Peter Farrelly’s Green Book may be a politically regressive movie directed by a onetime sex pest, but at least it also wastes three very talented actors. Viggo Mortensen has been a household name since his Aragorn days, and Mahershala Ali should be too, after appearing in two of the best films of 2017 and 2018. Linda Cardellini, third-billed, would have just as much name recognition in a fair world. Not only has she been doing great work for a solid couple of decades, she was the best thing about last year’s A Simple Favor, stealing the show with only three minutes of screentime.
Paul Feig’s comedy-thriller often seems uncertain about which side of that genre description it wants to fall on. Attempts to be Hitchcock-in-the-suburbs are undercut by the bright, improv-heavy chatter Feig’s movies are known for, while the last act develops from a Gone Girl imitation to a Gone Girl parody. The main cast are game, but can’t prevent the whole thing feeling unguided from scene to scene.
It is therefore a relief when Cardellini shows up around the halfway mark to take complete control of the movie for the span of her brief appearance. She plays Diana Hyland, an angry, alcoholic artist who paints knives. Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) finds her while looking for answers about Emily (Blake Lively), who has seemingly Gone Girled herself. It turns out that Emily was once Diana’s lover and muse, until Emily stole her money and skipped town. Diana is bitter, yet remembers Emily fondly.
It’s an archetypal detective-chases-a-lead scene, and Cardellini’s performance would fit into any Raymond Chandler adaptation. But despite existing to move the plot along, Diana feels like a real lived-in character with her own place in the world and particular set of neuroses. Cardellini takes the “colourful witness” directive and amps it up, swinging from dreamy nostalgia to venomous resentment, all while brandishing a large knife with which she punctuates her sentences.
Cardellini makes a striking impression partly because she is a welcome burst of impropriety in a cast of extremely image-conscious characters. A Simple Favor conveys a lot through costumes, from Emily’s immaculate high-fashion wardrobe to Stephanie’s curated collection of kitschy jumpers. Diana, the lone weirdo in old jeans and a Slayer t-shirt, clearly exists outside of their world. With an outsider’s perspective, she is free to disregard the supposed stakes and comment wryly on the more far-fetched proceedings.
A Simple Favor struggles with its balance between comedy and thriller, but Cardellini handles both very naturally in her short scene. Rather than switching from thriller mode to comedy mode on a dime, Cardellini plays Diana as a real person who occasionally says things that are funny because of who she is (you know, like people do). When she warns Stephanie that Emily “is not a normal person like you and me,” it’s a serious line, but lands as a joke because we know Diana’s definition of “normal” involves swigging scotch from the bottle and waving a knife around. In an earlier line—
“Now all I paint are these goddamn knives … which are pretty good, but nobody wants to buy the shit.”
—the gag hits between the pause and Diana’s surprising confidence in her unusual work. Cardellini sells a fairly bizarre fact as a mundane observation, which teases out the humour in the character and the character in the humour.
It probably helps that Cardellini has experience playing a funny-serious character in a Paul Feig property. Back in 1999, she was cast as highschooler Lindsay Weir in Freaks and Geeks, the now-cult-classic TV show created by Feig with Judd Apatow. The show was at once sympathetic to its teenage characters and aware of just how ridiculous that period of life can be in hindsight. Cardellini excelled in the lead role, making audiences feel for poor Lindsay even as her latest dilemma boiled over into lunacy. Even more impressive is that Cardellini can drop onto set for a couple of days, 19 years later, and channel the same blend of mundanity and absurdity into the best three minutes of Feig’s latest picture.
It’s a shame Cardellini doesn’t get more than those three minutes here. Sadly, her higher-profile film appearances often see her in perfunctory “wife” roles (see Green Book, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Daddy’s Home – or don’t). It’s easy to pine for a world where she enjoyed the same breakout success as her Freaks and Geeks co-stars Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and James Franco. That said, Cardellini has done sterling work in TV, indie films and animation; she has a Netflix series and a James Wan-produced horror movie in the works; and certain ORWAV staffers count her Velma in the live-action Scooby-Doo duology as a formative influence. If Paul Feig wanted to spin off a Diana Hyland: Powerful Knife Lesbian series, the world would undoubtedly be a richer place.