Marmalade is a fun circumvention of the Bonnie and Clyde narrative that is smarter than what it leads you to believe.
We all know the story of Bonnie and Clyde. Bank robbing lovers elope away before an untimely death. In Keir O’Donnell’s comedy thriller Marmalade, the Bonnie and Clyde surrogates in the story are naive patsy Baron (Joe Keery) and the warrior-mushroom tattooed femme fatale that is Marmalade (Camilla Morrone). After being caught robbing a bank to pay for his dying mother’s medication, simpleton Baron is taken to prison while feisty larger-than-life Marmalade escapes. Baron’s new cell mate Otis (Aldis Hodge), a convicted escape artist, strikes up a conversation about why Baron is there, leading Baron to recount the previous few days of whirlwind romance and bank heists to his new comrade in spite of not knowing him for two seconds. Otis proposes a plan that will reunite the hair-brained Baron and Marmalade together once more, with Otis’s reward being a slice of the $250,000 that the two lovers robbed from a little podunk bank.
One of the jobs of a film critic in their review is to summarize a film’s plot in a way that doesn’t give away major details. That summary is often a succinct way of indicating whether the reviewer liked it or not. The plot of Marmalade, when written out like it is above, makes the film seem trite, predictable and like you can undoubtedly already see where the film is going. The opening scenes scream of O’Donnell (with a screenwriter credit) having watched too many Bonnie and Clyde rip offs, thinking that they can cast Stranger Things fan favorite Joe Keery as a dimwit to add their own little spin on it.
For an hour of this very silly romp, Marmalade does exactly that; it’s Joe Keery in a spin on the Bonnie and Clyde tale where each plot beat is telegraphed to the audience, O’Donnell happy to let the film reside within cliché. On initial appearances, one would be forgiven for dismissing Marmalade as being yet another cliche regurgitation, latched onto the coattails of Bonnie and Clyde. But Marmalade finds itself rewarding the viewers’ patience, transforming from an easily digestible Sunday matinée into something a little cleverer, as the film weaponises familiarity, using its structure to circumvent the expectations it spends so long cultivating. The infamous Bonnie and Clyde story we all know and expect from Marmalade gives way to something less stale, and Keery and Hodge get to have a blast in their reshaped roles.
With the humorous elements attached to the first act, and how gormless Baron is, Marmalade is primed to be a comedy with those more thrilling heist elements on the periphery. It spends so long on the very obvious facade of Marmalade and Baron’s chemistry-stricken relationship before turning back into a film with strong comedic beats, one of the film’s main strengths due to some smart, snappy editing. This is O’Donnell performing sleight of hand. He stretches the Bonnie and Clyde narrative to almost breaking point, like a magician whose trick looks to have failed until they’re waving a dove in your face and their quirky dressed assistant has disappeared from the box.
Marking his feature debut with Marmalade, the Australian actor turned director O’Donnell (best known for his performances in Wedding Crashers and Fargo S2) turns in a film that is resoundingly easy to watch. It’s the kind of breezy, light entertainment that mashes together the typical flickers of genres that these films do. A sprinkle of romance, a dash of comedy and a tiny splash of thriller. Often, this works, but O’Donnell does seem unable to let his film be sure of itself as an amalgamation of these genres. The elements of each genre are strong, not quite adding up to a coalesced whole but if Marmalade had stuck to stricter genre bindings, the film might not have felt as caught in the purgatory of genre.
It’s not helped by the erratic script. To say that the film’s script doesn’t quite work would be understating it. A subplot regarding foster care and a marmalade tattoo are almost unbearably hokey, and the narrative shenanigans that go on to make the third act work in any capacity is a minor miracle. But while the screenplay is desperate for another pass to help Marmalade make sense of itself, the entire film has this unapologetic and unrelenting sense of confident gusto.
Marmalade makes use of the unreliable narrator trope to varyingly interesting degrees. As Otis is listening to Baron, the mis-hearing of croquet to crochet allows O’Donnell an amusing little flair within what is otherwise a flat regurgitation of a story audiences have heard several times prior. But by playing with Baron as an unreliable narrator, it reminds you that the perspective you’re hearing is through his rose-tinted glasses. That the sweet but cunning Marmalade – who calls Baron the pet name ‘puppet’ throughout – is so obviously taking Baron for a ride is the glaring red flag that he has missed, even in recounting his bodacious tale of ice cream, tattoos and guns, as these unreliable narrators quirks leave a curious question mark hanging over the entire first act.
That the plot of Marmalade is so simplistic and predictable, until it isn’t, might say less about O’Donnell’s ability as a director and screenwriter than it does about the pretentious snobbery these films elicit from audiences like myself who thought they’d seen this trick before. For all its clichés and faults, the breezy Marmalade has an irresistible swagger. Along with a fantastic Joe Kerry performance, Marmalade is a swift charmer that is smarter than you’d expect.
Marmalade will be released in US theaters and on demand on February 9, 2024 and on digital platforms in the UK & Ireland on February 12.