlucky enough to have seen it.
Director: Kimmy Gatewood
Writers: Iliza Shlesinger
Stars: Iliza Shlesinger, Ryan Hansen, Margaret Cho, Rebecca Rittenhouse
Release Date: June 23, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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