Chelsea Peretti Is a First Time Female Director Twice Over in Her Uneven Comedy

Movies Reviews Tribeca 2023
Chelsea Peretti Is a First Time Female Director Twice Over in Her Uneven Comedy

It is categorically and unequivocally unfair to compare any low-budget labor-of-love broad comedy with roots in sketch-show absurdity to Wet Hot American Summer. There are plenty of outright classics that still can’t touch the influence, longevity, or laugh-per-minute ratio of that movie, and anyway, isn’t that one also kind of a worn-out record by this point, 22 years after its inauspicious theatrical release led into the eternal glory of its DVD afterlife? And yet First Time Female Director has the misfortune of being just weird enough, just silly enough, and just vaguely reminiscent enough of the brief stage-production scenes from Wet Hot (the parts with a pre-SNL Amy Poehler and a pre-everything Bradley Cooper – seriously, what a cast!) to maybe warrant that unjust comparison, and falter in its wake.

Then again, Wet Hot American Summer isn’t the only scrappy little comedy that makes First Time Female Director look a little scattered by comparison, no matter the size of its biggest laughs (and to be clear, there are several very big ones). The similarly sketch-based but far less-seen Mystery Team does the sketch-to-movie thing with a lot more propulsion and consistency, while the upcoming Theater Camp is a more affectionate, more specific skewering of stage people. Granted, that’s not exactly what First Time Female Director is aiming for. Unfortunately, its targets remain obscured for much of the running time.

The first-time director in question is Sam (played by actual first-time female director and many-time comic performer Chelsea Peretti), a playwright whose Southern-melodrama hokum is about to get a staged production in Los Angeles. But when the theater company’s usual director is outed as a sexual predator, boss Sheldon (Andy Richter) convinces Sam to take over. Good optics and all that. Already the movie is at a satirical disadvantage, because Sam is well aware of her own inexperience as a director, and how her writing doesn’t necessarily qualify her to shepherd its translation to the stage. Yes, she makes some ridiculous and eventually ego-driven blunders when she takes the job, but she’s so obviously roped into it (and raises such reasonable objections) that it’s hard to take much pleasure in such a relatively undeserved comeuppance.

Yet First Time Female Director isn’t exactly an underdog comedy, either, nor a Coen Brothers-style dark comedy of the fates. It’s more of an anthology of eccentricity, driven by the pickiness of Sam’s cast, a group of malcontent actors who start off skeptical of their new director’s authority and only revolt harder as her desperation emerges. Theoretically, it’s a solid generator of comic tension, with a clear timeline taking the production through rehearsals, tech, dress, opening night, and beyond. But Peretti dices these segments into so many blackout sketches that the whole thing feels as weirdly protracted and repetitive as the frequent slow-mo shots Peretti inserts for reasons beyond my understanding.

The ensemble-as-ensemble players of Kate Berlant, Megan Mullally, Blake Anderson, Benito Skinner, Megan Stalter, and Jak Knight have fun sketching out different forms of actorly vanity, but a lot of their behavior seems arbitrary, unbound by much sense of characterization beyond a couple of loose types: “the social media one” (Stalter) and “the chipper one reminiscent of her Party Down character” (Mullally). The supporting cast feels stitched together from spare half-day favors, and while there’s nothing wrong with Richter, Poehler, Peretti’s husband Jordan Peele, and New Girl’s Max Greenfield popping up for a few scenes each, the bit parts don’t have much flow. Then again, neither do the leads.

And yet: There are some very funny moments here. A scene at the home of an elderly theater patron nails the inspired lunacy that seems aching to be released from other sequences, and builds to a laugh-out-loud punchline. The tone-deaf details of Sam’s play get funnier as more of its absurdities are revealed. A late-movie detour into a social club for “canceled” men nails the stubborn, ego-stoking pride that cancellation somehow affixes to bad behavior. Eventually, Peretti seems to arrive at a satirical idea that sexism is so ingrained everywhere, including the arts, that even a #MeToo situation can somehow be flipped to undermine a woman’s agency. Not wanting to let herself off the hook, Peretti also emphasizes the insecurities that bubble up in Sam after a younger playwright – a Black woman who sells tickets at the theater company – experiences greater success.

But the fuck-it tone of the movie’s satire, making it increasingly clear that Sam isn’t especially talented, feels a little disingenuous coming from a comedian who’s actually, you know, successful in her chosen field. That gap between subject and filmmaker could be bridged if First Time Female Director felt less like a spare-time improv exercise, and more like a movie with a demented mission, like the kid-lit deconstruction of Mystery Team or the ’80s homage of (sorry) Wet Hot. To some degree, comedy depends on surprise, and there’s not much surprising about a stacked deck.

Director: Chelsea Peretti
Writer: Chelsea Peretti
Starring: Chelsea Peretti, Kate Berlant, Megan Mullally, Benito Skinner, Blake Anderson, Megan Stalter
Release Date: June 12, 2023 (Tribeca)

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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