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‘Good on Paper’: When Dream Guys Turn Into Nightmares

By / Published on Friday, 25 Jun 2021 12:04 PM / Comments Off on ‘Good on Paper’: When Dream Guys Turn Into Nightmares / 12 views


Boy meets Girl. Boy and Girl fall in love. Well, OK, hold up, let’s rewind: Girl just wants to be friends — not attracted to Boy, if she’s being 100-percent honest — but, to Boy’s credit, he offers moral support when it comes to her auditions, and gets along with Girl’s friends. Boy is, like, always around! And he listens to her. And is a lot nicer than the blandly hot, interchangeable L.A. dudes Girl usually hooks up with. So what if Boy is kind of dweeby, and isn’t in the best of shape, and, according to Girl, “looks like an accountant who enjoys missionary.” He could be the one for her. Let’s hear it for the Boy!

Except … Boy exhibits some warning signs. He name-drops Yale within seconds of meeting her, but can’t remember what constituent school he was in. His supermodel girlfriend always conveniently cancels plans with him at crucial moments. The guy drinks like a school of fish, and is extremely evasive when it comes to little details like his hedge-fund job, his family, where he lives. It’s freakin’ Red Flag Central over here. I mean, you can’t really blame Girl and her Suspicious, Cool Lesbian Bar-Owner Best Friend for wanting to figure out exactly what the hell is going on here, right?

If he’s too good to be true, etc., etc.: Good on Paper (now on Netflix) sets up its from-candlelight-to-gaslight love story around this old chestnut and quickly tries to mine every aspect of when dream guys become nightmares for laughs. It’s less a cautionary-tale romantic comedy, however, than a showcase for its writer and star Iliza Shlesinger, which turns out to be more of a feature than a bug. A Texas-raised stand-up, Shlesinger is the sort of kinetic stage performer that doesn’t prowl stages so much as territorially mark them; her timing is impeccable, her routines have a tendency to make hack topics feel tinged with danger, and she’s unafraid to act like a goon to goose a punchline. (Or to substitute for a lack of one — see her “party goblin” bit from 2016’s Confirmed Kills, in which a hunched gait, a growl, and an unleashed id become a singular piece of physical comedy unto itself.)

She has five specials and a Netflix sketch show to her name, as well as a few scattered supporting roles here and there. That’s Shlesinger screaming at Mark Wahlberg before screwing him against a bathroom sink in Spencer Confidential (do not hold this clichéd-angry-girlfriend against her), and that’s Shlesinger as Vanessa Kirby’s concerned sister in the devastating drama Pieces of a Woman (do admire her for subtly fleshing out what could have been little more than a background-extra part). If you knew her work as a comic, you felt like her acting gigs were side hustles in between killer hour-long sets. At the very least, Good on Paper dispels any notion that she couldn’t carry a film — the same blinding-light charisma Shlesinger has in spades onstage finally gets some screen time.

Playing a stand-up named Andrea Singer, her character is fueled by a write-what-you-know sensibility. You assume that some of the club shots and touring clips in the introductory montage are culled from actual roadwork. From what we see of Andrea’s headliner spiels, they would fit nicely into a Shlesinger tight five for a late-night talk show appearance. The frustration she feels from being passed up for jobs, and the envy Andrea feels that a younger, “prettier” blonde actress is getting all the breaks and Sunset Strip billboards, probably comes from a personal place as well. Hooray for Hollywood?

And, per Shlesinger herself, the story of a young woman being taken in by a romantic grifter is based on an actual dating experience the comic had a number of years back. As played by Ryan Hansen — taking a break from the surfer-boy douche-bro niche he colonized on Veronica Mars and Party Down — this beta male named Dennis doesn’t sweep Andre off her feet so much as slowly insinuate himself into her sphere, chipping away at her with ingratiating acts of piety or by inspiring a sense of pity. He’s just attuned enough to Andrea’s needs and moods to seem like an ideal match, and just clueless enough about his looks and what’s hip to seem harmless. Even when the lies start to pile up, Andrea is in denial: No way this guy would he be able to pull off a long con like that, and no way would I ever be taken in by such a clumsy nice-guy honey trap. He is able. She does fall for it.

The one voice of reason here is Margo, Andrea’s best friend and bartender sidekick played by Margaret Cho, and the longer you watch Shlesinger’s lemonade-from-sour-lemons reclamation of this traumatic romantic faux pas, the more you realize she hasn’t just written her own ticket with this film. She’s also reintroduced Cho to viewers, who should be eternally grateful. Unleashing a litany of wide-eyed reaction shots, hyped-up rants, horndog thirstiness, high-flying kicks, and wary asides, the veteran comedian jolts everything around; you’d accuse her of stealing the movie if it weren’t for the fact that her bite complements Schlesinger’s neurotic, fuck-you-lookin’-at, wiseass bark so wonderfully.

Which is arguably part of the problem. As an “anti-rom-com,” hijacking the genre’s rhythms without adhering to the rules of the game, Good on Paper is fine. As a satire of showbiz vapidity, it’s decent (the business with Singer’s nemesis wears out its welcome, even if Rebecca Rittenhouse gets the pass-agg sharpness right). It’s not nearly as subversive as you want it to be. If you’re seeking anything chewier about the pitfalls of modern dating, or con artistry in the age of social-media enabling, or what women want — from careers to friends, life, love — look elsewhere, pilgrim. But when Shlesinger opens the passenger door to her star vehicle and turns it to into a full-blown buddy comedy, the movie goes from being merely good on paper to being great onscreen. That’s where the chemistry is. That’s where the comedy is. Never mind the bad-romance exorcism. You keep feeling like the film is invested in the wrong relationship.