The films and television shows of writer/director Jody Hill, whose repertoire includes frequent collaborations with actor Danny McBride and titles such as Observe and Report, The Foot Fist Way, Eastbound and Down, and Vice Principals, often force you to endure what seems like the impossible: journey through a story solely through the eyes of a loud-mouthed, misogynistic, man-child. Your first thought after watching something like Eastbound and Down might be that the show aims to empower the braggadocio of lead character Kenny Powers (Danny McBride), whose bravado and seemingly alpha male personality lends itself to an endless stream of reprehensible actions and infuriating behavior.
But Jody Hill always has something to say about this toxic masculinity; that not only does it often shield a fragile male ego and deep-seated insecurities, but that it does not, and cannot, go unchecked. The supporting characters of Vice Principals, in opposition to the leads of Neal Gamby and Lee Russell (Danny McBride, of course, and Walton Goggins), react accordingly to these bumbling dipshit male leads. Yes, they’re our protagonists, but they’re also gigantic assholes, and the world around them has to know that they’re gigantic assholes. If it didn’t, it would just feel frustrating and pointless to watch these characters who are almost entirely unsympathetic get away with behaving like children.
So, that’s what’s troubling about Adam Christian Clark’s endeavor as writer, director, and lead actor in his film Newly Single, in that it’s clear that his character, Aster Williams Stevenson, is an arrogant prick, but what’s unclear is how we’re to perceive him. He condescends and belittles every woman he comes in contact with, but all they do is respond in affection to his outwardly misogynistic behavior. He acts as if the world owes him a debt of kindness that he does not deserve, and all the world does is coddle him. His sexism and racism are often just so unabashed, it is alarming to the point that you question its true intent.
Thus, you may find yourself going back and forth in the film’s 96-minute duration, unsure of whether it is self-aware of its lead’s own awfulness – if the film is somewhat of a satire on that type of Woody Allen-esque study in selfish, straight white men navigating the dating scene, or the way the world does, in general, tend to coddle straight white men – or whether it is wholly embracing it. But the unsympathetic nature of Aster, whether for intentional comedic purpose or not, is unsettling rather than introspective, and it becomes too muddled to tell whether or not the film’s objective is for you to side with him, or point and laugh.
Newly Single follows Aster Williams Stevenson, a writer and director attempting to re-enter the Los Angeles dating scene hot off the heals of a bad breakup, while enduring obstacles as he tries to get his latest film off the ground. The film is a Woody Allen joint dead ringer from the very first few seconds, with shots of the city and a jazzy tune accompanying the opening credits, all of which are similarly formatted akin to something like Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris. In an even more similar respect, the film is less of a typical linear narrative and more just a day-in-the-life; watching this character stumble around from one misguided attempt at courting women to the next, as he tries to get his personal and professional life together. Though, unlike Allen, whose legacy has since been tarnished by his status as a sexual predator, but whose down-on-his-luck leading men, often played by him, were annoying but at least somewhat sympathetic, Clark’s Aster is a brazen douchebag to the fullest sense of the word.
To one girl whom he’s just slept with, he tells “You’re fun and feminine. You don’t see those two things a lot.” To another, Maria (Raychel Diane Weiner) he condescends about owning a gun, saying that it should make her feel more secure. He asks the Korean woman he’s seeing, Izzy (Jennifer Kim), if her last boyfriend was Korean. He verbally abuses his mother and father, shows his dick on screen and then his female companion of the moment, Francine (Rémy Bennett), tells him that it’s “too big” (it becomes hard to forget that this same actor wrote the script). He’s annoyed that the manager for the teenage actress in his film won’t let her wear a thong or be spanked on screen, and asks Izzy if she’s ever had an abortion before. Francine also just happens to not like being eaten out, and Izzy just happens to love giving blowjobs. What all of these women share in common is the fact that they mostly just let Aster’s behavior slide. The only one who seems to comprehend his atrocious nature is his ex-girlfriend, Valerie (Molly C. Quinn), but she’s written as being a Scientologist which seems purposeful in inherently discrediting her. Even his sister, Madeline (Anna Jacoby-Heron), bonds with him over a tirade about how people who are career-driven are stupid and will die alone.
Aster Williams Stevenson is almost too appalling to exist, and for a film coming out in 2018, it simply has to be a satire… right? But that’s the problem with Newly Single, which is that it makes this verdict too hard to discern. It is presented as entirely straight-faced, to the point that any semblance of self-parody becomes blurred, and to consider that it truly is seems like too much of a leap and a bound. Despite its utterly infectious score, and often quite captivating city scenery, shot composition, and a handful of very charming, talented actresses (including a brief appearance from Wet Hot American Summer’s lovely Marguerite Moreau), the script is too murky to wade through in its questionable material to distinguish exaggerated caricature from genuine authenticity.
To some degree, this film really has to be poking fun at itself. The same woman whom Aster declares is “fun and feminine,” tells him that he’s “not like the rest of them,” which is hilarious because, well, he is. He feels comparable, in some respects, to the infamous Tommy Wiseau of The Room, if in part because his real-life persona also wrote, directed, and starred in his own film, but more importantly in that all of his female characters seem to be drawn to him for no discernable reason.
Perhaps, this particular reading of Newly Single is incorrect, but it felt like too much of a struggle to perceive it as anything but. On one of Aster’s very first dates, he proclaims that he does not agree with feminism, and the only person to come out in protest is the friend of the girl he’s seeing. Still, they all have a good chuckle, and the declaration is mostly tossed to the side; an easily-overlooked quirk in a man who just needs help making it through another lonely day. The only thing that would truly help Aster Williams Stevenson would be a swift kick in the head.
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She is passionate about film and writing about film and also talking about film but can’t really decide which she wants to do with her life, but it’s not a big deal (that’s future Brianna’s problem). She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. She met Greg Sestero once and it was weird. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs