Review: Diane Keaton Is Just More of the (Annoying) Same in Cliché-Ridden Mack & Rita

Up front, I completely know that it’s wrong to say this, but having just watched her latest work, Mack & Rita, I have to say once again that I have come to dread any film starring Diane Keaton. I suppose there are people in this world (I have yet to meet one, however) that appreciate, or even find charming, her brand of stammering and stumbling; some may even call it acting, but in reality, it’s more of a brand for her at this point, one that began with her years working with Woody Allen and that she never quite shook, because it became her thing. As long as she does her “Where am I? What am I doing?” in stylish clothes, people also think she’s cool or classy. But better than just about any other film she’s done to date, Mack & Rita might actually reveal not just what she does but why she does it. Rather than embrace her age (ironically, one of the messages of this movie), Keaton is literally meant to be playing a 30-year-old woman trapped in the body of her 70-year-old character (for clarity, Keaton is actually 76, so even her character can’t admit her real age).

The story revolves around Mack Martin (Elizabeth Lail), a plucky free spirit who enjoys time alone in her house and reminiscing about her time being raised by her grandmother. Mack sees herself as being more of an “old gal” than a party girl like her best friend Carla (Taylour Paige, Zola) and their friends, all of which are planning a trip to Palm Springs for Carla’s bachelorette party weekend. Mack is a published author and influencer of some note, but her agent (Patti Harrison) has convinced her that no one reads books anymore, so she should focus on her shorter, less in-depth online articles to appease her social media followers. For the record, no film this or any year understands less about social media, influencer culture or writing in general than Mack & Rita. But wait, it gets worse.

When in Palm Springs, Mack stumbles into a tent in the desert occupied by a man (Red Rocket’s Simon Rex) who claims that he can put you in his fancy machine (that looks a lot like a tanning bed) and tell you all about your past lives. But when she emerges from the machine, the man is gone and so is Mack. She’s turned into the old lady she’s always seen herself as, whom she pretends is Mack’s Aunt Rita (Keaton). It takes her about two minutes to convince Carla who she is, but it doesn’t take long for Rita to take over and often improve parts of Mack’s life, including her place as an influencer, with Rita becoming a hero to women of all ages, with her trendy clothes and fearless attitude. She even puts the moves on Mack’s crush, her neighbor Jack (Dustin Milligan), who takes care of her dog Cheese (Get it? Mack and Cheese) while she’s away.

Honestly, I don’t know where to begin with this one. My heart sunk the second I saw that actor-turned-director Katie Aselton (Black Rock) was helming this one. She’s better than this, but Mack & Rita has to be her highest-paid and highest-profile directing gig to date, so I can’t fault her for taking the work. Thankfully, she didn’t write it as well (that dishonor goes to Madeline Walter and Paul Welsh). The bigger issue is that Keaton was simply allowed to do her normal ditzy routine, even though the younger Mack was far more assured and confident than Rita ever is. It’s like Keaton said, “I don’t care how Lail played this character; I have a bit I’ve been doing for decades. Leave me alone and get me a floppy hat!” 

There’s a scene at a pilates class that Rita is meant to cover for Mack’s outlet that had Keaton falling over the machines and howling like a goat as the machines basically swallow her when she tries to use them. It might be one of the least funny things I’ve ever experienced. That is until I waited a few more minutes and Rita takes mushrooms in an attempt to snap out of her old lady mindset and possibly transform back into Mack. If you’ve ever wanted to see Keaton dance around like a hippie and talk to Cheese (who talks back in the voice of Martin Short), well you’re in for a treat.

Mack & Rita’s only solace rests in a group of older women (including Loretta Devine, Lois Smith, and Wendie Malick) whom Rita falls in with, the film spending a great deal of time on what people of a certain age actually do and talk about today. At least their scenes contain micro-doses of wisdom and humor, but even those moments feels buried in stereotypes and cliché on top of cliché. The brief dalliance with Jack is cringe-worthy, not because of the age difference, but because Keaton makes it awkward by turning into a preteen girl in the presence of a good-looking, charming guy who is genuinely interested in her. Any semblance of maturity or poise is defiantly absent from her performance, and it’s frustrating and tedious in equal measure. Hell, we spend this whole move watching people prepare for a wedding, and we never once meet the guy Carla is supposed to marry. I guess I’m being presumptive; we don’t even find out if she is marrying a man or woman.

The film is filled with top-to-bottom, generic pop songs that you’ve never heard of; montages of shopping and hanging out that are meant to convey people spending time together without actually showing them hanging out together; and example after example of Mack/Rita abandoning her friends for a taste of fame and money, as Rita becomes an influencer in her own right. I don’t often loathe a film as deeply as I did Mack & Rita, but I wish I’d been watching Mac and Me instead, and that’s saying a lot. And it says how little I care for Diane Keaton playing Diane Keaton in every damn movie she does now.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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