Review: 'Patti Cake$'

The Sundance fave hits most marks but wraps up too neatly
Patti Dombrowski, a.k.a. 'Patti Cake$,' is an aspiring rapper, working to make it out of New Jersey.

The loveable Sundance hit comedy Patti Cake$ proves John Waters' law that "hating fat people is the last acceptable prejudice." It's a relatively wise feel-gooder. The more extravagant claims made for this comedy include "authenticity." Diverting as it is, it's shaped in the familiar Sundance-ian fashion for uplift and happy ending.

Let's put it plainly: as was once said of the homogenized, tons o' fun rap group The Fat Boys, at times, Patti Cake$ has the street authority of a "Don't Walk" sign.

It's about unlikely stardom, sought by an obese 23-year-old, Patti Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald). She gets her multigenerational extended family together into the oddest group since the Bremen Town Musicians. She stays with grandma (the ever-ready Cathy Moriarty), a gravel-voiced wheelchair rider who's ready to join her late husband in the grave. Her semi-estranged mom (the terrific Bridget Everett of Lady Dynamite) is, like almost every comedienne before her, tremendous when she plays a bitter dream-crusher. The big woman reveals her own embarrassing yearnings via a karaoke performance of "These Dreams" by Heart.

There's someone who recognizes Patti's star qualities: her pal and No. 1 fan, Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay). If there's such a thing as a "friend zone," there's also a sidekick zone. Hareesh never really emerges from it.

The fairy tale has a rough background, suburban Jersey at its skeeviest. When the characters want anything—from powerful marijuana to a credible recording studio—they need to drive to Newark for it. Maybe the authenticity cited in reviews are the textures that director Geremy Jasper got of belching steam-stacks, old taverns, a cemetery where some vandal beheaded a stone cherub and grim banquet halls for special catered events. Odd how things out in Jersey look cheaper when they try to get fancier.

We can admire Patti's dreams. We're charmed by the fact that this would-be star, sweating it out as a waitress and a bartender, has given herself more pseudonyms than a Filipino vampire movie ("Killa P," is one, "Patti Cake$" is another). We finally see her serious chops when she engages in a rap battle outside of a gas station. She holds her own against a dick-wielding rapper, the neighborhood muscle-kid (McCaul Lombardi). He always calls Patti "Dumbo," in honor of her last name. One reason to watch movies is to brush up on slang—as when Danny tries to put the heat on Patti to recite: "C'mon, Dumbo, spit."

At a VFW talent show, Patti sees the guy who'll catalyze her dreams, a young, melancholy transient whose real name is Bob (Mamoudou Athie). Just out of Yale Drama School, Athie is a superb under-actor; his Bob tries to scare people off with a single, glowing, zombie-eye contact lens and two hoops in his bottom lip that shine like vampire fangs.

Bob's solemnness, solitude and integrity represents the discipline Patti needs. The movie acknowledges that this is a film about white people assaying black people's music. At one point, Patti is given some lip from her mom's boyfriend, a racist acoustic guitar-playing cop who loves bluesman Robert Johnson's "Crossroads." It's the irony of Caucasians enshrining the older music as more authentic, while writing off rap as crap.

But Patti doesn't listen when Bob tells her to beware of the rap God she worships, a famous MC called "Oz," whose posters cover her walls. She dreams of Oz almost nightly, as he floats in emerald clouds. In Fame-ish movies like these, there's always only one person who can help the struggling musician—just as in Whiplash, the only music school in the world was Juilliard.

Since Patti is a Dorothy waiting for her tornado, it's natural that Oz turns out to be the little jerk behind the curtain. What's less natural is the rehabbing of one major character into the nice boy next door—it's almost as disappointing as the Ally Sheedy makeover in The Breakfast Club.

This is a sweet movie, but it'll gall viewers who believe that fighting the viciousness of the world with troubling art is a duty—it's not just a stage you get over, as if you were a rebellious kid who finally learned to clean up and be nice.

Patti Cake$
R; 108 Mins.

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