What’s a bigger offense than a movie wasting away a committed Drew Barrymore performance? That would be a movie wasting away two committed Drew Barrymore performances. Alas, here comes “The Stand In,” doing exactly that as a well-intentioned but broad and ill-realized showbiz satire, in which the talented performer plays a pair of characters with polar-opposite existences that intertwine in a painfully unfunny fashion.
Conceived by a promising team — director Jamie Babbit, who made a wholehearted contribution to the LGBTQ canon with her 1999 debut “But I’m A Cheerleader” and “Four Lions” scribe Sam Bain — “The Stand In” poses as a Hollywood send-up with something to say on female rivalry and cost of stardom, only to come out on an end that feels toothless and curiously dated.
On paper, it’s a decent, even hilarious-sounding premise: a “Trading Places”-meets-“All About Eve” comedy of sorts that switches around the lives of a megastar and her stand-in, to dissect fan entitlement, class divergence, the supposed shallowness of the film industry and all the female-specific struggles they culminate in. Sadly, “The Stand In” can’t seem to figure out how to smartly examine its weighty themes, ultimately throwing a bunch of generic ideas and seldom-amusing one-liners at the wall to see what might stick. Most of them don’t, with the film’s trivial wisdom rarely surpassing a 101-level insight that much of the glitz and glamour of showbiz is soul-sucking and phony. Who knew? Ultimately, the only respectable thing that remains consistent throughout “The Stand In” is the beguiling appeal Barrymore brings to both of the personalities, even though neither of them is particularly likable.
One is the ferocious, world-famous celebrity Candy Black, known in the press as “The Queen of Comedy” (or “Hollywood Class Clown,” depending on whom you ask), someone who’s made her fame through an endless parade of slapstick pictures with extreme physical humor. Think of a comedic actor in the vein of Amy Schumer or Melissa McCarthy, maybe even a female Adam Sandler, but deduct their versatility and range, and you’ll find yourself in the ballpark of Candy’s limited charms. A summary reel in the opening informs us that Candy rapidly churns out hits like “Pippi Bongstocking” and “BMX Blackout,” falls hard on her face in all of them and promptly delivers her silly catchphrase, “Hit me where it hurts,” to neatly wrap up her somehow beloved routine. Ouch.
If only she could carry on with her reliable cash-cow shtick. But struggling with alcoholism, Candy falls from grace almost overnight after she has a major meltdown on the set of her latest film, grotesquely injuring a collaborator (a welcome Ellie Kemper) and costing her stand-in Paula (Barrymore’s other role) her job as a result. In sizable tax debt and leading the life of a drunken recluse, Black receives a court order to attend mandatory rehab years after this incident.
Enter the broke and tormented actor-wannabe Paula, who agrees to illegally put in the obligatory time on Candy’s behalf with the condition of getting her old job back, while freeing up Candy’s schedule so she could continue lounging around her massive mansion. While Paula goes to rehab on Candy’s behalf, the star pursues her ongoing interest in woodworking and her year-long virtual romantic relationship with the shaker-style furniture maker Steve (Michael Zegen) she’s met online. (The film’s running gags about wood are truly among its most vile and deeply tortured jokes.)
Candy and Paula might be distinguished by slightly different noses, but it’s the actor behind them that supplies the unique traits of both characters. Barrymore plays the former with a casual, been-there-done-that-type acumen, working overtime to sell Candy’s drastic rock-bottom situation as something believable and cautionary within an ever-demanding industry that Barrymore, a star since childhood, surely knows a thing or two about. She takes a softer approach toward the mild-mannered, gentle-voiced Paula, a trickier character whose easygoing demeanor gradually transforms into something insidiously calculated. As the stand-in slowly starts to taste the pull of fame and takes over all aspects of Candy’s life — launching a nationwide apology tour under Candy’s guise to earn back the love and respect of the public, going on dates with Steve and getting comfortable in the big mansion — Barrymore manages to unearth something complex and intriguing about this grifter.
Sadly, her efforts ultimately fizzle in the hands of a satire that sticks with only the most trivial observations about the ruthless Hollywood machine and a celebrity-obsessed culture. An implausibly watered-down ending that resolves things all too neatly between Paula and Candy doesn’t help the matters either. In that regard, “The Stand In” never hits nearly as hard as it should. But boy, does its glibness hurt.