Dir. Matt Spicer. Starring Aubrey Plaza, O’Shea Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen
I don’t know where Matt Spicer went to film school. I don’t even know if Matt Spicer went to film school. (Maybe David Branson Smith did? He also has a screenwriting credit for this picture, and I know as little about him as I do about Matt Spicer.) I’m going to guess he did and I’m going to guess that at some point he had a Screenwriting 101 class, and I have no doubt that they told him in the first five pages of his screenplay he needed to introduce all the ideas he was going to put into the movie, and give us a way to know the main character, and hopefully end that first little stretch with a bang. Ingrid Goes West certainly does all of those things. We see Instagram a lot, and we see the obsessive way Ingrid (Plaza) scrolls through it, and how she has Instagram crush named Charlotte (Meredith Kathleen Hagner) who’s getting married today and posting a lot, and we see how Ingrid in her sweats barrels into this wedding, calls Charlotte “a fucking cunt,” and assaults her with pepper spray. The groom tackles Ingrid as she tries to run off, in a shot that is awkwardly tacked on to the end of this whole fiasco. I have never been to film school, nor have I taken Screenwriting 101, and so perhaps I am ignorant of all the ways that the winners of the 2017 Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award from Sundance have made a textbook screenplay. I also can’t help but feel that in the attempt to throw up the wavy-armed guys from the car dealerships, pour glitter on everything, and have someone threaten to kill himself if you don’t tell him you love him, one can very easily lose the interest of the audience in those first five minutes just as one hopes to gain it. Few things are so obnoxious as someone who wants your attention just to know you’re looking at them, and everything about those first five minutes (which you can get in the trailer anyway) is obnoxious. Go ahead and try to shock me in your first five minutes, sure. But if you’re going to do it, don’t just give me a paper clip to shove into a socket: actually run some volts through me, and don’t just play at electrocution.
The movie uses “fuck” a whole bunch of times, but there’s just one “cunt” in there: the one from the wedding reception. There are certainly a great many opportunities for it to come up again: nobody seems to like Ingrid even when people pretend to like Ingrid, and nobody seems to like Taylor (Olsen) even though she has 250,000 Instagram followers. This is a movie where people beat each other with crowbars, do drugs, abuse alcohol, fake a kidnapping, and so on; you’d think that just about any kind of profanity would be on the table Yet somehow this one never does, almost like the shock value of the word is too great to casually throw into a conversation or an argument, almost like it’s just there to make the audience say, “Yowza, what a saucy broad this is!” Shouldn’t seeing an unkempt person barge her way into a wedding reception, perhaps to have some words beyond “Thanks for inviting me, you fucking cunt,” be striking enough? Wouldn’t one imagine that the winners of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award would be able to plop a couple interesting lines of dialogue in there, lines that might give us a sense of what’s driven Ingrid to this obviously crazy place? Not when there’s pepper spray, I guess, and if your response to this is that “Actions speak louder than words,” you’re part of the problem.
Ingrid Goes West plays to the shorthands we already have, the signifiers we recognize from our own experiences. In Taylor’s case: that opening montage of all her activities, her beach days in flowing clothes to catch the wind, the dog whose name punches way about his weight, her many many shoes, her avocado toast (really?), the dumb hats that the people from Justin Bieber’s church wear, the Joan Didion, the sunny vaporized aesthetic that washes out all the flaws in a photo as well as mild cases of seasonal affective disorder. This is all fine. Fake recognize fake just as surely as real recognize real, and there’s a documentary precision to just how neatly the filmmakers can cram those signifiers into the picture. That on its own is not particularly impressive, because any adult who’s scrolled through five minutes of Instagram—heck, forget actually going on Instagram, any adult who’s ever read that piece by Caroline Calloway’s ghostwriter—should be able to do just the same. They’re signifiers which prove their value but which never cut inside the characters themselves; they are as surface level as they’re not supposed to be. This is true for other characters as well. Wyatt Russell plays Taylor’s husband Ezra (a name which is probably the most perfect piece of satire in the entire movie), whose favorite novel is Mailer’s The Deer Park, a novel which six decades before this picture lambasted the paper-thin culture of Hollywood, given here as the forerunner of the paper-thin culture of Instagram. Ezra uses a flip phone. He makes art which tries to make a point about the pointless sterility of social media, but of course even his descriptions of the paintings he painting hashtags onto (“found objects”) proves how pointless and sterile his own work is. (Remarkably, the movie’s only good scene really does show us something about Ezra, who admits to Ingrid in a moment of sullen drunkenness how much he hates his Insta-famous wife, how little he understands her, and how empty all of this feels to him.)
The shorthands of vapid influencers and their social circles are most of what makes the movie amusing, insofar as it gets there. Ingrid Goes West feeds those into a much greater set of assumptions, assumptions which are themselves so widely believed that what little truth lives within them is much more banality than epiphany. Ingrid uses social media to escape, see? Her life is bad, so she uses social media to escape her bad life and enter this much happier, much more glamorous life. Even though Ingrid is no Disney princess, her mother dies offscreen; we see Ingrid lying in the hospital bed that’s still in the house at one point before she uses the inheritance to jet off to California. If Ingrid has a career that might be a zone for personal ambition (or maybe just a warding off against madness), we know nothing of it. This is a woman who has subjected her life to the pleasures of Instagram because Instagram is so much better. How someone who would never go to a self-help group can have a life like this is beyond me to understand, but without considering any of the other factors that might lead one to Instagram with this sort of fervor, the movie decides that its primary object of fun should be this person who has been made crazy by the Internet, not the people who made the Internet this way, or even the people who exploit these addictive qualities of Instagram to rope others in like suckers in a pyramid scheme. This movie is not interesting when it’s about Ingrid, for no movie about a slob can really hope to be interesting just as no movie about a guy whose personality is based on seeing Batman as a father figure could be interesting. (To his credit: O’Shea Jackson tries really hard to make that guy interesting.) Ingrid Goes West flirts with interesting when it’s about Taylor and, peripherally, Ezra, because there is conflict between someone who revels in falsehood and someone who feels that falseness grating up against him. It’s admittedly quite bold to make a satire like this, clumsy as it is; it’s a satire about how people can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake because of Instagram, and it’s being marketed as a satire to all of these people with their own Instagram accounts and their own sense of inadequacy. But in the end Ingrid Goes West never really clarifies anything, never gets past “Look at this!” to “Look at how this works!” Good satire, like In the Loop, shows us something about the people being lampooned: sure, the politicians and their aides are morons, but we all knew that. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that these people have a terrific fear of missing out, and that many of their decisions are based on that intense fear that they will not be in the room when some decision is made by some committee on some arcane basis. Ingrid Goes West loses itself at FOMO.