While its intentions are admirable, Good on Paper falls short of impressing with an unfocused plot and unfunny jokes.
Now, I might be the gazillionth person who says that Kimmy Gatewood’s Good on Paper looked…good on paper…but it’s true. Based on a (mostly) true story, the film chronicles the life of stand-up comedian and would-be actor Andrea Singer (Iliza Shlesinger) who meets a man named Dennis Kelly (Ryan Hansen), a hedge fund manager who is practically perfect in every way. They start to have a relationship, but Singer quickly realizes that he is not who he says he is, and has based his entire connection with Andrea on nothing but lies. The film tries to blend three genres at once, meshing a quirky romantic comedy with a dark and sinister tone, which ultimately makes it fall short of impressing, leaving a rather murky taste in the audience’s mouth.
Blending genres is a daunting task on its own, especially if you don’t know how to interweave them perfectly for the film’s tone to stay consistent. Good on Paper’s genre changes are rather jarring and terribly unfocused. And that’s partly because it doesn’t know what it wants to say; as soon as the film starts to say something or move its plot forward through an upbeat tone, out comes a darker scene that completely shifts its mood and what it initially wanted to set-up. The film starts as this sweet and innocent rom-com, with Dennis representing every single cliché of “the perfect guy who seems too good to be true.” However, once that’s set up, Gatewood prefers to quickly move into sinister territory instead of naturally setting up Dennis’ dishonesty, either through small lines that hint at something not right, or sequences that begin to reveal his true face. The film’s best scene, in which Dennis fakes a back injury to avoid embarrassing himself at golf, is a particularly funny one in that it begins to showcase who he really is. But it’s the only one that’s able to mesh Shlesinger’s rather dry style of comedy with an ominous tone perfectly. The other ones feel terribly out-of-place and/or tonally jarring.
We’re supposed to fear for Andrea’s safety, knowing full well that Dennis is a con man, and yet something doesn’t necessarily click. The only sequences that are funny and somewhat engaging don’t have anything to do with Dennis at all, but with Margaret Cho’s Margot, Andrea’s friend. Their scenes are terrific, mainly due to Cho’s ability to fully bathe in the absurdity of her character that gets involved a little too far with Andrea, going so far as packing an army bag to spy on Dennis’ house or filming a “torture” video after intoxicating him with Whiskey. It’s the type of silly comedy I revel in, and Cho exalts the right amount of silliness for her character to be extremely believable and the best part of the entire film. It’s not a great sign when your supporting character is a far more engaging one than your two leads, with Shlesinger and Hansen’s chemistry sounding more platonic than filled with a legitimate feeling for one another.
That’s another reason why Good on Paper doesn’t impress: the audience isn’t able to feel for both characters and their relationship blossoming. Both protagonists are terribly distant to their needs and don’t necessarily evoke love. Dennis says she loves Andrea, but how can she trust him when he keeps lying and is very good at crying on cue and making everyone feel bad for him? If the entirety of the relationship is based on a lie, then how can we properly invest ourselves in Andrea and Dennis’ time together?
It’s a valid question to ask ourselves, especially when the film constantly shifts in tone and doesn’t know what it wants to say. This exacerbates itself during its final act, in which Andrea is arrested for allegedly “torturing” Dennis and must testify in court to prove her innocence. Ryan Hansen is a highly skillful actor, and he gets to shine during the courtroom sequence: faking an arm injury and crying so dramatically any gullible juror member would believe him. The line he says to Andrea in the bathroom is particularly frightening: “I’m a better actor, which is why I’ll be okay, and you’ll be in jail.” This is where I would’ve liked to see Good on Paper two acts ago, with some sort of set-up that would’ve established Dennis’ motivations. Instead, we’re supposed to believe that he truly loves Andrea and has no “endgame” for him to con her so she can easily fall in love with him. That “endgame” only reveals itself during its last act, a complete shift in tone from who Dennis initially was: a malicious, yes, but innocent person who just wants to be loved.
All he wanted was to be loved, but as Andrea slowly learns of his true nature, she does not want to be with him anymore. Dennis seems to want to punish her for that, and this is where his psychotic nature starts to show, but it’s too little too late for us to start investing ourselves in the film. We should’ve seen a few hints of Dennis’ psychotic side, instead of focusing on his manipulative tactics only to crave attention. There was something more the entire time, and the film should’ve absolutely hinted at that instead of it revealing itself during its last few minutes. The film then becomes a rather sappy courtroom drama, offering nothing much to the viewer than a superficial critique at how the judicial system will favor wealthy men who appear convincing to a jury over the real victim.
If Good on Paper had focused on one message, with one sole sub-genre of comedy to riff on, it likely would’ve worked. The material does look “good on paper”, with highly talented actors giving good performances, but fall short of impressing the screen with inconsistent shifts in tone, an unfocused story with a superficial critique that falls short of making any impact whatsoever. You always gotta keep it simple, from the get-go, if you truly want to make an impact. Otherwise, we’re only stuck with something that’s “good on paper”, and nothing else.