Amanda Kramer’s ’50s Musical Is Visually Spectacular But Narratively Muddled

Jan 14, 2023

Who would’ve thought that ten years removed from the “Harry Potter” franchise, the most interesting and consistent actor to come out of that young ensemble would be the kid who played Dudley Dursley, of all people? Yet with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Harry Melling has accumulated a pretty impressive CV. He moves into the arthouse in Amanda Kramer’s genderqueer fantasia “Please Baby Please,” a 1950’s-set quasi-musical that plays out like an extended riff on “The Wild Ones” and “West Side Story” for the black-box theater crowd. While Kramer’s film drips with self-conscious style, the film’s reconfigurations of gender dynamics also run their course well before the credits roll. 
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Teaming with Andrea Riseborough, another actor who oscillates between big-budget prestige fare and WTF weirdness (see “Possessor”) with relative ease, Melling and Riseborough play Arthur and Suze, a strait-laced couple. One night they witness a violent murder outside their apartment by the greaser gang the Young Gents, led by Karl Glusman’s leather-clad Teddy. 
The crime doesn’t scare the couple but, instead, unlocks dormant feelings within both Arthur and Suze, who become obsessed with Teddy for different reasons. For Arthur, Teddy represents a possible sexual partner, one who channels masculinity in a way that Arthur refuses to acknowledge within himself. For Suze, she wants to become Teddy, taking on the dominant position in her relationship with Arthur as she increasingly hallucinates musical set-pieces that expand her interest in leather kink. 
The film oscillates between these musical interludes — washed out in bisexual lighting and bare-bones set designs — and conceptual conversations about the nature of masculinity and gender. The former works better than the latter, as Kramer riffs on ‘50s counter-culture by way of John Waters-inspired surrealism. The style here feels imitative but never derivative of the filmmakers that clearly inspired her.
Yet, the bar-room conversations between Arthur and Suze become increasingly banal as they circle, and then triple-underline, the film’s central thesis about Arthur’s submissiveness and Suze’s increased dominance, flipping traditional roles in a critique that never feels as radical as the visual aesthetic surrounding it. These characters are not actually fully-realized people but, instead, sentient talking points. This is especially true of Arthur, who defiantly rejects the so-called ‘savagery’ of masculinity ad nauseam. 
Kramer also populates the film with various side characters that act as mirrors for the central couple, including an extended cameo by a vamping Demi Moore as Maureen, their upstairs neighbor that helps galvanize Suze’s awakening. Further, Cole Escola gets a standout musical moment in a phone booth that seems to be a narrative detour but is nevertheless welcome for its visual inventiveness. But just as Escola and Moore appear in the film, they just as quickly exit the frame, as “Please Baby Please” is unwilling to expand the scope of its thematic interests past Suze, Arthur, and Teddy. 
While the film skirts towards campiness, “Please Baby Please” often feels like more of an exercise in style than anything truly transgressive. The film is a bit undercooked in its exploration of gender dynamics, but it nevertheless is truly stylish and, more importantly, represents an original voice. While Kramer may not have synthesized her formal and thematic interests into a coherent package, “Please Baby Please” is never boring and represents a filmmaker to watch. [C+] 

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