Immediately before I went to see this movie I was listening to a podcast where some critics were discussing Life Itself, the new documentary about Roger Ebert. One of them mentioned Ebert’s quote that film “is a machine that generates empathy”, which is probably why empathy was on my mind as I sat in the theater.
This movie is about a young stand up named Donna, and Donna is immature and frustrating in all of the ways that young stand ups often are. She uses jokes as an all purpose cure, trying to cover up her insecurities and to boost her self esteem by being clever, even if that means ruining a nice moment by being emotionally dishonest, even if her response is inappropriate. Donna isn’t a bad person, but she is kind of exhausting. My general aversion to emotional neediness means that the Donnas I know in real life have been consciously kept at arm’s length.
But while I don’t necessarily empathize with the flesh and blood Donnas I have met, I did empathize with the movie Donna. It was kind of puzzling to me, honestly, and it made me feel a bit bad about myself that I was more willing to lend my sympathy to this fictional character than I would a real person who was similar. Was it because there was no real risk of fictional Donna emotionally draining me emotionally? Was it because a camera lets you get inside someone’s private moments to see a side of them you wouldn’t normally see in real life? Was it because Jenny Slate’s movie star charisma makes the experience a bit smoother than it would be with someone who is a little more raw?
It’s probably some combination of the above, honestly. The movie does a good job of making you like and forgive Donna despite all her faults – possibly too good of a job, honestly, if it left me feeling like maybe I was a bit too judgmental. If films really are machines that generate empathy, then this is a well oiled machine.