Fury and defiance distinguish this week’s sort-of-starting-to-figure-life-out indie comedy from last week’s or the week’s before that. Christian Papierniak’s Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town surges from Venice Beach to Los Feliz on brash punk energy. It’s powered by the blast and scream of Heavens to Betsy tracks; by the profane and often amusingly ill-informed sloganeering from a succession of flakes and cheats and shut-ins; by jagged editing rhythms that jolt you out of scenes and shots just before you expect to be but usually just after the sharpest line. In montage sequences of Mackenzie Davis’ Izzy doggedly schlepping any way that she can, Papierniak and his director of photography, Alexandre Naufel, capture not just the invigorating beauty of the California sun but also its weight and brain-scrambling harshness, especially when — like Izzy — you find yourself stuck out between it and the pavement. The film is about being overwhelmed by Los Angeles, its sprawling indifference, but also about finding your place in it — and even, at times, its welcoming warmth.
But Papierniak’s city is one you have to work at. His lead, Davis’ rangy ne’er-do-well Izzy, hasn’t made the effort lately. She had been in a band with her sister (Carrie Coon) but that went bust; she played a well-received solo gig at the Mercury Lounge a couple of years back, but since then can’t finish a song and is couch-surfing at the home of a pregnant pal who wants her out. In its broad outlines, Papierniak’s film is familiar, its story less engaging than its performances: Everything goes wrong for its hero in the first 20 minutes, right down to waking up with a stranger, getting evicted and not being able to rescue her car from the mechanic who’s had it for weeks. But she’s excited for the first time in months: Tonight, on the other side of Los Angeles, her ex and her one-time best friend are being feted at an engagement party. Despite being utterly broke-ass and having no ride, Izzy vows to crash the celebration and win back her lover.
This is, of course, a terrible idea — and one it’s sometimes hard to believe Izzy would bother with. But the journey in any picaresque indie is never about its wounded soul’s destination. Here, it’s about the town she’s getting the fuck across, miles of alleys to scoot down and paved leafy pathways between bungalows to crash through. Strangers continually offer bracing strangeness: On a sunny street, a near catatonic woman asks Izzy for the time. “11:45,” Izzy replies, much to the woman’s confusion. “A.M.?” she asks.
The film, like most movie travelogues, plays out like a variety show, with guest stars turning up for a scene or two before being sent packing. That means it’s inevitably hit-or-miss: Alia Shawkat plays a belching drunk in a peach-pink power suit who can’t stop philosophizing as she offers Izzy a ride and then enlists her in a little B&E. She’s a brusquely chatty marvel, a jaded know-it-all who departs the film just minutes after her arrival, still mostly a mystery — an actual variety show would give her an encore. Lakeith Stanfield, Haley Joel Osment, Annie Potts and Brandon T. Jackson also score in brief but memorable appearances, none getting anything close to a chance to overstay their welcome. Coon is especially good as Izzy’s sister, who just can’t even with her anymore; their scenes together prickle with intimate rage and disappointment.
Holding it all together — coursing through it like a downed but crackling power cable — is Davis, her piercing blue eyes pinched up in frustration or darting about in their sockets in a panic too persuasive to be cleanly comic. The performer wields exquisite control over the character’s recklessness. In fact, the most interesting thing in the film might be the tension between Davis' performance and the script's insistence that Izzy is less smart or emotionally capable than the woman we actually see onscreen. In the first scenes, Izzy is a charmingly comic detective investigating her own drunken decisions, tiptoeing out of the bed she wakes up in to try to crack the case of where she is and who she’s with — and why the white tux shirt and jacket she wore the night before are smeared in either wine or blood. The answers to the first of those questions come quickly, and they’re not at all embarrassing — her one-night stand wore a condom and is played by Stanfield! — and at odds with the idea of Izzy as a raging disaster.
Davis always makes each of the small emotional responses that build to Izzy’s outbursts — her flipped birds and shouted fucks — legible (and funny). Davis also makes clear that Izzy is refusing to look at the truth of why she’s rushing to this party or at the plain fact of her ex’s callowness.
Still, it’s dispiriting that Papierniak hinges his story on the assumption that a pair of breakups, of her band and of her romantic relationships, did in the raging, passionate Izzy as an artist for years — and that it will take a madcap race across Los Angeles for her to find her path. Her quest is Taylor Swift’s stop-the-wedding hit “Speak Now” in a movie about a riot grrrl. Izzy also is written as more dumb than she seems: She has lived in the city for years but can’t pronounce “Los Feliz”? She’ll do anything to get to the party but absolutely refuses — with a princess’s disgust — to consider taking the bus? But Davis suggests depths that the woman-spurned scenario lacks. Her Izzy is driven by longing, but the film works best when it’s clear that she’s moved more by the very existence of a goal worth aiming for rather than the laddish specifics of the goal itself.