2017, R, 108 min. Directed by Geremy Jasper. Starring Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, Cathy Moriarty, Sahr Ngaujah, MC Lyte.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 25, 2017
Patti Cake$ might be what you’d get if you shifted the gritty Midwestern musician origin stories of Eminem’s 8 Mile and Prince’s Purple Rain into the body of a plus-sized white girl in northern New Jersey who dreams of success as a rap superstar. Which is to say that Patti Cake$ treads familiar territory while also presenting something fresh and original. The narrative is too often pat and predictable, but the character of Patti Dombrowski – aka Patti Cake$, aka Killa P, aka Dumbo – and the knowingly shot streets of broken-down Jersey where the New York City skyline, so close yet so far, taunts residents, make the film stand out. Like its titular protagonist, this film is an ingratiating diamond in the rough.
What Patti Cake$ lacks in narrative creativity, the film makes up for in its casting. The three female leads shape the material into something memorable and create indelible characters. Patti Dombrowski is fearlessly played by Australian actress Danielle Macdonald in her breakout American role. Patti’s mother Barb, an alcoholic who abandoned her own singing career when she became pregnant with Patti, is played with hard-hearted sensitivity by alt-cabaret star Bridget Everett (Fun Mom Dinner), while an almost unrecognizable Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull) plays Patti’s wheelchair-bound nana. These three actresses are the movie’s secret weapon. First-time feature writer and director Geremy Jasper, who also composed much of the movie’s soundtrack, can be forgiven for many of his novice storytelling mistakes in light of his shrewd casting decisions.
Patti lives with her mother and nana in something more akin to a flophouse than a home. With overdue bills a constant plague, Patti works two dead-end bartending jobs, and holds her mother’s hair back when she pukes into the toilet after cadging drinks and singing karaoke at the bar where Patti works. Her only friend is a pharmacist who performs with her under the name Jheri (Dhananjay), and supports her when she’s mocked and called Dumbo by the freestyling rappers on the street corner who ridicule the heavyset white girl’s rap aspirations. Soon, a furtive figure who calls himself Basterd the Antichrist (Athie) piques Patti’s interest, and she discovers his lair in a park behind a cemetery where he has a homemade recording studio setup. A demo and love affair emerge, and after slipping a copy to a DJ at an event where Patti is bartending, our girl is ready to cross the Hudson to the New York side. Old scores are settled and Patti gets the all-clear for a meteoric rise. Patti Cake$’ fairy-tale ending obscures the reality experienced in the music biz by most large girls with even larger talents.