SXSW: “Hacks” breakout Meg Stalter gets her own star vehicle, but charisma alone isn’t enough to carry this thinly sketched narrative forward.
Ever since her role in the Hollywood insider comedy Hacks, comedian Meg Stalter has pretty much cornered the lovably annoying character market. In the Emmy Award-winning HBO comedy From Hell, she steals the show as Kayla’s incompetent assistant, turning the clueless rich girl into an archetype, a lifestyle, and a personal brand. It was only a matter of time before some enterprising writer gave her a star vehicle of her own, and she turns out to be just as funny as the main character of Cora Bora.
A traditionally quirky comedy about a struggling musician trying to win back his girlfriend, “Cora Bora” follows a fairly predictable formula, right up until a cheesy detour in an orgy poly commune. Stalter is a whirlwind and a universe unto himself, and the other players just react to what he throws. While reliably funny, the uncomfortably confident loser’s unique brand isn’t enough to carry an entire film, but his charisma does a lot to elevate the familiar material.
Set between Los Angeles and Portland, “Cora Bora” follows struggling musician Cora (Stalter) strumming her acoustic guitar around a sparsely attended open mic. “It was a very big fish in a small pond situation,” he says of his recent move to Los Angeles, though his manager leaves him as soon as he gets the word out. Her connections to Portland include her parents and her long-distance partner. Justine (Jojo T. Gibbs), who is saved as “Justine Girlfriend” on her phone. Although they are not monogamous, Cora remains willfully ignorant of the mysterious woman’s voice that echoes in the background of Justine’s abstract phone calls.
After deciding to surprise Justine at her graduation party, Cora hops on a plane north, where she meets (and ignores) a cute musician (Manny Jacinto) after he steals her first-class seat. Waltzing back to her old home, Cora gets a rude awakening when she interrupts a cozy domestic scene as her new girlfriend Riley (Ayden Mayeri) folds the laundry and offers her tea. Both accomplished comedians, Mayeri and Stalter enjoy an awkward dance as Cora keeps changing Riley’s name and pretending to know her around the house.
Much of the film’s comedy comes from Cora’s wildly grandiose delusions, which she shamelessly shares with anyone who will listen. “LA is amazing,” he boasts. “I mean, people are really real. It’s like they all want to be what they’re not yet…” Stalter doesn’t allow even the tiniest shadow of doubt in her easy phrasing and awkward pauses, revealing that Cora’s poorly constructed reality hangs in the balance. The people around him can hardly keep up the illusion if they are exhausted by his tricks, though he doesn’t seem to notice or care.
Unfortunately, the humor rarely rises to laugh-out-loud levels, aside from a brief scene between Cora and her father, played by Darrell Hammond. Cora was outraged to learn that her parents had grown close to Riley in her absence, even engaging in her massage services. “Excuse me, did you massage my father?” she shouts, completely unimpressed by his honest response: “I can finally walk again.”
An ill-fated stay with a chihuahua named Taco, whose gender Cora keeps changing, ends predictably badly. After accepting a ride from some shady teenagers and exhausting Portland’s swiping options, Cora ends up in an off-the-grid, polyamorous commune with beaver meat and taxidermy. A brief appearance by Margaret Cho can’t save the aimless diversion from feeling bad, and instead of adding extra color, it only draws attention to the threadbare narrative.
Written by Rhianon Jones and directed by Hannah Pearl Utt, “Cora Bora” is a valiant effort at inclusive queer comedy. Of course, there’s no shortage of stoner comedies about loser young men, and it goes without saying that female filmmakers would love to try their hand at the genre. Stalter is a formidable screen presence, but his charm seems better suited to offbeat character roles opposite a strictly designed ‘straight man’.
With a thinly sketched premise and a Hail Mary pass of emotional depth that arrived at the end of the final act, the film is like a series of vignettes wrapped around Stalter’s charm. Unfortunately, charisma alone does not create an interesting narrative. “Cora Bora” is as aimless as its protagonist — and just as grating.
“Cora Bora” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.
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