One of the cornerstone principals of comedy is the idea of escalation. The further you can take a premise or scenario, the higher the odds of hilarity become. In improv, the phrase, “Yes, and…” encapsulates it perfectly. You accept the concept that another has given to you, and you expand upon it, creating new avenues and possibilities for humor. As long as the core of the bit remains solid, there’s no limit to where an adept performer can take it. However, if the conceit is flimsy, it collapses fairly quickly, leaving everyone involved scrambling to recover or restart the joke engine.
Emma Seligman’s newest film, Bottoms, is a prime example of how escalation is done correctly. What begins as a basic but absurd teenage sex comedy in the style of American Pie ends up being among the funniest films of the year because the cast and the script are fully committed to raising the bar and broaching new hysterical territory within the familiar framework.
When we first meet our leads, PJ (Rachel Sennott, who co-wrote the screenplay with Seligman) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri), the pair are essentially presented as protagonists in your typical teen sex romp, with the major difference being that they’re lesbians. PJ speaks very fast and in profanity-laden fashion, while Josie is more reserved, but still assertive with her opinions. They have respective crushes on cheerleaders Brittany (Kaia Gerber, daughter of Cindy Crawford, and the resemblance is uncanny) and Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), and heavily debate whether to attend the school fair that night before the next term starts, leaning on each other for support, because despite their differing mannerisms, they’re clearly the best of friends and experience the same anxiety about their social lives and physical appearance.
After a very awkward encounter with their prospective paramours, the two consider the evening a lost cause. However, while preparing to leave, they see Isabel distraught and being pursued by her boyfriend, quarterback Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine). Josie offers a safety ride, and Isabel gets in her car without hesitation, but Jeff bangs on the hood, demanding she come out. In a panic, Josie puts the car in gear and lets off the brake ever so slightly, causing the bumper to gently tap Jeff’s knee.
The next day at school, PJ and Josie find all of the eyes of their classmates focused on them, as Jeff faked an injury from the incident and the rumor mill began flying as to what actually happened. Called to the principal’s office (Wayne Péré), the pair are threatened with expulsion. The crisis is temporarily avoided when Josie comes up with the excuse that they weren’t attacking Jeff, but practicing for their literal fight club, meant to teach girls self-defense in a safe environment. Out of trouble for the moment, the girls decide, with the help of their somewhat loner friend Hazel (Ruby Cruz, daughter of Brandon Cruz from The Courtship of Eddie’s Father), to form the club for real, using their lackadaisical, distracted history teacher, Mr. G. (former NFL star Marshawn Lynch) as their do-nothing adviser. Hazel recruits other girls for the club in hopes of promoting female empowerment, but PJ and Josie (especially PJ) only care about using the club as a means to get closer to Brittany and Isabel.
I intentionally described everything above in as mundane of terms as possible, because the first two acts of this film are some of the finest examples of escalating a premise that you will ever see. Sennott and Edebiri expertly one-up each other in the opening scene as they talk about their fears and desires for the girls they lust over, leaving you gasping for breath in just the first five minutes because you’re already laughing so hard. The school is so over-the-top committed to their football team that basic decency is tossed aside, from the fact that the motto for the Vikings is “Get Horny” and Jeff literally having the name “Jeff” on his jersey, to the visual of a high school hierarchy so firmly established that Jeff and the other players literally have their bags carried for them, sit at a high lunch table holding court over the entire cafeteria beneath a picture of “The Creation of Adam,” and the principal’s threats against PJ and Josie beginning with a mention that the homecoming game against their rival school has literally been 20 years in the making, even though it happens every year. When the club starts, PJ shows herself to be just as shallow as any of the guys from Porky’s, lamenting that none of the club members are “hot enough.” The actual fighting within the club is like a redux of David Fincher’s classic film, complete with the odd sense of joy these young ladies get in beating the shit out of each other. The rumors that spread about PJ and Josie snowball in the most hilarious ways imaginable. At the fair Hazel asks them where they’ve been all summer because they haven’t hung out, offhandedly suggests that they were in juvenile hall, and when PJ sarcastically says that was the right answer, it becomes the entire basis for the eventual fight club’s credibility. Hell, when Jeff shows up to class milking his “trauma” for all it’s worth, everyone’s already heard a convoluted story about how Josie kicked his ass, including from Isabel, who was literally in the car when it happened!
The absurdity is cranked up well past 11 here, and it just keeps getting better because everyone’s in on the madness. Even when Josie, arguably the most level headed of the bunch, comments on the sheer inappropriateness of everything or when logic is curb-stomped in favor of spectacle (for example a pep rally routine where bottled water is poured on one cheerleader so she can jump up and down a few times like a wet t-shirt contest and nothing else), she’s still actively participating in all of it, because she’s invested in how all this insanity plays out. It’s like if Daria went along with Beavis & Butt-Head’s nonsense because they promised her the best nachos in the world.
