‘Mack & Rita’ Review: Diane Keaton Can’t Save This Magical Comedy of Wasted Potential

Every so often, there will be a part of a movie that catches your attention and leaves you wishing a different aspect of the film had been the focus. With Mack & Rita, there is the initial potential for a buddy comedy with the duo of Diane Keaton and Taylour Paige getting up to wacky adventures together. It starts with Elizabeth Lail’s Mackenzie “Mack” Martin, who unexpectedly goes from 30 to 70 in the blink of an eye, after a detour into a magical tanning booth on the side of the road on a bachelorette trip to Palm Springs ages her 40 years. Mack becomes her future self, “Aunt Rita” (Keaton), and finds her way back to Paige’s Carla—her oldest friend who is soon getting married—and manages to convince her of what has happened. It is a solid start that seems like it is going to be about the two taking part in various shenanigans that will bring them closer together while also reflecting on Rita’s new perspective on the world. We can practically see this narrative door beckoning us through it.

Alas, that does not come to pass. Instead, the film must be evaluated on its own, much less entertaining, terms. The main focus of the story is about how Rita is able to use her age to become a famous Instagram influencer, succeeding where her younger self had failed by getting all the clout online one could ever hope for. You see, Mack was a struggling writer who had written a book, though never ultimately found much success beyond that. She now spends her days writing marketing and social media copy for various brands. On top of this, she has never really connected with her friends and felt uncomfortable with their more party-heavy lifestyle. She frequently expressed a desire to just be able to do old people things like go to a diner as opposed to a party. This premise feels perplexing, though it all stems from a more personal relationship Mack had with her Grammie Martin (Catherine Carlen), who she looked up to more than anyone. Also, who are we kidding, it also is a way to just get Keaton into the story. The film is entirely about seeing her roam around doing everything from trying hallucinogenic drugs to taking part in wine gatherings with other older women. This latter aspect plays like an attempt to recreate the hit Book Club that she starred in a few years back.

If all that sounds like your cup of tea, then there is probably going to be something in Mack & Rita that you’ll enjoy. Keaton remains an acting legend and does give a game performance, showing she can still really hit some sharp comedic notes even as the material she is given is less up to the task. The issues start to become apparent and the humor increasingly hollow when the jokes come into conflict with the central core message that it seems to be going for. From the very first moment that we see Rita stumbling around in her new body, it all feels like she has been suddenly reduced to being a complete klutz. These early attempts at humor fall flat, just as Keaton does, and only get worse from there. It creates an awkward thematic tension as the story is all about her growing sense of confidence that keeps crashing into the film’s repeated desire for her to take a dive. From a bit at a Pilates class that vastly overstays its welcome, to a fiery appearance at a media event, it always finds a way to turn her into the butt of the rather empty jokes. The film is trying to tell us that Rita is finally free to be herself without being judged, while continually making her stand out as being almost buffoonish. It wants to have it both ways in being silly and sentimental only to end up achieving neither.

There is a potentially good movie in here, especially when Keaton gets to play off of her underutilized co-stars. Unfortunately, most of them feel like they are just there to fill time before we can get to the next superficial slapstick segment. There already was the aforementioned Paige, who was such an absolute standout in the recent Zola, yet she fades into the background until almost vanishing entirely. We know that Dustin Milligan, who plays a cute guy named Jack from Mack’s apartment building who Rita begins to form a connection with, can be funny from his role in Rutherford Falls though he mostly is set dressing here. Similarly, all the new friends that Rita makes and shares wine with have their moments while still being pushed to the side. The most underutilized of them all is a pitch-perfect Patti Harrison as Mack’s snarky manager Stephanie. Even when confined to brief video calls, she makes the most of her scenes and has the most genuinely funny moment in the manner in which she discards her phone. All of these appearances, including a few others best left as surprises, keep things moving with some chuckles here and there. However, when all of that gets utterly lost in the shuffle, the film we are left with is less than the sum of its parts.

This is all unfortunate, as it was good to see that director Katie Aselton was back behind the camera. It had been nearly a decade since her last feature, the 2013 survival horror Black Rock, that she made her own, even though the story was not quite up to snuff. While Mack & Rita is about as different in tone and style as possible from that prior work, the uncertain writing feels all too familiar. It all just bounces around from one thing to the next, throwing everything at the wall only for not much to actually stick. One hopes that Aselton can get to take on material that is more robust in the future. No matter how good of a director you are, a scene where characters inexplicably spend time at a California Pizza Kitchen of all places and discuss the menu in detail will always feel like more of a commercial than a truly comedic scene. While this moment takes on such a bizarre quality that it nearly wraps around back to being almost funny in a surreal sense, it remains indicative of the film’s prevailing problems which ultimately lets down the rest of those involved. By the time it all eventually wraps up with some lackluster lessons conveyed via a painfully sappy final scene, you’ll wish the film had taken the chance to go on a journey with Keaton and Paige instead of whatever this all was.

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