Fresno benefits greatly from the duel casting of Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne as scrubby, flawed sisters who drag each other down a spiral of bad decisions. At the helm, Jamie Babbit makes her own series of bad decisions, often unable to get out of the way of a problematic script from Karey Dornetto and some off-putting and downright absurd character decisions throughout. It certainly has its moments of nigh inspired hilarity but the blistery chemistry between Greer and Lyonne can only do so much.
Fresno tells the story of two sisters who have just recently started working together in a not-so-idyllic position as hotel maids. Fresh out of sex rehab, Shannon (Greer) bears a chip on her shoulder and a hunger in her pants. She’s acerbic, mean-spirited and even cruel and Greer plays the eye-rolling indifference with an inbred intelligence. Even when her character is making disastrously immoral choices, Greer’s humorously numbed performance keeps us from completing hating the character, despicable though she may be.
On the other side of the fence is Lyonne’s Martha, the more responsible of the two and a hard-working, if easily influenced, ingenue who’s just been dumped by her gym instructor girlfriend. Martha either doesn’t notice that another gym instructor (Aubrey Plaza) has eyes for her or she doesn’t care but either way she wallows in the shoals of heartbreak and that makes her particularly susceptible to Shannon’s bad influence.
When a horned-up and ready to rumble Shannon decides to bang a sketchy guest and ends up caught by Martha, she claims that he raped her. Next, she ends up accidentally killing him when pushing him and his wobbly, confused dong. Despite all signs that they should immediately report the incident to the police, Shannon convinces Martha to help cover up the “manslaughter” lest she end up in the slammer. Because all registered sex offenders go straight to jail when they’re involved in an accidental death? Immeasurable moral quandaries raised here aside, Fresno plays the scene for laughs when it might benefit it to tread lightly around such potentially controversial and dangerous territory. Especially if the writing is going to be so thin.
The rest of the film revolves around the girls’ efforts to dispose of the body as they carry him conspicuously to and fro in a motel laundry bin. Some of the situations they get themselves into are genuinely funny – a literal bag of dicks, a bemusing Fred Armisen/Allison Tolman cameo, pretty much anything Greer says and does – but it skates around most of the real dramatic issues that it red flags to return to later.
It’s worth mentioning that the film is directed by a woman, written by a woman, stars two women and the conversation rarely traverses the likes of men so it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Having said that, the product itself – if taken as a sort of blind taste test for cinema – should not be celebrated for its admirable gender composure alone, lest we provide handicaps that would ultimatley benefit no one. It’s a nice try but one that lingers too much in the kiddy pool.
Babbit has mostly played the home box office game, lending herself out to direct television shows from Malcolm in the Middle to Gilmore Girls to The United States of Tara to Girls. Babbit jump-started her career in 1999 with queer satire But I’m a Cheerleader, which (ironically enough) marked the first real lead role for Natasha Lyonne. It – like Fresno – also featured Lyonne as a lesbian. Unforuntuately, what works on television doesn’t necessarily work in a movie and we see Babbit’s tendency to make affairs episodic and even hollow. The absurdity of any given situation often lacks reasonable followthrough and this seems in large part due to Babbit’s familiarity with a sitcom medium that champions quick laughs and surface level depth.
The product as a whole is reasonably entertaining during its run time, and certainly has its fair share of chuckles thanks to its pissy leading ladies, but is mostly unmemorable in the grand scheme of things.
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