Press materials for new indie comedy “Lazy Susan” stress “The character of Susan is a cisgender woman,” apparently for fear that viewers might otherwise assume star Sean Hayes is playing a transgender person. The fact that he’s not underlines this movie’s very fragile raison d’être: It’s supposed to be funny simply that a man in a dress and wig is portraying a “real” woman. Can that be funny? Well, sure. But is that alone, minus much else very special in the realms of performance or story or concept, funny enough to float a 90-minute movie all by itself?
Apparently not. “Lazy Susan” aims hazily between the sad-sack valentine likes of “Muriel’s Wedding” and something more satirically misanthropic, missing a target it never quite commits to in the first place. Starring “Will & Grace’s” Hayes as the title character, a suburban Wisconsin wallflower who makes herself barely tolerable to whatever friends and family she’s got, this is an underdog saga that doesn’t get you to root for the dog, nor make her a particularly compelling crank. Director Nick Peet’s first feature is a competently crafted yet tepid stab at wackiness that’s unlikely to bowl anyone over as it hits VOD and digital platforms April 3.
Hayes’ 40-ish Susan is a self-absorbed single scraping by on unemployment, with no immediate job prospects and none sought. Though we eventually learn she’s something of a math whiz, and has a photographic memory for academic esoterica, she doesn’t seem interested in anything but sleeping, shopping, creating magazine-image collages, and hanging out with married friend Corrin (Carrie Aizley). She’s rude to various friendly neighbors, late on the rent (Matthew Broderick contributes a cameo as her landlord), antagonistic toward relatives even as she routinely hits them up for money.
When duly employed brother Cameron (Kiel Kennedy) birthday-gifts their mother Mary (Margo Martindale) a “family trip” to Niagara Falls, Susan is pointedly uninvited — unless she can pay her own way. She sees this as wildly unfair, and we’re presumably meant to take her side. But without actually appearing to grasp (let alone explore) the issue, “Lazy Susan” presents its protagonist as that familiar figure in many families that nobody likes: the one forever needing to get bailed out of problems of their own creation, who lies about those circumstances, yet blames everyone else for not being “supportive” enough. (A notably unpleasant yet far more incisive portrait of this personality type was Anne Hathaway’s character in “Rachel Getting Married.”)
Though Susan does not seem particularly interested in men — or anyone — she nonetheless brightens upon realizing that newly-met acquaintance Phil (Jim Rash) may harbor romantic feelings for her. Their courtship is swift, but it comes as no surprise (to anyone save Susan, that is) when Prince Charming turns out a cad. Meanwhile, she and Corrin are rehearsing for a talent show they’re certain will make them stars. This is despite the fact that their ukulele-and-flute-combo covers of retro pop hits aren’t just lame, but obstinately unfunny onscreen.
Though polished in presentation and not lacking in cast talent (Allison Janney also figures as a tart-tongued former classmate turned K-Mart manager), “Lazy Susan” often lands so far short of the advertised “charmingly quirky” tenor that you wonder how its creators missed just how charmless their characters might be. Did they think the performers would work transformative magic? It’s a puzzle indeed, since the two camps are the same: Hayes and Aizley co-wrote the screenplay with Darlene Hunt, who plays Cameron’s wife. At the very least, you’d expect material which actors write for themselves to flatter their strengths. But no one could argue that the roster of comedy veterans here are seen at best advantage.
Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise aside, drag comedies have been an infrequent visitor to the screen in recent years, not even in the crossdressing-as-plot-device vein of high-end “Tootsie” or lowbrow “The Hot Chick.” It no longer seems inherently riotous to see a dude passing (successfully or otherwise) as female; even frat humor has moved on.
Yet in the end, that’s really the only card “Lazy Susan” has up its sleeve. Hayes has proven himself an adept farceur elsewhere, but here he seems to be ridiculing Susan for being an “ugly chick” loser on the one hand, while half-heartedly asking for a pathos she doesn’t even deserve on the other. We can’t even be cheered by the refusal of disabled neighbor Leon (Danny Johnson) to be offended by her callous, vaguely racist treatment of him — that masochistic tolerance makes him look like a loser.
Lacking sharp definition even in its one-dimensionality, occasionally relying on gross-out gags that seem out of place, this rarely-amusing comedy feels like a thin skit concept that should’ve been rethought entirely, rather than expanded to a feature length it doesn’t begin to sustain.