DON’T WASTE A SECOND ON ‘SECOND NATURE’

by Warren Cantrell on September 7, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Minor Rock Fist Down]

A woefully under-baked concept set in an absurd world entirely disconnected from reality, Second Nature is proof that competent filmmaking is anything but for some individuals. The film tells the story of Amanda (Collette Wolfe), a realtor in rural Washington State who decides to run for mayor against her sexist boss, Bret (Sam Huntington). The introduction of a magic mirror into Amanda’s life throws everything into upheaval, however, and by accident, she and her mayoral opponent/boss find themselves in a world where gender roles have been swapped.

Yep, all of a sudden, men start acting like women, and women like men: a wacky Freaky Friday-like scenario unfolding from there. Second Nature operates in a reality two shades sillier than the goofiest Will Ferrell/Adam McKay effort out there (so somewhere just south of Talladega Nights or Anchorman), which is a difficult thing to pull off in capable hands, let alone the ones provided here. The humor is broad without nuance, and the characters are silly without a hint of subtext: all of it adding up to a film that feels like it is laughing at its own jokes.

Even before the magic mirror mix-up, the tonal watermark for the movie exists at a low point bordering on cartoonish. Pretty much all the men are pigs, the women are put-upon victims of the patriarchy, and background actors exist solely for cheap lulz. Amanda is the closest thing to an audience barometer that the picture has, yet she seems unfazed by the world she lives in, and only slightly shocked when the gender-swap magic kicks in.

The whole thing comes off as juvenile, and possesses the depth of what one might expect from a fifteen-year old’s screenplay. There isn’t any kind of genuine exploration of the more pervasive, backhanded, institutionalized sexism of the modern world, just the cartoonish, butt-slapping, construction-worker-cat-calling tropes that have been played to death on network sitcoms for thirty-plus years. As a result, none of the gags really land, and any semblance of a message that the picture might have is lost in the shuffle.

Ultimately, the blame for this lands on the shoulders of the script, along with the director who put it on screen. Luckily, Second Nature is a one-stop-shop in this regard, as it is the feature directorial debut of co-writer/director Michael Cross. Between the poorly conceived conceit of the whole thing, and what feels like a lot of “go bigger!” acting direction, it fails time and again to connect. And while the kernel of an interesting idea is visible through the haze of all the tired, outdated humor, Second Nature never makes any of this worth the lost 75 or so minutes one has to endure to get to the end.

To her credit, Collette Wolfe shoulders the burden of the script admirably, and sells the series of magic reveals in the second act as well as anyone could. At times, she’s able to elevate the middle school shtick in which she’s mired into something resembling believability, and for that she should be commended. Likewise, despite his character being off-the-charts obnoxious, Huntington is one of the best things Second Nature has going for it. He comes off as a sort of a budget Ryan Reynolds: his smarmy lines rolling out of him with a boyish, knowing glee that feels decidedly Deadpool-esque (in a good way). He and Wolfe play well off each other, and bring the picture back from the brink several times.

Yet the whole effort is misguided, both as a concept and in the execution. This film presupposes that we live in a ravenously chauvinistic bizarro universe where the social conversation needle on gender equality hasn’t moved since the 1950s. While there are undeniably issues regarding sexism in 2017, they exist in a more shrouded, nuanced realm than what’s presented in Second Nature. These days, some men are indeed pigs, while others are sensitive, forward-thinking individuals; likewise, some women are jumbled bags of raw emotion while others are confident, powerful people who wield influence. Cross doesn’t explore what a magic gender swap of the real world would look like under these circumstances, and thus, the whole thing comes off as immature and sophomoric.

Although Amanda and Bret do experience some believable growth through the course of the picture, nothing feels earned. The tone and themes of Second Nature exist on such a base, black-and-white level that every development feels telegraphed, and all of the conclusions foregone. The humor isn’t especially funny, the filmmaking isn’t creatively staged, and the themes aren’t remotely fresh. What one is left with, then, is a generic comedy that is short on laughs and even thinner at its emotional core.

Opening this Friday with an expanded VOD release to follow next week, Second Nature is a decided miss. What few boons it has comes as a result of some spirited performances by the leads, who can’t make up for an uninspired script and a shaky hand behind the camera that is telling a story that would have seemed hackneyed in an episode of Cheers or Taxi.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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