Lisa Frankenstein (2024)
Zelda Williams, the daughter of legendary actor and comedian Robin Williams, makes her feature filmmaking debut as the director of Lisa Frankenstein, a horror romance comedy that could only have been written by Diablo Cody. Cody, the Oscar-winning scribe of Juno, has such a distinct voice that you can’t help but liken this film to her other acerbic works like Tully and Young Adult. Whereas those dark delights were directed by dependable pro Jason Reitman, this one has a new nepo baby at the helm, aged 34. You can tell that Williams doesn’t have the experience and comfort of a Reitman, but also that she realizes and relishes how rare a creative opportunity she has here. The results are uneven, but generally pretty agreeable.
Lisa Frankenstein is set in 1989, the year that Williams was born and Cody turned 11. This is no minor piece of trivia because both the writer and the director take great pains to make something that looks and feels like it truly hails from 1989.
The titular teenager Lisa (Kathryn Newton) is a mildly misanthropic, socially awkward high school student whose mother was recently murdered and whose father (Joe Chrest) has gotten remarried to psych ward nurse Janet (Carla Gugino). Though there’s tension surrounding her stepmom, Lisa has a friend and ally in Janet’s teen daughter Taffy (Liza Soberano), a popular classmate taking efforts to include her new stepsister in her social life.
Lisa is more into grave rubbings at the haunted local cemetery than parties, but with Taffy’s help, she suddenly has opportunity for both. One night, the young deceased man whose headstone Lisa pays special notice to shows up in her house, alive once more (and played by “Riverdale” and “Suite Life of Zack & Cody” alum Cole Sprouse) but mute and far less menacing than he looks. The two of them become fast friends, with Lisa helping the long-dead man look sharp and fit in as much as he can.
You might expect the movie to go the 1980s Teen Wolf route of fantastical high school farce, but instead Cody and Williams settle on a dark comedy that’s kind of like if Warm Bodies was made in the ’80s or a less obnoxious version of Heathers that won’t earn the same cult film status. The early Tim Burton vibes are strong with this one.
The bad news is that the film is kind of a mess. Once Lisa and her creature begin offing people in their life, the movie struggles with tone and fundamental issues like suspension of disbelief and hanging on to viewer sympathy.
The good news is that it’s an entertaining mess. Cody will probably never recapture the commercial success and accolades of her debut movie, but no one is really expecting her to. No doubt part of her recognition throughout the 2007-08 awards season was in her unlikely transition from stripper and blogger to screenwriter. She was nothing like the middle-aged white men that have historically held that title and, even before the industry’s widespread push for diversity, that was exciting.
Considering her unusual breakthrough, Cody might have seemed prime to end up a one-hit wonder, especially after her sophomore script — Jennifer’s Body — became a flop. But Cody persisted and her subsequent collaborations with Reitman were as good as and probably even better than their first hit, alas with only a small fraction of Juno‘s box office returns.
Cody brings her signature qualities — intelligence, wit, and pop culture nostalgia — to Lisa Frankenstein and they serve it well. But the movie never comfortably figures out what it is. Pastiche? Camp parody? While it’s obviously not meant to be taken seriously, the laughs are scattered enough to wish that it could be appreciated more at face value. An appreciation for 1980s movie sensibilities may make or break this movie for you. Like most of us, Cody seems to have a special place in her heart for her formative years and she and Williams do all they can to make this feel like a movie that could have truly come out in that decade. The casting of Chrest is sublime, for he feels like a John Hughes movie dad that has somehow been thawed out. Newton, too, is a good fit for the material and twenty-five years since Big Daddy, Sprouse is the rare 30-year-old who can evoke goodwill even without saying a word. There are multiple closet outfit montages and of course the soundtrack includes some choice period needle drops. This is far from the first movie to turn back the clock like this, but even when it’s dumb and gross and tip-toeing towards the limits of the PG-13 rating, the movie’s heart is apparent enough not to mind. It’s a much more preferred approach than that of last year’s insipid Totally Killer, for example, or Hot Tub Time Machine.
Having said that, ever since Juno was embraced, Cody’s writing has been extremely divisive. It’s bold, it’s brash, and it’s peppered with eccentric references to forgotten yesteryear childhood staples like “Picture Pages” and Fuddrucker’s. Cody’s brand of screenwriting inspires love and hatred more than ambivalence. Almost twenty years into her film career, she seems either uninterested or unable to write something you wouldn’t immediately identify as her work. Which is to say, negative pockets of the Internet will probably slice this up and relish the fact that this unassuming modestly budgeted winter comedy is likely to extend her streak of commercial disappointments. That’s the downside of Williams launching her own career with this collaboration. The upside is that she already will attract some credibility and attention with Cody’s name attached to this.
Written by Diablo Cody
Starring Kathryn Newton
Now in Theaters
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