Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 9, 2010)
Pretty much every actor wants to direct, and Drew Barrymore got her shot with 2009’s Whip It. A proverbial square peg stuck into a round hole, 17-year-old Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) lives in small-town Texas. Her mom Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) forces her into beauty pageants, but quirky Bliss doesn’t fit into that world.
When they visit the diner at which she works, Bliss meets some roller derby ladies and decides to try out for their team. After some rough spots, her speed earns her a spot with perennial losers the Hurl Scouts. Along the way, she starts to date cute musician Oliver (Landon Pigg), helps elevate the Scouts and makes enemies with competitor “Iron Maven” (Juliette Lewis).
I’ve always viewed Barrymore as one of Hollywood’s success stories because she overcame the pitfalls of child stardom. Drew went through a seriously screwed-up youth to emerge as a seemingly sane, nice person. For all I know, Barrymore could be evil incarnate, but I get the sense that she’s pretty down to earth.
Heck, the simple fact that she’s not on a milk carton is good enough; it’s even more impressive that she’s a true star who’s maintained a good career for many years. Most folks who start out like Barrymore end up in the “where are they now?” file, not as borderline “A”-level celebs who get to direct their own flicks.
All of that makes me more depressed to have to report that Whip It is such a dud. Obviously a maintain a non-objective affection for Barrymore, and I was excited to see her transition behind the camera. The subject matter of Whip It sure sounded promising as well; I figured I’d get a fun romp with some “coming of age” touches on the side.
Unfortunately, Whip It instead provides a dull experience. It fails to embrace the subject matter’s positives and turns into a turgid take on… I’m not really sure what. I guess it wants to be a character drama in that “coming of age” vein, as it focuses mostly on Bliss’ life and connected events.
This means lots of Bliss ‘n’ Oliver montages as well as mopey drama when she hits her inevitable snags. I don’t take issue with the film’s attempts at depth; I don’t think that Whip It had to be a light romp to succeed.
However, I think it should’ve gone down that path, largely because the drama just doesn’t work. Sure, we care about the characters reasonably well, but the film proceeds in such a plodding way that the story fails to involve us. The tale throws out a fair amount of angst and fails to leaven it in a satisfying manner.
Package all of that in a roller derby movie and you have problems. Again, I won’t fault Barrymore for delivering something different than what the ads promised. Heck, Inglourious Basterds subverted expectations and I loved it for that.
Unfortunately, Whip It is just so dull and lifeless that it loses us early. As an actor, Barrymore is warm, delightful and endearing. As a director, she shows no flair. Even when the movie should spark and sizzle, it lays flat.
This seems especially true during the roller derby sequences. These should jump off the screen, especially since we want to feel the same intoxication as Bliss. That never happens; the scenes lack the dynamic appeal they need to soar, so the parts of the flick that should invigorate just leave us yawning.
The film’s length does it no favors. I guess it fills 111 minutes because it aspires to Serious Drama territory, but that running time makes it drag. Barrymore’s problems with pacing and tempo don’t help, but those issues would’ve been minimized with judicious editing.
Barrymore opens her Rolodex and pulls in a lot of favors for the cast, as Whip It boasts a much more high-profile cast than one would expect from a small-budget flick like this. In addition to Page, Harden, and Lewis, we find Jimmy Fallon, Kristen Wiig, Daniel Stern and Barrymore herself. (I guess she couldn’t land Owen or Luke Wilson; instead, we get obscure sound-alike brother Andrew as the Scouts’ coach.) The cast does add a touch of class to the film, and it gives it a bit more substance than otherwise might boast. In particular, Harden ensures that Bliss’ mom isn’t just the cardboard “stage mother” she could’ve been.
Page provides a perfectly acceptable turn as the lead. I’m glad to see her veer away from the snarky hipster of Juno; Page easily could’ve just played that same role over and over, so I’m happy she creates a unique character.
The combination of high-caliber cast and fun subject matter conspire to make Whip It a definite disappointment. Too long, too slow, and too devoid of fun, the flick rarely manages to entertain or engage.