The arc of O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s character of Dan Pinto in director Matt Spicer’s film Ingrid Goes West begins and ends with “gullible vaper who loves Batman”. There is next to nothing in Spicer and David Branson Smith’s screenplay that gives him any real sense of depth or inner personality beyond being a vehicle for the protagonist, Ingrid Thorburn (a perfectly-cast Aubrey Plaza), to manipulate in her quest for the acquaintanceship of social media personality and photographer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olson). And what Jackson does with the character is a frank miracle, injecting his own casual personality into such a paper-thin character in a measured sense not only to make his eager infatuation with Ingrid feel charismatic and genuine as well as the Batman element to turn from what could have read as just an annoying running gag into an endearing part of Dan’s personality, but to also make it believable that he’d be at once frustrated and willing to aid Ingrid even when Spicer and Smith’s script go way off the rails into a third act that just seems out of the realm of escalation the movie established before. Jackson turned an underdeveloped side character into one of the most enjoyable personalities in film in 2017 and that’s somebody who has the third-most screentime (possibly less).
Plaza leaves him behind in a role that Spicer and Smith are much more generous towards: given that it’s the central personality of this whole study, Ingrid’s psychology is something the viewer gets a lot more access to than is probably comfortable but the movie doesn’t demand sympathy for her so much as establish her as a mentally broken figure in a world all but happy to leave her in the distance between Instagram screens and let Plaza ride on that with the rope it gives her. And Plaza doesn’t showboat it – she knows simply by utilizing her facial muscles, she can imbue a frightening darkness to mix into her character’s sadness and loneliness. She can turn all of her wide-eyed attempts to re-assess her status with Taylor as a “friend” into both transparency and something inhuman. Her attempts at seduction towards Dan and slightly frazzled acts of “calm” around Taylor and her fatigued husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) are all sycophantic without wanting to be. And in the end, Plaza can turn this premise of cyber-stalking within desperation into a tragic portrait of a very tragic character without wanting to be on Ingrid’s side.
There is however a point where Spicer and Smith try to skew the movie towards Ingrid’s sympathies in a foot-shooting way with Billy Magnussen playing a version of Freddie Miles to Ingrid’s Tom Ripley that is so sociopathic and intolerable you want to beat him to death. And there’s no way that’s not on purpose in a premise where what Plaza does is no less descipcable and dangerous towards everyone in the movie herself (she’s the one who imposes violence into the film and she does it in her very first scene). In any case, Magnussen is the closest anybody else in the still great cast comes to reaching Plaza and Jackson’s level and it still doesn’t seem to touch their work.
Anyway, I seem to have went through all that without mentioning that Ingrid Goes West is in fact a comedy. The kind of cringe comedy that makes one find themselves in the line between vomiting or laughing and, while I am in fact not familiar with Plaza’s work in Parks & Recreation, I would like to think it’s a well-known fact that she can provide comedy like second-nature to her. I also haven’t seen The To Do List, but I’d imagine Ingrid Goes West is a sober version of that premise – witnessing Plaza frequently embarrass herself and put herself in positions that could only end badly due to her lack of social development.
In any case, some of that comedy wants to sharpen itself into social satire of different sorts and I can’t see Ingrid Goes West making it all the way through on those aims. It functions perfectly well in recognizing how social media – namely Instagram – allows us to totally wipe our hands clean of people needing true connections around us and how it enables self-destructive behavior in people who don’t know better. But anything beyond that loses gas, it’s not interested in finding a visual mirror to the flashy and superficial style of that online celebrity style (or even in selling the drabness of Ingrid’s life previously) and the portrayal of Los Angeles living within Taylor and Ezra is stereotyped and shallow in a manner that I don’t think the movie is really aware of (it’s only through Olson and Russell that we get a true sense of lived-in atmosphere and inner conflict within their characters).
3/4 of the main cast are all Hollywood royalty themselves and, while Ingrid Goes West doesn’t need to be self-aware like that, it leaves a lot of avenue to comment on privilege and how Ingrid loses her mother shortly before the film, but then that’s just me commenting on what the film isn’t rather than what the film is.
In the end, the cast does so much more heavy-lifting for the movie than they should but the fruits of their labor is visible on-screen. They can’t turn Ingrid Goes West into a deepened cornucopia of millennial commentary the way that the script wants to be, but they provide a group of people who do have their own lives surrounding the one perspective we are tied with that leads to more psychological juxtaposition and they provide one hell of a great comedy/thriller. If functioning brilliantly as genre piece and character study is all you can do, that’s not nothing and 2/3 is still a win in my book.