Published May 21, 2015The first ten minutes of Fresno are absolutely hysterical. Portlandia and South Park writer Karey Dornetto's first feature screenplay is riddled with fantastic one-liners and wildly inappropriate setups. And Jamie Babbit, whose previous work includes underrated gems like But I'm a Cheerleader and The Quiet, has a knack for framing these situations with an unembellished but shrewd eye that allows juxtaposition and well-timed facial expression to sell the comedy.
The setup, wherein recovering sex addict Shannon (Judy Greer) takes a job cleaning hotel rooms with her sister Martha (Natasha Lyonne) after being fired from her teaching job is outlined in the bluntest, most hilariously bitchy description possible. Unfortunately, this pacing and non-stop comedy can't be maintained.
Once the basic situation is established, there are some dry moments while the plot and secondary storylines are set up. Shannon is screwing her sister's married neighbour (Ron Livingston) despite being in "recovery" for such behaviour. She keeps this on the down low from Martha, who is crushing on a damaged straight girl despite some not-so-subtle romantic advances from her cardio instructor (Aubrey Plaza). These storylines ultimately tie in to the main cause of conflict, which occurs when Shannon inadvertently kills a bronze-medalist Olympian with a mallet after falsely accusing him of rape (in yet another wildly inappropriate and amusing sequence).
Like most comedies that attempt a propulsive tone, Fresno can be uneven. As Shannon and Martha run around town trying to dispose of a dead body, the characters and scenarios they encounter hit as often as they miss. A late strategy to rob a Bar mitzvah proves particularly funny, as does the decision to rob an adult toy emporium. Contrarily, the strained romance between Lyonne and Plaza never succeeds — primarily because Plaza's character isn't developed beyond being hyper-assertive — and some gags, such as one where the sisters sell big floppy dildos to a hotel full of softball-playing lesbians, fall flat. Still, since things move at such a rapid rate, there's always a great one-liner from Greer or a bizarre situation just around the corner to keep the comedy afloat.
What's also interesting about this oft-politically incorrect comedy is how it handles traditionalist thought. While the standard message in narratives about family dynamics involves the patronizing message that blood is thicker than water, Fresno is less inclined to pander to that Judeo-Christian conceit. It suggests that, at times, the best thing for two people with a completely different approach to life is to amicably go their separate ways, even if they share a mother. It acknowledges that family can hold you back and can hinder your life for the worse, which is a rather progressive and thought-provoking assertion.
And since this is a movie that openly exploits the taboo humour that stems from Martha having a mentally handicapped boss — the suggestion that they pin the murder on him because he would appreciate the "structured" nature of prison is jaw-droppingly awful (and laugh-out-loud funny) — these challenging assertions are well-placed. Even if it's not as consistent as it could have been, Fresno is one of the funnier comedies of recent memory. (Gamechanger Films)