Class confusion is always with us. Our social circumstances are in conflict with our ambitions and desires, and we are often in political denial. This American phenomenon resembles the new decadent cuisine that piles layers of proteins — and then tops them with fatty bacon. The display of excess flouts good taste while it simultaneously demonstrates a determined, free-wheeling lack of self-control — all of which is embodied by Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), the overweight lead character of the aspirational comedy Patti Cake$, produced by Michael Gottwald and Dan Janvey.
As a plus-sized white female who idolizes black hip-hop celebrities and wants to be a rap star herself, Patti goes against the expectations of her race, gender, and social image. Her story is one of the few American movies specifically about class issues, but it also confuses them.
The twist in Geremy Jasper’s script and direction is that Patti is not a rebel; she represents certain cross-cultural enthusiasms. Patti and her friends, an Indian pharmacist assistant (Siddharth Dhananjay) and a black goth kid (Mamoudou Athie), bond together in a pile-up of multi-culti clichés; they each belong to some marginalized group protected by Hollywood political correctness. (That’s the film’s fatty bacon.)
Jasper uses these underdogs — strivers on the fringes of show business — to elicit progressive social sentiments about race, gender relations, and celebrity that now pass muster this millennium, though they are rarely seriously examined. Patti’s yearning to be a hip-hop star strikes all the notes of a feel-good comedy — it was engineered at the Sundance Institute in an effort to turn both sociologists and political pundits into movie-going yahoos — but it’s never quite believable.
At first, Jasper’s cluttered visualization of Patti’s dreams and daily drudgery makes it impossible to recognize where the story takes place. Macdonald’s native Australian accent slips into her hip-hop argot like an errant Iggy Azalea, but then we hear one of Bruce Springsteen’s self-pitying anthems, locating us in the hinterlands of New Jersey among mostly blue-collar whites.
Jasper’s opening images also recall the movie Precious — the grimiest, most low-down class-consciousness movie yet made. Patti Cake$ isn’t repugnant like Precious; Jasper avoids Lee Daniels’s freaky sexual decadence. Instead of looking down on his characters, he embraces them as underclass outsiders. Patti raps in an ’80s style that can still evoke the form’s early innocence: Her word associations are predictably cute, which shows that her talent (also posited as her intelligence) matches her work ethic — she isn’t mentally deficient like the characters in Good Time. A rap battle between Patti and Danny (McCaul Lombardi), a thin, blue-eyed, full-time pizza-maker, creates a frisson of artistic and sexual competition that promises a rougher reality of conflict and desire than Jasper eventually delivers.
By sticking to Patti’s second-best status, and the deferred dreams of her slatternly mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), and her widowed, infirm grandmother, Nana (Cathy Moriarty), Jasper shows his condescension toward their toughness. The depression that continues in Patti’s generation is rooted in class revulsion that Jasper turns into a sometimes mawkish fantasy. Character eccentricities — Nana’s placing a Carvel ice-cream cake at a cemetery memorial, the black kid’s dubbing himself “Basterd the Antichrist,” or Barb’s “You can’t be pregnant in leather” lament — reveal Jasper’s half-satirical affection.
These weird twists may reflect a genuine attitude toward class that American filmmakers adopt as they move up from one economic bracket into another higher on the ladder. “My life’s f***in’ awesome!” Patti raps, as if convincing herself. But sentimentality about oneself is the flipside of Jasper’s semi-autobiographical tale. A Jersey boy himself, Jasper rouses more feeling than a specious blue-collar comedy like Kevin Smith’s Clerks. But the emotional gimmickry here gets too close to the supercilious Beasts of the Southern Wild, which was also produced by the Gottwald-Janvey team in a fit of class condescension about the impoverished blacks of Hurricane Katrina.
Class realities are what’s beneath the polarization that’s roiling the culture.
American filmmakers who fully understand how class operates are a rare breed — Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme, Alan Rudolph, Raymond De Felitta (Rob the Mob, Two Family House), Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Gentlemen Bronchos), even John Waters, whose roly-poly Hairspray heroine probably inspired Jasper’s Patti (a.k.a. “Dumbo”). Hollywood is losing what used to be a popular art form’s knack. But class realities are what’s beneath the polarization that’s roiling the culture. Patti Cake$, with its dollar-sign title, only deepens the confusion.
Jérôme Reybaud’s 4 Days in France offers the year’s most remarkable panoply of class differences while also offering a personal and political observation of a nation as a geographical, spiritual, and cultural space — all at once. Starting with an erotic love story, Reybaud depicts two gay men (Pascal Cervo and Arthur Igual) who are torn between masculine libidinal anxiety and the modern coupling trend. Pierre-Thomas (Cervo) sets out on the road, and Paul (Igual) tracks him by GPS. During their picaresque separation, they encounter a wide assortment of isolated countrymen — and women.
4 Days in France not only maps national consensus, but as it explores different characters (from a lonely, risky 20-year-old to a middle-aged veteran libertine), it also charts an alternative history of French philosophy through a pageant of female characters. This isn’t simple “diversity” but a sharing of moral consciousness. The actresses Fabienne Babe, Marie-France, Lilianne Montevecchi, Nathalie Richard, and Laetitia Dosch (several André Téchiné alumnae) provide fascinating characterizations that precisely etch class distinctions. Cathy Moriarty and Bridget Everett are comparably affecting in Patti Cake$, especially when Jasper rewrites the mother-daughter melodrama of The Effect of Gamma Rays), but Reybaud gets intellectual sustenance from his link to female experience.
This link includes Reybaud’s road-movie aesthetic, an update of Marguerite Duras’s 1977 The Truck (Le Camion), a similarly rhythmic meditation on land, civilization, consciousness, and impermanence. Reybaud’s poetic meditation on class also has a classical antecedent in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which scholars have described as an epic on “egotism and self-sufficiency.” American pop culture desperately needs such an epic or a film as great as 4 Days in France.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.