Review: Fool's Paradise (2023)
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia may have made Charlie Day a household name, but his feature directorial debut feels less like a comedy that will resonate with general audiences and more like a small, personal story that's crafted with heart and whimsy. One can't help but suspect that the working title could have been How To Keep Your Soul In Hollywood, as most of the tale feels like a slightly-fictionalized account of real experiences and behaviors that the writer/director has observed during his show business travels. For a movie that boasts a cast of high-profile actors, Fool's Paradise is remarkably uncommercial.
The thing that will keep most viewers away is the thing that I appreciate most: the movie is so inside-baseball that it simply won't resonate with Day's core audience who wants to see the comedian play the hyperactive, obnoxious character that we've come to expect. Day goes so far in the opposite direction that non-cinephiles are likely to feel disappointed, alienated, and even angry. This is indie-film stuff, not a commercially-viable laugh riot.
The film opens in a mental health facility where we learn that Day's character, who is later dubbed Latte Pronto, is a silent simpleton with the brain of a child who does what he's told. This gives Day the opportunity to channel Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton by communicating entirely with facial expressions and body language rather than words. The Latte Pronto character has a child-like innocence and is incapable of malice or anger. Our voiceless protagonist ends up on a movie set where he replaces an out-of-control, self-destructive movie star who looks just like him (also played by Charlie Day and more like the exasperated, loud characters he normally portrays). Think Bowfinger, but even more esoteric. With the self-absorbed character out of the way, Latte Pronto fills in and becomes a movie star without ever saying a word.
Day's Latte Pronto character is a blank canvas upon which the other players are able to project their own selfish motivations, and this allows the filmmaker to address nearly every Hollywood personality cliche in the history of the film industry. Ken Jeong has the most screen time as a down-on-his luck publicist who sees Latte Pronto as his ticket to prosperity, but the film's ensemble cast is astonishing as nearly every moment is occupied by someone we recognize. Day seems to have called in favors from every friend he has in the industry for appearances by Kate Beckinsale as a method actress, Adrian Brody as a faux-enlightened free spirit (inspired by McConaughey, maybe?), Edie Falco as a talent agent, Jason Sudeikis as a pretentious blockbuster film director, Jason Bateman as a special effects tech, John Malkovitch as...well, I won't spoil that one, and Ray Liotta as a film producer (the movie was shot in 2018 before Liotta's death). A handful of Always Sunny alumni make appearances too, at least one of them in disguise.
For those who know the appalling behavior of the Hollywood elite, the movie will inspire knowing chuckles. Fool's Paradise is destined to become a cult classic among industry insiders who will recognize well-worn behaviors and cliches. Virtually every single character in the movie outside of Latte Pronto is deeply self-absorbed and vapid, but Day's script somehow manages to maintain a tone that never feels aggressive or overtly hostile toward his peers and coworkers in the film industry. It's clear, though, that Day has been paying a lot of attention during his time in Hollywood and he has a lot to say about the business and the people he's encountered.
The screenplay is uneven and occasionally feels a little simplistic or naive, but I recognize this is perhaps intentional. This is Day's first movie as a writer/director and it feels like it: it's a little rough around the edges, occasionally precious, and not all of it works. Still, it's a story that not only has something to say but that also feels personal and handmade in a way that feels out of step with the current cinema trends. Perhaps these are all reasons that it's been sitting on a shelf for five years without release. Thanks to Lionsgate for not only giving the film distribution, but a physical media release, as well.
A brief word about the Blu-ray: technical merits are solid, as one would expect from a modern production. I've been unable to determine if the movie was shot digitally or on film, but there is noticeable film grain in the transfer. This could have been added in post-production, but the film grain is yet another hand-made touch that makes this movie feel different from everything else. The disc has no special features whatsoever: no commentary, deleted scenes, not even a trailer.
I don't love Fool's Paradise, but I respect it. In a year that's been dominated by the box office failures of expensive tentpole spectacles, Charlie Day's film feels small, personal, and uncompromising.