Jillian Bell Looks for Closure in Alien Dramedy
Dec 19, 2022
When you hear the names of the people involved both in front of and behind the camera for I’m Totally Fine, it’s easy to jump to some ultimately incorrect conclusions. It’s produced by Kyle Newacheck, a co-creator and star of Workaholics, the hit stoner comedy series on Comedy Central about three immature guys trying to make it through their painfully dull office job. Newacheck also has a small role in this film alongside Workaholics’ own Blake Anderson and Jillian Bell, the latter of whom is largely known for her more daring and hilariously blunt comedy (see her scene-stealing turns in 22 Jump Street, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Office Christmas Party).
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All of that, coupled with its on-paper absurd premise by American Dad! writer Alisha Ketry and What Would Diplo Do? co-creator Brandon Dermer, makes for an expectedly silly depiction of friendship and its many (mis)adventures. However, I’m Totally Fine is not only an incredibly grounded and nuanced narrative, but one steeped in the fragility of life. (And, yes, it is indeed funny). I’m Totally Fine does open on a rather somber note, which surprisingly sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Vanessa (Jillian Bell) is pulled over on the highway crying. It’s not a cartoonish cry, but a very real, almost routine, moment for her. This is clearly not the first side-of-the-road outburst she’s had recently and definitely won’t be the last.
We soon learn that she’s on the way to a now-defunct celebration for a milestone in her career (they created an organic soda and got a distribution deal). Defunct because her best friend and business partner Jennifer (Natalie Morales) recently died unexpectedly, consuming Vanessa with grief and flooding her with the many beautiful memories they’ve shared since elementary school. Even though there doesn’t seem like there is anything to celebrate, Vanessa is using this allotted time to escape her depressing reality as best she can. But this plan quickly crumbles when she finds her deceased friend seemingly alive and well in her kitchen. Well, it’s not really Jennifer. It’s actually an alien that’s taken the form of Jennifer and has come to Earth for 48 hours to study humans. You know, the usual.
Image via RKM Studios
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What makes this film so accessible is Jillian Bell’s poignant performance, which is exactly in line with her ever-evolving career. Her strictly comedic beginnings have since blossomed into some riskier indie projects that enable her to show her range while still allowing her to keep her comedy chops close by. The vulnerability and authenticity that she showed in heartfelt dramedies Sword of Trust and Brittany Runs a Marathon, for example, have prepared her for what is perhaps her strongest performance yet. She perfectly captures the frustration that comes when someone who is so in control of their life is brutally reminded that their “control” is actually being held together by a thread. This is immediately evident in her interaction with Sandra (Karen Maruyama), the woman she forgot she hired to throw the elaborate party. In the emotional turmoil, Vanessa also forgot to cancel the woman’s services, and attempts to do so on the spot. “There’s nothing you can do? All you have to do is not do anything. That’s how you don’t have a party,” she says while suppressing the anger she so desperately needs to process. Bell also has a knack for emphasizing all the right words with just the right amount of necessary emotion.
But never fear, this melancholic overarching story has a very playful and silly center. Morales’ arrival as the inquisitive alien version of Jennifer serves as both a distraction and release valve for our grieving protagonist. Jennifer might bear an uncanny resemblance to Vanessa’s dead friend, but she doesn’t sound anything like her. Instead, she speaks with a robotic vocal fry, occasionally struggling with words and concepts that would otherwise be second nature if she was a human. She can’t help but absorb the battery life of any electronics around her. She can conduct heat. She drinks olive oil straight from the bottle without hesitation and doesn’t understand eyebrows. After all, it’s often comedy writers and performers who are secret creative weapons for making the most touching and thought-provoking stories.
All of this, of course, makes Vanessa very uncomfortable, which Bell shows off delicately. “You are watching your dead best friend chug olive oil,” she says with a cracked voice to herself. Alien Jennifer tries to show affection to a spiraling Vanessa, hilariously lacking all social cues. When Vanessa refuses to accept the bizarre explanation as to why “Jennifer” is apparently in front of her, the alien awkwardly tries to move things along by repeating “Shall we?” in a very forced manner, to which a baffled Vanessa asks, “Are you just going to keep saying ‘shall we?’ until I sit down?” Bell has a tight grip on her character’s emotions, making the moments in which terror and panic slip out very believable. She even goes as far as telling the extra-terrestrial, “I am a strong, powerful woman, a freak of nature some have said. And I am perfectly capable of taking charge of my own mental breakdown.”
Image via RKM Studios
I’m Totally Fine smartly gives more emotional weight to the many bonding moments the duo shares in the form of research for alien Jennifer. The strange aquatic and strength training sessions become cathartic for Vanessa as they inadvertently evoke vivid memories the two shared over their long friendship that might have otherwise been forgotten—or at least weren’t appreciated at the time. Working through these feelings and memories with the clone enables Vanessa to subconsciously work through her grief with her friend at her side. The two let loose toward the end, when the DJ (another person Vanessa forgot to cancel) shows up with drugs and chill vibes. DJ Twisted Bristle is brilliantly played with a blend of confidence and insecurity by Harvey Guillén, who unleashes Vanessa’s inner chaos (well, thanks to him and the Molly he would never dare leave at home.)
I’m Totally Fine is an important reminder that, no matter how difficult and unpredictable things get, life will go on. Long-term planning is really just a temporary source of comfort. “We were supposed to grow old and go flirt with the servers at IHOP for free stuffed French toast,” a heartbroken Vanessa tells the alien. But, for better or for worse, things rarely go according to plan, and so we must celebrate life when we can. The out-of-this-world premise about a woman befriending the alien clone of her dead best friend is a Trojan horse for a deeper meditation on loss that’ll remind you to hug your friends a little tighter.
I’m Totally Fine is in theaters and available through VOD services.
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