Early in The Pretty One, Audrey reprimands her sister Laurel for sleeping with the much younger neighbor, a boy who the pair used to babysit. “Hunter… is almost 18!” is all the response the homely Laurel can muster. It’s the kind of joke you’d expect from a Wes Anderson film, where characters justify self-deprecating and dangerous behavior with one-liners highlighting a moralistic detachment from society and a lack of understanding of other people. While Anderson’s films can feel fabricated and constructed, there is an undercurrent of truth in the way his characters behave. I don’t know anyone that talks like Margot Tenenbaum or walks in slow motion like Steve Zissou, but their awkward familial interactions and lack of self-awareness resound universally.
Although The Pretty One doesn’t share any stylistic similarities with an Anderson film, it does try to tackle themes of family and identity with a similar blend of the morose and the humorous. Audrey and Laurel (both played by Zoe Kazan) are twins, and the film’s first act wastes no time highlighting the exaggerated differences between the two. Audrey is pretty and personable; Laurel is plain and awkward. Audrey has a fashion sense; Laurel wears their deceased mother’s clothes. Audrey has a career at a boutique real estate company; Laurel still lives with their father, assisting him as he makes forgeries of famous paintings. After a tragic car accident in which Audrey is killed, Laurel seizes the opportunity to re-start her life and steals her deceased sister’s identity. What follows is a somewhat formulaic romantic comedy, in which Laurel must adapt to the role of “Audrey,” in the process learning how to embrace her own weirdness. Laurel tries to reconcile Audrey’s former relationship with the married Charles as she falls for her neighbor/tenant Basel (Ron Livingston and Jake Johnson, both in nearly identical roles as their characters from last year’s Drinking Buddies).
Like any film featuring one actor portraying multiple characters (or depicting one character impersonating another), a considerable amount of weight lays on Zoe Kazan’s performance. Kazan effectively conveys “Audrey’s” enthusiasm, born out of shy Laurel’s attempts to recreate Audrey’s exuberance. Kazan and Johnson’s Basel (This guy must be the most charming guy ever, right? It’s like he has chemistry with everyone!) manages to build a relationship almost solely from their dialogue and exchanged looks (with the assistance of one brief, Parental Guidance-suggested love scene). Much credit is due to first time writer/director Jenée LaMarque, who imbues the formulaic structure of the rom-com with intelligence, reinforcing the themes of identity and falsity/forgery throughout. Laurel and her father create false duplicates of paintings (when Laurel finally reclaims and accepts her own identity, she composes an original). There is also the continued role-playing between “Audrey” and Basel as “the Browns,” a happily married couple with two children. And then there is the fantastic final scene set on Halloween (a holiday where everyone is busy being someone else): a conversation between Laurel and Basel full of wordplay and symbolism regarding duality and identity.
Despite the strength of this final scene, there is some clunky characterization (Laurel never actually seems to go through mourning for the death of her twin) and a reliance on the standard elements of the romantic comedy. The film doesn’t manage to seamlessly fluctuate between a morbid and comic tone as well as Harold and Maude or The Royal Tenenbaums, but there are a few moments of sublime awkwardness — Basel bleeding all over Laurel’s painting comes to mind. Mired in a genre in which everyone seems to be phoning it in these days, The Pretty One isn’t particularly cool or innovative, but it is exceptionally competent.