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SXSW Film Review: ‘Fresno’

The titular burg will probably not be throwing a parade for this mean-spirited farce.

Natasha Lyonne, Judy Greer, Aubrey Plaza, Fred Armisen, Jessica St. Clair, Molly Shannon, Michael Hitchcock, Ron Livingston, Malcolm Barrett, Jessica St. Clair, Edward Barbanell, John Roohinian, Kumail Nanjiani, Jon Daly, Paul Bates, Alison Tolman, Clea DuVall, Beth Grant.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4000870/

The titular burg will probably not be throwing a parade for “Fresno,” a mean-spirited farce whose strenuous bad taste seldom translates into actual laughs. A cast of familiar faces and funny people — though they’ve all had much, much better material — will make this a viable ancillary item, though it’s unlikely to accrue the modest cult following attached to helmer Jamie Babbit’s 1999 debut feature, “But I’m a Cheerleader.”

Babbit and her scenarist Karey Dornetto have each worked on a number of good TV comedy shows; between them, they include “Girls,” “Arrested Development,” “Community,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Portlandia,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Jamie Kennedy Experiment” and “South Park.” But the feature format is apparently not their friend, together or separately. “Cheerleader” was awfully broad, 2007’s “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” painfully so; for its part, “Fresno” provides pain and lots of broads (this is a lady-free zone), and is pretty awful.

Martha (Natasha Lyonne) is living a forcefully optimistic life of low reward as a hotel-room cleaner, pining for the girlfriend who recently left her for someone else — well, everyone else, including men. Nonetheless, she’s in a position to be charitable toward sis Shannon (Judy Greer), whose sex addiction resulted in a very messy firing from her latest teaching job. Ergo, she’s just out of rehab — albeit still shagging her married therapist (Ron Livingston) — and very reluctantly joining Martha on the housekeeping staff. At a vulnerable moment, Shannon stoops to spontaneous congress with a particularly nasty long-term guest (Jon Daly), which ends with his accidental blunt-force-trauma demise.

As a registered sex offender, Shannon can’t afford to be flirting with manslaughter charges. So she convinces the horrified but loyal Martha that they need to dispose of the body. This soon gets them into the position of being blackmailed by pet-cemetery owners (Fred Armisen, Alison Tolman) who demand $25,000 to incinerate the corpse and keep their mouths shut. This in turn leads to a series of attempted robberies, including a sex shop and a bar mitzvah. En route, our heroes acquire romantic interests in the forms of a self-defense fitness trainer (Aubrey Plaza) and poetry-writing hotel co-worker (Malcolm Barrett).

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In a movie with room for many translucent purple dildos, one Jewish pubescent’s gangsta rap, and even a Holocaust joke or two, anything goes. But almost nothing works, with the general humor level defined by a janitorial zinger like “I can clean pubes off soap by myself, thank you.” The performers give it their best, but while some manage to waft through unscathed, others labor hard for no reward, from the leads to such talented supporting players as Molly Shannon. Inevitably, this festival of misfired bad-taste comedy has the even worse taste to make a plea for earnest sisters-must-stick-together emotions in the final lap, icing its crass cake with ersatz sentimentality.

Tech package is OK. Design contributions aren’t stylish, but they’re colorful in a loud way.

SXSW Film Review: 'Fresno'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight), March 13, 2015. Running time: 85 MIN.

Production: A Gamechanger Films presentation in association with Leeden Media, Lakeview Prods. and Talu Prods. Produced by Andrea Sperling, Stephanie Meurer. Executive producers, Mynette Louie, Julie Parker Benello, Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous, Wendy Ettinger, Patty West, Nick Horbacewski.

Crew: Directed by Jamie Babbit. Screenplay, Karey Dornetto. Camera (color, HD), Jeffrey Waldron; editor, Suzanne Spangler; music, Nathan Matthew David; music supervisor, Tiffany Anders; production designer, Theresa Guleserian; costume designer, Charlese Antoinette Jones; art director, Erika Toth; sound, Bill Jenkins; re-recording mixer, Paul Hollman; assistant director, Doug Turner; casting, Richard Hicks.

With: Natasha Lyonne, Judy Greer, Aubrey Plaza, Fred Armisen, Jessica St. Clair, Molly Shannon, Michael Hitchcock, Ron Livingston, Malcolm Barrett, Jessica St. Clair, Edward Barbanell, John Roohinian, Kumail Nanjiani, Jon Daly, Paul Bates, Alison Tolman, Clea DuVall, Beth Grant.

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