Double Feature

Big Babies April 6, 2021  

  

On Shiva Baby and Godzilla vs. Kong

T

here are two babies at this shiva — one literal, one figurative. The literal one is an 18-month-old named Rose who so incessantly cries that her screams

obliquely become the event’s mood music. The figurative one is Danielle (Rachel Sennott), an unambitious 20-something who feels so infantilized by most of the shiva’s guests that toward the end of the movie, after having reached a breaking point, she says, almost seething as she cuts to the chase, “I know that you think I’m not gonna do anything and that I’m a little baby.”

Danielle graduates from college in a few days. She doesn’t have any ideas about what she’ll do after she throws her cap in the air. Given the option to create her own major, she still can’t quite expound on what it is when people ask. “Gender…business,” she offers haltingly. Attendees, most of whom have known her for her entire life, constantly bring up how much

Rachel Sennott in 2021's Shiva Baby.

skinnier she is these days (guests remind her regularly of the braces and chubbiness of her teens, and ponder aloud if she’s starving herself). They like surprise-squeezing parts of her body as greetings. They barely try to veil skepticism when she obviously embellishes post-college plans. They generally talk to her like she’s still a pre-teen. At one point, when Danielle mentions graduating, a guest guesses she’s talking about high school; then she offers her a babysitting gig.

 

Danielle, unbeknownst to everyone, is a baby in another sense. To get some extra money on top of her monthly allowance from her parents, she has recently begun dabbling in sex work. For a little while now she’s been the sugar baby to Max (Danny Deferrari), a bachelor she regularly meets at his sleek SoHo apartment and who believes he’s helping Danielle pay for law school. “I think it’s really great to support females, particularly female entrepreneurs,” he says fake-sincerely at the end of their morning tryst that opens the film. 
   

Danielle isn’t looking forward to going to the shiva that takes up most of Shiva Baby’s fleet 78-minute runtime; she isn’t even totally sure who died. (The movie expands on 25-year-old writer-director Emma Seligman’s 2018 short film.) Danielle already knows how demeaning it’s going to be to have to cyclically tell people what’s coming next for her and roundly get transparently passive-aggressive or faux-invested responses. Soon, though, her anticipations prove dream-like compared to the event’s realities — the anticipations get unwanted company. Not only is the ex Danielle still has feelings for, the actually law-school-bound Maya (a standout Molly Gordon), in attendance (they have family friends in common), but also, unexpectedly, Max. It turns out that he is not a bachelor at all but husband to shiksa female entrepreneur Kim (Dianna Agron, Jewish in real life). He’s also the father of that screaming 18-month-

old. 

 

Shiva Baby, almost entirely taking place in real time in a crammed suburban home, quickly defines itself as a claustrophobic cringe comedy. Every one of Danielle's embarrassments becomes for the viewer a source of both horror and laughter. The movie’s action is near-ceaselessly (to a sometimes irritating degree) blanketed in Ariel Marx’s discordant, slasher-movie-style strings score, ensuring nearly every interaction have a squirminess.

 

Cinematographer Maria Rusche’s cameras frequently place Danielle in the foreground while unwittingly horrifying conversations buzz in the background (like the indirect revelation that Max has been lying about his marital status) to accentuate how this shiva is turning into a prolonged wade-through of a house of horrors. It’s like everyone is conspiring to stress Danielle out as much as possible. A nail poking out of a side cabinet that punctures her skin and slashes her tights seems in on it. So does one of the pastries she scarfs down whose thick toppings threaten a public choking fit. (Danielle does plenty to make things worse: she impulsively locks herself in the upstairs bathroom so that she can discreetly send Max a sext; she doesn’t try putting up even a thin veneer of kindness when interacting with the put-together Kim, whom Danielle smugly dubs a girl boss to her face.) 

 

The steadiness of Shiva Baby’s discomfort is awe-inspiring not least because Seligman’s writing, without ever relying on expositional offerings of detail, convincingly communicates the specific brand of unease that emanates from this shiva, where the majority of the guests know far more about Danielle than she’d like. In her first leading role in a feature-length movie, Sennott is terrific as a young woman in a painfully familiar state of quarter-life uncertainty, where the very question "so what comes next?" can set off a spiral. She’s soundly supported by a great ensemble cast. Perennial character actors Polly Draper and Fred Melamed are particularly excellent as Danielle’s doting parents: they can be depended on to not play along very well when she offers an innocuous untruth to make herself look better during a vaguely hostile interaction. The movie’s ending has some optimism to it, but that optimism comes with, appropriately, more twinges of horror. The shiva’s disastrousness ushers in an adulthood where things, naturally, will likely be worse. There will be no front door to exit or family van to clamber into when things get too unpleasant to bear.
 

