Think Mr. Mom but with mental illness stepping in for Martin Mull.
There’s a curious and possibly unique issue with writer/director Marianna Palka’s new film, Bitch, but while it’s clearly a major one the end result remains an entertaining enough riff on a Hollywood standard. It’s funny and features some strong performances, but the film’s premise – and almost every moment devoted to that premise – are a tonally confused and inconsistent misfire.
Jill (Palka) is depressed and overwhelmed by her role as wife to a philandering husband named Bill (Jason Ritter) and mother to four increasingly loud and arguably obnoxious children. She’s at the end of her rope – quite literally it seems as she slips a noose around her neck and steps into the air – but when her suicide attempt kills the chandelier and not her something else snaps inside. Rebuffed by Bill yet again, she begins to snarl and snap and eventually winds up on all fours, trapped in the mindset of a cornered dog. Bill is having none of it, and while he’s a cheater with little awareness of his own family he sees this new situation strictly as a burden on himself.
There are crises brewing at his workplace, not the least of which involve the co-worker he’s sleeping with, but rather than get Jill the help she clearly needs he tries instead to keep her placated and go on like normal. He calls in Jill’s sister (Jaime King) to help watch the kids, but try as he might Jill’s new reality can’t help but affect his own. The life he knew begins to crumble as he slowly comes to realize that it’s the life he left behind that matters most.
Bitch’s very premise – a harried woman begins acting like a dog – is Bitch’s biggest weakness. Palka’s performance is a brave one, especially as much of the film finds her naked and smeared with shit, but not a moment of it succeeds in engaging or affecting viewers. Palka’s script seems unable to decide how to play the situation, whether it be for laughs or for drama, and the result are sequences that fail on both counts. One second we’re meant to giggle along with the family at mom’s weird behavior, and the next is trying to hit us emotionally with her disconnect. Cops arrive, lawyers enter the picture, things seem severe – but her situation is left as a supposedly humorous aside.
The film works far better though when Jill is removed from the picture and the focus falls instead on Bill’s growing sense of responsibility. It shifts into a Mr. Mom-like comedy as he endures wacky conflicts with the kids and his boss, and while we’ve seen this situation before it’s entertaining in its shift towards physical comedy.
Palka’s script sets up some fun sequences, but it’s here where Ritter jumps to the forefront with a performance that highlights comedic abilities typically reserved for his numerous supporting roles. He delivers in a rare lead performance, particularly throughout a sequence that sees Bill struggling to get his kids to school and himself to work in a timely fashion – a bit where he passes out while walking and talking on the phone, only to hop right up again, is pratfall magic the likes of which would have made his father extremely proud. Ritter’s equally impressive in the film’s more serious scenes too, and hopefully this is just the start of more lead roles for him.
Bitch is ultimately a disjointed affair that succeeds best when it leaves “woman begins acting like a dog” behind and sticks with “jerk is forced to become a better father and man.” The merge between the two comes into its own somewhat late in the film as Bill realizes his role in Jill’s situation, but it’s too little too late leaving viewers laughing while not actually caring nearly as much as they should.
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