Monday, September 7, 2015

How far can you go? All the way in Addicted to Fresno

Left to right, Lea DeLaria, Natasha Lyonne, Judy Greer, Jamie Babbit, and Karey Dornetto at the premiere of Addicted to Fresno.

How far can you go without completely offending everybody?
– Audience member at the Addicted to Fresno premiere

Comedy is interesting when it comes to storytelling. In the service of a joke, comedy need not be beholden to plot or character development. As long as it is funny, anything goes. Breakneck pacing is essential to this approach. If a punchline falls flat, no worries. There is another one right around the corner. Keep the laughter coming, and your audience will generally stick with you. Add in a strong story about relatable or intriguing people, and viewers will follow anywhere you want to lead them.

Director Jamie Babbit’s new film, Addicted to Fresno, from writer Karey Dornetto, has it both ways with a deep, emotional core hidden beneath layers of sex jokes. The film stars Natasha Lyonne and Judy Greer as co-dependent sisters working as maids in a Fresno, Calif., hotel. Greer plays Shannon, a sex addict who is just out of prison, and Lyonne is Martha, the put-upon sister who has her life together before Shannon comes back.

Addicted to Fresno was part of the 26th annual NewFest.
Babbit, Dornetto, Greer, and Lyonne were all in attendance last week for the premiere of Addicted to Fresno, as well as a question-and-answer session moderated by Lea DeLaria, Lyonne’s co-star on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. The event was part of the 26th annual NewFest, New York City’s LGBT film festival. A sold-out crowd packed into the SVA Theatre in Chelsea to listen to the cast and filmmakers talk about co-dependency, the importance of having gay characters on screen, and getting a bunch of nuns to watch South Park.

“I am open to directing a lot of different things – and I have directed a lot of different things – but when I’m doing an independent film and it’s a personal three years of my life, I like to do something that has gay content in it, especially lesbian content, because I am a lesbian, and I don’t see a lot of lesbian movies out there,” said Babbit, who is married to Dornetto. “So I just feel like I’m a filmmaker, and I should give back to the community and write stuff, be a part of stuff that is written about our community.”

Babbit received a hearty round of applause for her comments from an audience clearly appreciative of the sentiment. However, despite the film being written and directed by lesbians, about a lesbian main character, and debuting at an LGBT film festival, it would be wrong to pigeonhole Addicted to Fresno as a queer movie. It certainly is that, but it is about more.

The director added she was attracted to Dornetto’s script not because of the gay characters but because of its exploration of co-dependent relationships, saying she knows a lot of people obsessed with relationships that are not the best for them at the expense of relationships that might be better. Dornetto said she shares that viewpoint, but her connection to the material is more personal.

“My mom is an ex-nun, and my dad is a military professor, so they fucked me up pretty good,” said Dornetto. “The story is based sort of loosely on the relationship with me and my sister. She’s kind of fucked up. I’m kind of fucked up, and I feel like comedy’s a good way to work through those things. So that’s really where it all comes from, I think.”

While the movie deals with heavy themes of addiction and whether family ties should trump personal growth, it is also a raunchy, laugh-out-loud sex comedy that includes an extended sequence of the main characters selling ill-gotten sex toys to a women’s softball convention. That scene, however, is predicated upon Shannon’s desperate need for money and Martha’s incessant need to help her sister, so in this way, the film gets to have its cake and eat it, too.

Lyonne and Greer in Addicted to Fresno.
What sells the whole enterprise is the gameness of the two leads. The movie gets away with a few character shortcuts because Greer and Lyonne share a natural chemistry that makes any shorthand the script uses feel organic to the relationship between the sisters. As DeLaria pointed out during the Q-and-A, the movie casts both actresses against type with Lyonne, known for out-there roles in movies such as American Pie and Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader, as the more conservative sister and Greer, perpetually the female lead’s friend in romantic comedies, as the sex addicted narcissist.

It is a wonderful choice by the filmmakers and was one of the things that attracted Greer to the role in the first place, in addition to the opportunity to work with the very group of women she shared the stage with at the premiere.

“I usually audition for movies,” said Greer. “This one came to me from Jamie because Jamie and I worked together on the first season of my TV show, Married, and so when we wrapped the first season, she sent me the script and asked me to play this role, and Natasha was already attached to it. So it was Jamie. It was Karey’s script, whom I’d met. It was Natasha, whom I’d always wanted to work with. And then, it was this role … no one really offers me roles in movies, and this one was, I hope you know, against type.”

For her part, Lyonne just seemed excited to be in a room full of people who appreciated the film and to be onstage with a group of women she respects and admires.

“On a human level, just to be sitting onstage with this group of ladies, it’s pretty heavy-duty, the idea that what we do can be like this,” said Lyonne. “DeLaria and Greer and Dornetto, they’re real, real heavy hitters, and really getting to feel like you can work in an environment where you can be yourself and you’re excited to promote the thing – it’s just such a good feeling to feel buoyed by the people you work with.”

That excitement carried over into a crowd that laughed and cheered throughout both the film and the Q-and-A. After asking a few questions of her own, DeLaria headed into the aisles to field questions from the audience. One person asked Dornetto how far she felt she could go without offending everybody. Addicted to Fresno has jokes about rape, murder, religion, sex, and masturbation and never pulls punches on any of these topics, so it seemed a fair question to pose to Dornetto, whose answer was simple: “I don’t think there’s a limit,” she said to ecstatic applause.

At this, Babbit shared a story about Dornetto’s ex-nun mother gathering her nun friends to watch her daughter’s work on a little cartoon show – South Park – and the whole group coming away utterly disturbed. So maybe that was not the audience for boundary-pushing humor, but good on Dornetto, Babbit, and the rest of the cast and crew of Addicted to Fresno for continuing to work without limits. Judging by the rapturous response their film received at the premiere, it seems safe to say they have found their audience.

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