I

think I might have appreciated Godzilla vs. Kong more if I were watching it from a seat in a crowded theater with a receptive audience — a place and situation where I and I’m sure many others have enjoyed movies that when

rewatched later on on a mediocre at-home setup suddenly had a clunkiness that had gone unnoticed or at least had been easier to excuse on a big screen. Godzilla vs. Kong 

might have felt just as vacuous if I’d watched it at an AMC. But who’s to say that blown up its prettily neon-bathed visuals and proliferation of immersive booms and crashes would do an ineffective job beautifying the movie’s blandness? In my living room, though, I couldn’t help but fixate on the blandness: the flattened performances, the filler-like roundelay of subplots, the impersonal if expected overuse of CGI. (Ironically, given how lauded the original King Kong and Godzilla movies are for their novel practical effects, nothing ever feels tactile in Godzilla vs. Kong; even the high school one of the teen characters attends looks like a too-shiny computer rendering.)

 

Godzilla vs. Kong opens on Skull Island, with a shot of the big beast King Kong lazing on a sun-dappled hill, Bobby Vinton’s “Over the Mountain Across the Sea” playing on the soundtrack to signify tranquility. This peacefulness is misleading. Moments later, after the king is provoked, he throws a massive wooden spear miles and miles forward, seemingly at nothing in blind anger. Then the spear crashes into the sky. By sky, I mean wall: this beast isn’t back on his native land, roaming free like he should, but trapped inside an enormous dome on the island, monitored by scientists from the Monarch corporation. He’s being kept there because they worry about the ape potentially contacting and then causing inevitable international problems with his ancient enemy Godzilla. “There can’t be two alpha titans,” Monarch’s Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), at one point in time christened “The Kong Whisperer,” explains. (Godzilla vs. Kong is the first crossover movie of Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse saga; it treads behind 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, which I enjoyed, and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which I did not see. ) 

 

Problems are unavoidable by design in monster movies the moment humans overstep their bounds toward life beyond their understanding. (Good creature features proportionally air out humankind’s own monstrousness; with its 20th-century predecessors’ inspired indictments of imperialism and American militarism watered down, though, Godzilla vs. Kong is not among them.) The dome is one thing. But it’s entirely another when, early in the movie, a technology corporation called Apex Cybernetics convinces Monarch bigwigs to turn Kong over to them so they can use him as a quasi-tour guide. Theories teem that he and other big monsters — like Godzilla — come from a place at the center of the planet called the Hollow Earth. Apex wants to find a way to get there so they can reap its substances for hazily explained tech use. In tandem with this storyline, a conspiracy theorist who has a podcast about Apex’s speculated-on misdeeds (Brian Tyree Henry) teams up with a couple of teenagers (Millie Bobby Brown and Julian Dennison) mostly to do meddlesome sleuthing. Their place in the movie would be almost exclusively gratuitous if a last-minute improvisation didn’t, if not entirely save the day, salvage a good chunk of it.

 

It doesn’t really have to be repeated that the chief joy of a monster movie is the goofy thrill of seeing a large beast create mayhem, rendering expansive cityscapes about as fragile as toy blocks being thrown at a wall by a tantrum-throwing toddler. (It isn’t a surprise that Godzilla vs. Kong is most fun to watch when its title frenemies are duking it out.) But it’s hard to get emotionally involved in a monster film if its human characters don’t have the idiosyncrasies to make them more than mere placeholders, if we don’t have a sense of the global impacts this attack will have this go around. Neither attribute is necessarily a requirement, but it certainly helps make a genre movie feel like more than another exercise.

 

Godzilla vs. Kong doesn’t have either; it has an odd insularity. It’s jarring how deflated its ensemble is (it isn’t often you see this many great actors — Hall, Henry, Demián Bichir, and Kyle Chandler among them — assembled and then unceremoniously wasted); we very rarely hear anything about governmental response and human tolls. 

If the movie was more purposely silly, its aversion to narrativistic and emotional detail might strike us as less of a problem. One can momentarily tell early drafts might’ve been funnier and more playful, particularly via the Henry and Eiza Gonzalez characters (she plays a saucy villain).

 

But the movie has a consistent solemness that begs for more emotional dimension. Godzilla vs. Kong angles for genuine pathos most of the time, particularly with the relationship that develops between Kong and a young, deaf indigenous girl named Jia (Kaylie Hottle). But the characters never transcend caricature (Jia in particular is written with a rather stereotypical mysticism). Its storytelling doesn’t uncover new ways to freshen an age-old framework. Director Adam Wingard is capable of inspired work — his The Guest, from 2014, is one of the more visually memorable suspense thrillers of its decade. But blockbuster slickness stamps out most of his distinctiveness. In Godzilla vs. Kong, Wingard isn’t the only one to suffer that fate.

Shiva BabyB+

Godzilla vs. KongC