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'Muffin Top' Message Can't Overcome Comic Failings

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 15, 2014 4:30PM

Cathryn Michon and David Arquette in "Muffin Top: A Love Story." (Photo from film's official Facebook page.)

Made with obvious good intentions, the indie comedy Muffin Top: A Love Story has little else going for it. Its basic plea for women to not allow their self-esteem to be damaged by unrealistic, media-enforced notions of an ideal body is a welcome message. Unfortunately, it is delivered via a frequently irritating and laugh-free feature made almost bearable by some talented cast members.

The movie is a passion project for director, star and co-writer Cathryn Michon, a veteran television writer, actress and stand-up comic who was a member of the Second City touring company early in her career. The role of women in culture and society is central to a lot of Michon's work, and she branded that theme hosting an AMC series, Grrl Genius at the Movies and with two books, The Grrl Genius Guide to Life and The Grrl Genius Guide to Sex (With Other People).

Muffin Top: A Love Story is based on that last book, and one can only hope the humor translated better in print than onscreen. To be fair, broad physical comedy is hard to pull off and every viewer has his or her own definition of when slapstick succeeds or fails. There were seven Police Academy movies for a reason, I suppose.

Michon plays Suzanne, a college teacher whose women's studies course focuses on cultural images of beauty. But when her TV executive husband (Diedrich Bader of Office Space and The Drew Carey Show) leaves her, Suzanne's image-conscious insecurities take control, despite the fact that she is quickly pursued by two men: a hunky young barista and a gentleman colleague (David Arquette, sporting a distracting English accent).

But those confidence-boosting flirtations don't stop Suzanne from wearing hair extensions and awkward breast enhancements on her date with the barista, leading to what should be a humiliatingly hilarious sexual encounter. But the scene falls flat both comically and dramatically. The physical action is badly staged and Michon lets her character dodge any lingering embarrassment, as the barista forgives everything before treating her to orgasmic oral sex.

As a writer, Michon does this a lot—setting up a scene with potentially ego-destroying consequences, then letting her character off the hook so soon that you wonder why she bothered. This extends to the climax of the movie, as her obvious perfect mate (Arquette's character) has a moment of jealousy so trivial that it feels mandated by a screenwriting manual: "Plot complication needed by page 75."

With Suzanne struggling to mail a stool sample, suffering a liposuction mishap and putting her own urine in her coffee for a diet fad, Michon also tries to fuse gross-out humor with romantic comedy. Admittedly, I'm often not a fan of gross-out comedy, but as the uproarious wedding dress fitting in Bridesmaids proved, I'm not immune to it either. It's all in the execution, and Muffin Top just fails to hit the right marks.

Michon has a strong screen presence, but she plays her character so tightly wound that she borders on the unlikeable. That wouldn't be a problem if she was going for a darker, more uncomfortable brand of romantic comedy (see Albert Brooks' Modern Romance for a prime example), but she's not. From the light pop songs that inform us of her character's emotional state to the constant reinforcement of female pride, this was intended to be a feel-good film. Nothing wrong with that, but when feel-good turns to cloying sentiment, comedy is the victim.

The movie is not a total disaster. As Suzanne's sister and agent, Melissa Peterman has a funny, more nuanced presence that would have served the lead character well. Bader slyly underplays the coldhearted husband, while Gary Anthony Williams salvages his scene as an oblivious diet guru with some amusing reactions. And it's nice to see the late Marcia Wallace bring her trademark world-weariness and Mrs. Krabappel laugh to her final screen appearance (as herself).

With a successful campaign via Kickstarter and Tugg to tour this low-budget feature theatrically, it's clear there is a large audience for a movie with this message. There's also no doubt the male-dominated studio system is not serving female viewers well.

Still, I'm not sure Muffin Top serves them well either. The movie has an intellectual feminist character who is treated with more venom than even Bader's unfaithful husband. And with a marketing campaign to watch the film as "Girls' Night In" events, Michon is clearly catering to a different, admittedly less damaging, gender stereotype. All body types are welcome, the movie seems to say, but if you're not a "girly-girl" at heart...well, look elsewhere.

Muffin Top: A Love Story. Directed by Cathryn Michon. Screenplay by Michon and W. Bruce Cameron, based on a novel by Michon. 97 mins. Rated R. Starring Michon, David Arquette, and Melissa Peterman. Showing Thursday, Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m. only at Kerasotes ShowPlace ICON Theatre. Also available now via video on demand.