As Chuck D sagely warned us, so many years ago: Don’t believe the hype.
Patti Cake$, the hip-hop drama that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is getting a lot of frankly baffling hype as it rolls into theaters for a late-summer release. Fox Searchlight Pictures, the boutique imprint that has backed a long list of very good films over the years, including Birdman, Slumdog Millionaire, Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, snapped it up at Sundance.
But Patti Cake$ doesn’t belong anywhere near that list, and it’s a genuine puzzler that film business professionals chose to back it. Cloying, inauthentic, and embarrassingly desperate to please, the film has only one real selling point: its charismatic lead actor, Australia’s Danielle Macdonald.
Macdonald plays would-be rapper Patricia “Dumbo” Dombrowski, a twenty-three-year-old bartender from the wrong side of the New Jersey tracks. Patti lives with her alcoholic mom and chain-smoking grandma in a filthy tract house that may as well be next door to Eminem’s double-wide in 8 Mile.
Like B-Rabbit, Eminem’s character in that much better movie, Patti has been raised on hip-hop and loves the music and culture with real sincerity. But because she’s white and frumpy and just kind of square all around, Patti’s dream of ascending the hip-hop ladder seems like the longest of long shots.
She’s got a few things going for her, though. Patti can write and deliver intricate rhymes, which serve her well in street-corner battles with the other aspiring neighborhood rappers. And she eventually assembles a crew that includes her best friend, Hareesh, a smooth rapper-crooner who goes by the name Jheri; a wigged-out noisecore beat maker named Basterd the Antichrist; and her own grandma, who delivers croaked chorus vocals from her broken-down wheelchair.
Putting Grandma in the group is the first of many, many poor decisions by writer-director Geremy Jasper, who chooses twee indie quirks over basic authenticity at every turn. According to press materials, Jasper grew up in these New Jersey environs and drew much inspiration for Patti Cake$ from his own life. And you can feel that connection in details like the scuzzy corner joint where Patti tends bar and the underground studio where beats are traded for weed.
But Jasper’s people-pleasing sensibility leads the story back into formulaic schlock, over and over and over again. You’ve seen this movie a million times—it’s the scrappy underdog story, transplanted to Jersey strip malls, with telegraphed plot points and characters that are more like screenplay abstracts than actual people. The film’s ludicrous finale—at a big rap competition, of course—piles on the uplift to the point where the film is practically begging for your approval. This script has clearly been workshopped to death, folding in every Screenwriting 101 cliché in the undergrad textbooks.
That said, Macdonald really is terrific in the lead role. She’s likable and believable, even as every other character gets yanked around like a cheap marionette. Much of the music is good, and Patti’s rhymes, performed by Macdonald and penned by director Jasper, are technically proficient. Lyrically, Patti never says anything of substance, but it sure sounds sweet.
Look, I don’t enjoy slamming a movie like this. Its heart is in the right place. One of the things I truly love about hip-hop culture is its radical inclusiveness and its ongoing celebration of our country’s invincible melting-pot ethic. Like jazz, hip-hop is a fundamentally American art form. I wish the filmmakers would have trusted in its essential appeal instead of burying everything in phony quirk and sentiment. You just can’t root for characters this transparently contrived. Patti Cake$ tells a cool little story, and I didn’t believe a word of it.