Writer-director Geremy Jasper had an idea for a zany Jersey 'burbs story of an aspiring white rapper, banged it out in 19 days, and got it accepted to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Once his script had been through the Sundance mill, Jasper nabbed the project entry into the Sundance Institute Directors Lab. Once completed, Jasper's debut feature "Patti Cake$" won a slot at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Funny how that works.
Now, Jasper's original script may well have been lousy, but one suspects it was considerably more distinctive than what emerged when a bunch of established filmmakers explained what the story needed. Apparently, what it needed was to fit a tried-and-not-so-true screenwriting template so familiar that audiences could practically write it themselves. "Patti Cake$" has a hook: downtrodden, plus-sized, white Jersey Girl Patti Dumbrowski wants to be a rap star. As polished up by Sundance, her every up and down can easily be anticipated straight through to the send-you-out-on-a-high-note finale.
Sensibly, the hype around the movie has mostly attended to its star, Australian up-and-comer Danielle Macdonald, who had to learn from scratch how to rap, and in a Jersey accent, no less. Macdonald's performance confidently anchors the film, and her equally unknown supporting players provide colorful backup. The sole familiar face comes from Cathy Moriarty ("Raging Bull"), saddled in a wheelchair as the Nana who becomes part of Patti's rap crew. Oh golly! Who woulda thunk it? A Rappin' Granny.
At its best, "Patti Cake$" suggests a watered-down version of a John Waters comedy in its cast of misfits and proximity to cliché. But Jasper's tongue isn't in his cheek. As Patti's pharmacist friend Jheri, real-life weekend rapper Siddarth Dhananjay has to be cheeky enough, comic-relief-y enough, for the whole movie (and he's nearly up to the task). But there's something queasy about the racial politics by which Patti's charismatic South Asian buddy -- and the talented black artist (Mamoudou Athie as Basterd) they co-opt to complete an EP and fill out their crew -- devote themselves to helping Patti achieve her dreams when they could just as easily be working to achieve their own.
Waters would have seen the hilarity in this dynamic, but Jasper doesn't even seem to notice.
The actors keep brushing up against something authentic through the sheer will of their performances (see also Bridget Everett as Patti's bitter, selfish mom, herself a faded-dream singer), but the screenplay keeps sweeping them away toward formulaic situation drama and easily anticipated late-breaking obstacles and third-act payoffs. In the end, "Patti Cake$" rises or falls on the skill of its audience manipulation; that's its thoughtless, mercenary art. If you're an easy touch for big-dreamer stories, enjoy, but if you're looking for something fresh, you won't find it here.
Rated R for language throughout, crude sexual references, some drug use and a brief nude image. One hour, 48 minutes.