The biggest problem with Good on Paper, a film based on a true story that’s based on a lie (stay with me here) that is rife with problematic moments, is that neither writer/star Iliza Shlesinger nor director Kim Gatewood know just what kind of film they’re trying to make. Is this a stand-up show with some narrative thrown in? A romantic comedy gone sour? A confessional? The resulting mish-mash of styles and narrative devices is so confusing and frustrating it nearly makes everything else that’s subpar in the film, from the performances to the writing to the body shaming and so on, seem inconsequential. Shlesinger is a comedian by trade (hoping to break into film, apparently, but with much left to be desired if this is her at her best with scripted content), so it’s no surprise that the moments interspersed throughout Good on Paper that are supposed to be her character performing a set (but are actually just Shlesinger doing her thing) are the film’s few bright spots.
Shlesinger wrote the film after actually experiencing most of what takes place on screen, only for the purposes of…something, it’s not clear what…she is Andrea Singer in the film, still a stand-up comic in LA and still doing her damnedest to break into acting, going out for audition after audition only to be rejected time and again. On a flight back to LA, she happens to strike up a conversation with the conventionally attractive, age-appropriate man sitting next to her in first class. He’s Dennis (Ryan Hansen, a man so handsome that a set of geeky glasses and a pudgy body double aren’t convincing anyone), and though he’s immediately smitten with Andrea, she’s going to take more convincing. They get to know each other, platonically, as she learns about his job as a hedge fund manager, his home that’s currently under renovation (so she can’t visit him there), his mother who’s dying of cancer…no reason not to believe any of what this well-meaning new friend shares with her.
Andrea/Shlesinger goes to great lengths to convince us (and herself) that as much as she enjoys Dennis’s company, she’s just not attracted to him (this is embarrassingly visualized by that pudgy body double…who doesn’t love some good old fashioned body shaming?), until the night he calls her with bad news about his mother’s health just as she’s in the middle of a date with someone else. The two drink themselves silly and, with alcohol to remove the blinders, Andrea realizes she could maybe be into Dennis after all. Soon, they’re dating and doing all the things dating couples do, even if Dennis’s increasingly odd and unjustified lies become too much for Andrea’s best friend Margot (Margaret Cho) to handle. Eventually, Andrea can’t deny that Dennis is, actually, a menace (sorry!), and the two set about to call him out on his bullshit. Everything that happens after this point is even more messy than the first half of the film, so I’ll spare you the gory details.
Absolutely no one in Good on Paper seems to believe any of the words they’re saying, and that doesn’t just go for Dennis the habitual liar. At certain points, Shlesinger seems so desperate to keep the whole thing from crumbling to pieces that she’s practically sweating from working so hard. What’s most disappointing is that so much of what she’s trying to do here is genuinely interesting. She’s right, women aren’t supposed to say they passed on a potential mate because they didn’t find him attractive enough. We’re supposed to settle, to be grateful someone, anyone chooses us at all. She’s right, people do get blinded by affection and try to see the best in their partner, even when it’s obvious they’re pieces of shit. And she’s definitely right, trying to make a living in the entertainment business is not easy! But all of that is sadly lost in a film that is so underdeveloped it can’t decide what it wants to be when it grows up. Now streaming on Netflix, one wonders if Shlesinger got the opportunity to produce this script thanks to her long-term relationship with the platform (she released five stand-up specials with them between 2013 and 2019), which if so, good for her. It’s just a shame they didn’t have anyone available to tell her that this script is more like a first-draft film school thesis production, one that—forgive me—was probably much better on paper.
Good on Paper is now streaming on Netflix.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!