Do you know that voice in your head? The one who calls you a freak, a failure, a baby, or a pig? You try to ignore it, but it pushes you from a place of fear to make decisions that you regret. Then it growls at you not to look back. A grumpy one Justin Theroux gives life (and voice-over) to that voice Justine BatemanDirectorial debut “Violet,” A stunning drama about Hollywood, self-discovery and the fight against an inner saboteur.
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Olivia Munn Stars like Violet Morton, a 32-year-old film producer who has art house dreams but pursues mainstream ambitions. She is successful, beautiful, and wealthy, but she is constantly panicking that failure is just around the corner. The voice of her self-doubt – which she calls the committee – keeps hissing, pushing her away from what she wants. So she ignores her feelings for a supportive scriptwriter (Luke Bracey) and flirt with a smug studio exec (Peter Jacobson). She lets her employees wander all over the place so she isn’t seen as not being nice, bossy – or worse – a slut. Most of all, the voice says that it should never be vulnerable to anyone. Because what if they reject you?
While the gruesome committee’s “what if” plagues her in relentless voice-over, Violet’s secret wishes are scribbled across the screen in flowery, white cursive. These are the things she can’t say out loud, like “I don’t want to be scared all the time” or “Don’t go.” As the film progresses, the words themselves become more poetic, scraping together verses about her growing openness and making her feel like her skin is new, raw, and battered. But that’s not even half of Bateman’s script, which aims to bring Violet’s innermost thoughts to the screen. A heavy red wash bleeds over the frame when a moment of valor has passed in cowardice. There’s a deluge of jarring cutaways to snap shots of gruesome or glorious things ranging from rotten animal meat to car accidents to sparkling sunshine and endless fields of golden grass. To link her current mental health struggle to a childhood trauma, there’s an open flashback to a young violet, spirited and free, yelled at by a mother whose insults the committees reflect.
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In all of this, Bateman touches on concepts of mental health like intrusive thoughts and the internal saboteur, as well as cognitive biases like disaster, downplaying the positives and reading minds. In essence, Violet is faced with the terrifying realization that her brain is lying to her, which is a difficult lesson. Frustratingly, Bateman doesn’t identify any of these mental health terms, making “Violet” a sloppy crash course in Psychology. His haunted heroine tramples through passive-aggressive business meetings, glamorous after-parties, and awkward reunions with the clumsy emotional awareness of a baby elephant. Then she abruptly pushes back against the self-destructive voice against her head, although it is now unclear why. Bateman’s script has no sharp turning point, no poignant moment of revelation. So Violet’s trip feels more of a mess than a tempting one.
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Part of the problem could be that Bateman surrounds her protagonist with an army of thinly drawn, milder stereotypes, from the misogynistic boss tyrant to the chic beast, the office gossip, the legitimate douche-bro, and the defined dream person in which she is everything Violet needs (sweet, supportive, sexy, practical) exactly when she needs it. A weak subplot about romance offers little spice, but some dealing with self-love (mental, not physical). Then Bateman outlines a family drama with a sinister couple of distant relatives. A potentially fertile arc on toxic family ties is cut off because it is treated like a cherry in addition to Violet’s self-doubt.
TV actors like Jim O’Heir, Jason Dohring, and Laura San Giacomo Pop-up in small rolls that offers a spark of energy and a meta-thrill. Unfortunately, the performance of Bateman’s leading lady is drowned out in all of its bells and whistles. The red bleeding, the voice-over, the cutaways, the cursive, it all serves to yell at the audience about how Violet is feeling, leaving Munn with little to do other than be a background actor while graphics and gimmicks storm into the spotlight. Perhaps a stronger actor stood out in the midst of this cacophony, which is supposed to represent a spirit in turmoil. Munn not. She brings steely determination to a speech in the second act and a tremor in scenes of tenderness. But mostly she has to stare politely, fragile or wistfully into the distance. None of this is spectacular or profound.
In the end, “Violet” feels less like a movie than a pitch meeting. A maddening flood of ideas, devices and character sketches threw themselves out to see what was inside. It’s striking, but not fascinating, what makes this drama of inner conflict and deep thoughts seem terribly shallow. [C]
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