Diablo Cody first broke onto the scene as a screenwriter back in 2007 with the coming-of-age, high school pregnancy comedy Juno. Her unique blend of quirky, almost stylized, dialogue, oddly specific female characterization and heartfelt humor made her something of a sensation. Juno was very successful, but Cody’s output has been hit-or-miss ever since (Young Adult and Tully are both standouts). Her latest screenplay has been turned into Lisa Frankenstein, a strange, tremendously inconsistent, black comedy that is entertaining when it leans into the over-the-top nature of Cody’s premise. Unfortunately, more often than not, it seems to pay undue attention to its story. It is certainly not Cody’s best work.
It is 1989 and 18-year-old Lisa has recently moved in with her father, his wife and her daughter after witnessing her mother’s murder. Lonely and lacking in self-confidence, Lisa spends a lot of time in the local abandoned cemetery. Following a freak storm, one of her dead companions actually comes back to life, giving her a friend and causing chaos all around her.
Director Zelda Williams (making her feature debut) does some really fun stuff with the set/costume design. While the setting seems pretty unnecessary (there is nothing in the story placing it specifically in 1989), Williams takes full advantage of it. She doesn’t just dress her characters in 80s clothing; she dresses her characters in the most stereotypically 80s way possible. Everything about this seems intended to feel like a movie version of the time period. Its bright, candy colored, aesthetic is part of the joke. There is great potential here for high camp that is too rarely realized.
The elevator pitch for Lisa Frankenstein (97 minutes without the end credits) would be something along the lines of “Frankenstein meets Heathers.” It has a man coming back from the dead and a teenager getting deadly revenge on people who tormented her. It has a dead guy walking around in broad daylight without arousing suspicion and Kathryn Newton (as Lisa) gleefully delivering Cody’s offbeat dialogue. But then it also wastes energy on plot mechanics and unconvincing moral stakes. Williams would have been better off going darker and more ridiculous, yet that would have probably earned this an R, rather than a teen-friendly PG-13 (the fact that this did qualify for a PG-13 is one more reason why the current ratings system needs a serious overhaul).
The balance between the bizarre humor, half-baked story and general quirkiness is completely off. At times, Newton’s Lisa is delightfully weird. Then, Williams spins her wheels with plot developments before returning to allowing her star to have oddball fun. The goofiness of the scenes where Newton essentially monologues to her mute creature are the best feature of Lisa Frankenstein.
Lisa coming out of her shell is legitimately funny and the way the reality of sudden new life for the undead character is handled has its moments, but there’s way too much of an effort to inject weak tension. That ruins the mood, taking the attention away from the amusing material. It is enjoyable to look at, Kathryn Newton is wonderful and some of the script is the right amount of wacky. Yet far too much of this just doesn’t work. This style of dark comedy needs a steady hand or it falls apart. This movie falls apart fairly quickly.
2¼ out of 5
Kathryn Newton as Lisa
Cole Sprouse as The Creature
Liza Soberano as Taffy
Carla Gugino as Janet
Joe Chrest as Dale
Henry Eikenberry as Michael Trent
Directed by Zelda Williams
Written by Diablo Cody