A lot of this is down to the cast. Seligman and Sennott wrote a fantastic script, but there was also plenty of improvisation with this group, evidenced by a slew of outtakes during the credits. You can tell there was basically one rule on set: if you think it’s funny, GO FOR IT! This clearly translates into the finished product, which includes lines about killing stepfathers, a revenge plot that involves explosives, and Jeff dancing in his bedroom to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” If it fits the bombastic characterization and makes people laugh, it feels like the players were given carte blanche to flex their comedy muscles, and it works to great effect. Of particular note are Cruz and Lynch, the former never missing an opportunity to act as the film’s foul-mouthed conscience, and the latter turning in a surprisingly strong performance given that he’s not an actor by trade.
The one thing I’ll quibble with, and really it’s the ONLY thing, is the obligatory third act conflict. For all the brilliance in the direction and dialogue, the one glaring issue is the fact that the plot is far too obvious in heading for its turning point via the “Liar Revealed” trope. This happens way too often in fiction, where an item of dishonesty fuels a story, only for the “twist” to be when the truth comes out, and it’s rarely satisfying once you know to look for the signs.
In this case, the impetus comes from Tim (Miles Fowler), another of the BMOC football players (his XFL-esque jersey name is “Phunck”), and Jeff’s right hand man. Jealous that the girls’ fight club is siphoning attention away from the jocks, he takes it upon himself to investigate the claims of PJ and Josie going to juvie, using a momentary rift between PJ and Hazel to expose and humiliate the group, and thus reestablish the status quo ahead of the big game. This leads to the club breaking up, PJ and Josie having an argument over who’s to blame, and a VERY lengthy montage of everyone backsliding into their old roles set to one of the worst songs ever recorded.
Not only does this incident grind the proceedings to a halt to set up the finale, it just feels antithetical to the tone and pace of the rest of the film. The escalation here is artificial, manufactured for the sake of the moment rather than by the ribald and frenzied comedy we’d gotten to that point. It almost feels like a studio note where some outside force insisted that they succumb to this convention in order to reset the film for the final push to the end, wholly separate from everything that preceded it. Given how much work was put into these characters, this plays like a “basic bitch” copout.
Most of my thinking on this is down to it really not being needed after everything that had been established. Yes, PJ and Josie’s motivations were purely hormonal at the star, and the pair (especially Josie) had numerous opportunities to come clean. However, that doesn’t really gel with the film’s framework. While it’s still not fully honest, Josie could easily tell the factual (if not ethical) truth that the club was formed to prevent expulsion for “hitting” Jeff with her car, a situation that was already blown out of proportion by everyone else, including Isabel (and which could have been avoided entirely if Josie had backed her car out of the parking lot, as the wide shot shows there’s no one parked behind her). Both she and PJ can admit their affections for Brittany and Isabel, but still truthfully tell the group that the club grew into so much more than that. They can challenge the rest to step into their shoes and ask them legitimately if they would have kept the juvie narrative going once they saw the unintentional good that it did. Or more crucially, given how everything in the school is taken to extremes, they can credibly say they tried to kibosh the juvie rumors before leaning into them.
And of course, most importantly, the whole rigmarole starts with Tim pitting Hazel in a fight with the school’s star boxer, rather than against PJ, which Hazel notes before everything goes to shit. This should have been an immediate red flag that Tim isn’t trying to help her but use her, and the whole club could have decided that while PJ and Josie were dishonest, there are different degrees of sin, and setting up a friend to be brutalized in a petty show of dominance is a whole lot worse than horny teenagers wanting to get laid. What they still did was wrong, but how awesome, nuanced, and likely side-splitting would it have been for the girls to NOT fall into that cliché trap? You still get to the final confrontation in pristine fashion, only now you have the added heft of them showing an unexpected amount of maturity in the sea of comedic fury.
Like I said, though, that’s my only complaint. The rest of the film, from beginning to end, is an absolute triumph of R-rated comedy, the likes of which we see all too infrequently. There isn’t a single humorous premise that isn’t taken to its fullest potential, pushing the envelope while giving audiences an update on one of the more tired story types in modern pop culture. This movie could have easily just stopped at “lesbian teen sex comedy” and rested on the laurels of Sennott and Edebiri’s acting skills to create a serviceable entry that brings in a few chuckles but is ultimately forgettable. However, Seligman and the cast went for broke in nearly every important instance, seizing each moment for all it was worth, crafting a farce instantly on par with the classics of the form. If Shiva Baby was the proof of concept for how to constantly ramp up the dramatic tension and laughs on an individual’s story, then Bottoms is the realization of that glorious technique for a full ensemble.
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