2018 AFI FILM FESTIVAL: Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell” is unrelenting in its depiction of a fictional punk star’s imminent “rock bottom.” The inevitable fall is of course assumed since the script does nothing to distinguish Elizabeth Moss’s Becky Something from hundreds of musicians who become a little too comfortable with the highs of touring. Moss channels Gena Rowlands in her “Woman Under the Influence” peak with every fiber of bodily movement and expression. Hallucinogens, alcohol and hired shamans work in overdrive rotation, plaguing Becky with delusions of infallible authority. Much to the chagrin of those around her, Becky also happens to be quite the talker when baked. The kettle could shriek expletives by the time Becky ran out of words to say. Unfortunately for audiences, Moss’s marathon acting can’t shake the overwhelming feeling of time elasticized…and wasted.
“Her Smell” is structured in five acts, although the final two dispense like extended epilogues. We are granted exclusive behind-the-scenes access to Becky’s downward spiral. Following a rousing performance to close their tour, Becky’s three-woman ’80s alternative rock band receives some unfortunate news. It turns out Becky has burned all her contractual bridges, and no one is sponsoring the European tour that was promised. Rather than pivot to an alternative way to sustain their careers, Becky disregards her bandmates’ conviction to press on. She selfishly views her recent unemployment as a much-needed vacation, income be damned. Adding insult to injury, Becky treats members Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin) as footnotes to her stardom. Even Becky’s band name, “Something She,” is a reflection of her narcissism.
Hoping to instill rationality into Becky’s troubled mind is ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens), who marches down backroom hallways like he’s in a SEAL Team Six operation. Stevens plays “level-headed family man” with steely precision, all but wearing a name tag with the words “RESPONSIBLE ADULT” in black Sharpie. Unfortunately, bringing their baby daughter to the concert doesn’t have the intended effect Danny was hoping for.
Becky ignores all but her private witch doctor, who promises to transport her drugged-out consciousness to new realities. The religious scamming coupled with Becky’s aversion to helping unleash a monster nobody wants to be around. Ross Perry’s dialogue burdened onto Moss isn’t so much challenging as it is bloated, bordering on pretension. Becky’s endless rants include spelling words aloud and dropping metaphors ad nauseum. At some point during Becky’s many diatribes, a feeling sinks in that becomes unshakable: this is self-indulgent writing, not the truth.
With the film running at a torturous 135 minutes, Ross Perry does a disservice to his characters by not eliminating the third act. Becky, Ali, and Marielle are barely featured together, so how is their bond expected to be cherished if three new characters are shuffled into the mix? The original trio’s chemistry is only marginally explored between acts via home video footage of happier times. The addition of younger, fresher up-and-comers played by Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson and Dylan Gelula is meant to creatively reinvigorate Becky, but instead, it’s more wasted frames with little consequence. Speaking of, at one point Virginia Madsen – who plays Becky’s forlorn mother – shows up carrying a mysterious manila envelope from Becky’s estranged father. That said envelope not only remains unopened, but its inside contents are never discussed again! Sure, it was one of many triggers for Becky, but for it not to be revisited or referenced in such a tightly-wound script is downright negligent.
The concluding acts nearly reverse the pounding headache of the previous ones, though editing footage down clearly wasn’t what Ross Perry had in mind. Even the strongest scene – featuring a touching piano-side rendition of Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” – would have made a deeper emotional impact had the performance been abridged to just the key moments. There’s a reason why FOX’s “American Idol” created timeless cultural moments during its heyday. It isn’t about replicating the artist’s song from start to finish, but about evoking its spirit in original repackaging.
The main issue with Ross Perry’s “Her Smell” is that it’s an excess of love that doesn’t know how to be self-critical. Auteur masterpieces aren’t rough cuts of precious raw material; they go through radical, necessary revisions to deliver the best possible version that satiates both creator and consumer. “Her Smell” is ultimately missing tough love. In its absence, we’re left with an uncompromising vision that demands extreme viewer stamina. Sadly, not even a laudable turnaround in the latter half can undo the hard truth: “Her Smell” is an endurance test that isn’t worth the patience.