Why is Whip It so bad? It’s got a great cast, and it’s
set in a really fascinating subculture that hasn’t been the focus of a
movie since the 70s. There’s a real unique quality to roller derby, and
a real cinematic quality – the game is simple, with few rules, and it’s
played by colorful and attractive women. At the very least, Whip It should be an enjoyable middle of the road sports movie with some enjoyable characters.
Instead Whip It is a tedious girl rebelling against her
parents movie with interesting characters shuffled off to the side
completely, left without arcs or meaning. Instead of being about the
Austin, Texas based Hurl Scouts derby team, Whip It wants
to be about Ellen Page’s tedious conflict with her stage mother, who
wants her to be a beauty queen, and her relationship with the most
unappealing guy in the United States of America. Every time the film
threatens to get interesting and become about roller derby and the
weird players on the various teams, Whip It immediately
retreats to the shitty suburbs where Page’s character lives and
subjects us to a ton of bullshit we don’t care about.
How empty are the roller derby characters? There’s a duo on the Hurl
Scouts who, it turns out, are sisters (I only learned this in the
credits, where they’re called the Manson Sisters, an obvious play on
the Hanson Brothers of Slapshot), one of whom is deaf.
This never has any impact on the film. In any way. At all. Her deafness
is presented and forgotten about immediately, and the characters appear
only in crowded action shots.
The Manson Sisters are treated the worst, but none of the derby
characters get any time. Kristen Wiig comes closest as a single mom
raising a young boy while living an alternative lifestyle (it’s worth
noting that besides Page everyone in the film appears to be in their
40s. Juliette Lewis looks like she could be Page’s grandmother), but
everyone else just gets a quick identifying tic – Drew Barrymore’s
character is violent and stoned – and that’s all. Zoe Bell is just
playing ‘Tough Girl from New Zealand’ and Eve is simply ‘Black.’ It’s
so frustrating to see people with such screen charisma getting
relegated to doing nothing. Thankfully the immortal Beef Supreme from Idiocracy
(Andrew ‘The Other’ Wilson) gets some nice screen time as the team’s
coach. He’s a pretty flat and terrible actor, but in a truly charming
way. It sounds like a contradiction, and I would tell you to see it for
yourself to understand, but you probably shouldn’t see the film. Take
my word on it.
Way too much time is spent with a real world singer/songwriter named
Landon Pigg; in the film he poorly plays a really awful hipster
musician. I don’t know why he was cast in the movie as he has negative
screen presence – he just drains power from those working against him.
Watching Pigg on screen is a painful experience, made all the more
painful by the fact that Shauna Cross’ screenplay (based on her own
novel) just barrels obviously toward to a hugely predictable conclusion
of his story. You know where this character is going and you plead for
him to get there just so Pigg can be off the fucking movie screen.
There’s almost a saving grace in the performances of Page and Arrested Development alum
Alia Shawkat, playing Page’s best friend. Both are acting in movies
that might be more enjoyable and their performances have seemingly been
cut and pasted into this one. Page is in every scene of the movie, and
the burden on her is heavy. She’s given a poor script and a tedious
conflict with her mother (played by Marcia Gay Harden in a role that
gives thankless a whole new meaning) but she manages to shoulder the
burden and make you come out the other side not hating her. It’s not
really a great performance, but she manages to shine.
Drew Barrymore’s not a terrible director – there’s a pool love scene
that I really, really liked – but there are so many things wrong with Whip It that
must be laid at her feet. For one thing, the movie is endless, clocking
in at almost two hours. And then there’s the fact that the pacing of
this film drags like a dog without hind legs; the movie wouldn’t be
good if the back and forth between Austin and Page’s redneck hometown
were dealt with more deftly, but it would be less painful. I’m not
writing Barrymore off as a director, but this is not an auspicious
When I Twittered my initial reaction to the film and said I was very
disappointed, people asked me what I had expected from the film anyway.
What I had expected was simple – a movie that took me into an
interesting world I had never before visited, compelling and fun
characters and a good central sports story. I got none of that. And a
whole bunch too much Jimmy Fallon as a despicable derby announcer. I
just wanted a movie that wouldn’t leave me squirming and sighing in
boredom and annoyance.