October 17, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘The Stand In’ review: A Drew Barrymore face-off

The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

The initial surprise in “The Stand In” isn’t that visual effects have progressed so far as to allow Drew Barrymore to seamlessly play scenes with Drew Barrymore; it’s that Drew Barrymore, as much America’s Sweetheart as any movie star, effectively plays such a nasty piece of work. Two of them, actually. And does so with brio.

In the new dark comedy, the brutal onscreen pratfalls of comedic superstar Candy Black (Barrymore) entertain everyone but her. She’s the cliché of the embittered, drug-abusing, people-abusing, nightmare diva. Her stand in, Paula (Barrymore again), a timid wannabe actress, has witnessed her bad behavior for years but has said nothing for fear of losing her job. When one of Hurricane Candy’s on-set tantrums turns violent and is caught on camera, she tumbles from grace. Five years later, Candy has been living in seclusion in her giant mansion, woodworking, drinking and not paying taxes. She has, however, begun a sight-unseen virtual romance with a fellow woodworker; it actually means something to her. Unfortunately, it’s about to be derailed by a lengthy, court-ordered stint in rehab. Having learned nothing about accountability, she bribes Paula to impersonate her in treatment. Paula starts taking over for Candy in other parts of her life — but does the star even mind?

When we learn about the authentic Candy, the way she was before she became famous, while seeing how rapacious the initially unassuming Paula really is, it’s clear where the story is going. But the movie still manages to surprise, largely because of how messed up it allows itself to be. Also how messed up Barrymore allows herself to be, in both roles. It is with verve the actress bites into a pair of sour apples, with no guarantee of sweetness at the center. The script by Sam Bain (of the excellent “Four Lions”) revels in revealing the awfulness and weirdness of these two women, not to mention that of the business and fame. “Being famous,” moans Candy, “is like being in the back of a sports car driven by d—.”

“The Stand In” may lose some viewers with its “Woe is me, I’m rich and famous” messaging, but what sets it apart from other mistaken-identity farces is that it allows itself to become twisted and dark, savoring its layers of crazy. The formula calls for the characters to learn about themselves through the status switch, sure. But Paula’s tactics veer from the good-time desperation of a farce to the bad-news bare knuckles of a comedic version of “Single White Female.”

Yet it’s also anchored in emotional reality by Barrymore’s precisely calibrated dual performance. There’s a standout argument scene between the two characters that feels vicious and truthful. When Candy’s hopes are dashed, we feel it.

Credit director Jamie Babbit (“But I’m a Cheerleader”; nearly half of TV’s “Russian Doll”) with balancing those elements and keeping it fairly funny. T.J. Miller (with whom Babbit worked on “Silicon Valley”) steals scenes as Candy’s agent, and the funny Michelle Buteau has a small but memorable role as one of Candy/Paula’s rehab-mates.

The movie is Barrymore’s, of course. Even after the initial jolt of seeing her as a cursing hellion and an ambitious hanger-on wears off, she does not disappoint.

‘The Stand In’

Rated: R, for language throughout including sexual references, and for drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. 11, Arena Cinelounge Drive-In, Hollywood; and in general release where theaters are open; also available digital and VOD