September 10, 2015


Judy Greer, who’s equally adept at piercing drama and electric comic lunacy, finally gets a vehicle in the form of Addicted to Fresno. Greer plays Shannon, who’s down on her luck, to say the least, and has taken up with her well-intentioned sister Martha (Natasha Lyonne), who’s gotten her a job where she works, cleaning rooms at a sleazy motel in Fresno, a city that has embedded its magnetic funk on the two women. Fresno, in fact, becomes a metaphor for the kind of horrible things we do to ourselves over and over again: Shannon is a sex addict, and she has little regard for her own personal safety or well-being as she jumps from one sleazy guy to another.

Shannon has been going to a twelve-steps program to fight her sex addiction, but it’s not helping. When Martha catches Shannon in the act with a particularly gross motel guest, Shannon panics and pretends he’s raping her. A struggle ensues, and somehow, Shannon kills the hapless horn-dog. The rest of the movie follows the sisters’ increasingly desperate attempts to dispose of the body, which they’ve hidden inside one of their big blue sanitation carts, and into which they continuously feed a generous hale of ice cubes.

Addicted to Fresno falters occasionally as a movie, sometimes running out of steam. At times, its story and execution feel only a few notches above the kind of readily available and unwatchable junk that Netflix provides to their instant-streaming customers. But it’s also very, very funny, and the performances of Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne elevate the material and give it depth. These are both strong actresses who are funny, and it’s their strength as performers and their characters’ bond as sisters that improves Addicted to Fresno immeasurably.

Moreover, director Jamie Babbit and screenwriter Karey Dornetto have created a tough-minded comedy, not one of these soft-in-the-middle genre flicks that turns predictably syrupy at the end. As a result, it's full of pleasantly unexpected moments. The surprising elements of this movie that make it, ultimately, a winner, for me. And yes, it’s an R-rated comedy and it’s about a sex addict. So you can expect a good amount of vulgarity next to your sisters-bonding-despite-their-differences plot line. But Greer shapes Shannon into a real human being. She’s not just a “slut” or a “nympho.” Somewhere along the film’s madcap travails, Shannon admits she’s tired of having sex, but the pain and disappointment of having sex is better than the emptiness of not doing it. Kind of profound, and much deeper than anything we got out of Trainwreck.

Natasha Lyonne’s Martha provides perfect balance to Judy Greer’s interminable screw-up Shannon. Martha isn’t exactly the picture of success, but she’s independent enough to feel a little superior toward her sister. Of her small, humble house and her very humble job, she says “It’s my American dream.” There's a kind of dumb optimism in that statement that feels distinctly American and Lyonne delivers it not with tongue-in-cheek but with whole-hearted pluckiness. And Martha has her own issues too: She’s been unable to get over a recent break-up, and she’s as dependent on her sister Shannon’s screw-ups as Shannon is on Martha’s dependability.

The film is peopled with amusing supporting characters: Aubrey Plaza (perhaps not as funny as her character in Parks and Recreation) plays Martha’s kickboxing instructor and love interest; Ron Livingston plays Shannon’s married therapist-boyfriend, who’s somehow shocked (after leaving his wife for Shannon) that Shannon isn’t interested in pursuing a committed relationship; Fred Armisen and Allison Tolman play a couple who run a pet cemetery, who blackmail Shannon and Martha for 25,000 dollars once they discover their secret; Molly Shannon plays the sister of the deceased motel guest; and Malcolm Barrett plays Eric, another motel employee, and the first guy for whom Shannon feels more than a simply carnal attraction. There’s a hilarious scene in which he recites a delightful poem about the awfulness of Fresno, and Shannon concurs with alacrity.

That’s probably the best joke of this movie: the whole film is a happy little riff on how rotten Fresno is. But as anti-Fresno as it is, there’s some kind of knowing affection here, an affection not far off from John Waters’ love of his hometown of Baltimore, which may be the Fresno of the East coast. Readers, I recommend this one, especially if you’re a fan of either Judy Greer or Natasha Lyonne.

There’s also an hilarious scene in which the sisters try to rob an adult toy store (run by Clea Duvall). Shannon muses: “Who would have thought a sex store was such a low cash enterprise?” And another—the film’s most delightfully offensive scene—in which the ladies rob a bar mitzvah, at which the honored 13-year-old boy performs a raunchy Jewish-gangsta rap. I’ve never seen that before. 

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