The story beats of Patti Cake$, a socioeconomic-sermonizing comedy about a thick young white woman with huge hip-hop dreams and little prospects, are as predictable as the ticking of an egg timer, as generic and tinny as the pulses of a drum machine. I rooted not for Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), the aspiring rhymer whose sobriquet (one of many) provides the title, but for more MC Lyte, the hip-hop oracle whose brief appearance in Geremy Jasper’s feature debut remains the movie’s sole unadulterated pleasure and surprise.
“The bigger the girl/the deeper the pain,” Patti raps at one rookie showcase, the lyrics (also written by Jasper) representative of the flat wordsmithery throughout. (A few song titles, such as “Comma Sutra,” reveal more skill.) The 23-year-old endures lazily sketched hardships: She lives in a tiny house in an unnamed part of New Jersey cluttered with too many liquor bottles drained by her mom, Barb (Bridget Everett, the brilliant downtown cabaret terrorist, whose riotous energy is distressingly tamed here), and with the medical equipment of chain-smoking, wheelchair-bound granny (Cathy Moriarty), whose care Patti subsidizes through bartending and catering gigs. To keep her spirits up in this dysfunctional matriarchal menage, and to salve the sting of still being hailed as “Dumbo” by the goons she grew up with, the striving microphone controller often looks in the mirror and delivers some variation on this self-assessment: “You’re a boss bitch.”
“The white Precious,” as one rival calls her, may be trying to master a musical genre known for ingenious metaphors and similes, but Patti Cake$ rarely rises above the literal. Visual redundancies abound: “Let’s go to the diner,” her desexed pal and beat-boxing collaborator Hareesh (Siddarth Dhananjay) suggests after a gas-station rap battle — his request immediately followed by a screen-filling sign reading DINER. The friends will soon be joined by a black noise-rocker who answers to Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), his look and sound suggesting Bad Brains by way of M. Lamar. At first bracingly unassimilable, Basterd invariably becomes softer, safer, a casualty of the dictates of algorithm-tested, American-independent underdog comedy.
The character, at least initially, tenuously links to the one moment in Patti Cake$ that demands some actual reflection. “Why don’t you act your age?” Patti tells Barb during a set-to at the kitchen table. Mom’s response, rushed and almost inaudible: “Why don’t you act your race?” The still-provocative question is dropped as decisively as the g’s Patti elides while honing her blaccent.