LA Film Fest 2016: Opening Night, by David Bax
Isaac Rentz’ Opening Night begins promisingly enough as we follow Nick (Topher Grace) out of his apartment and down Broadway into the back of a theater where a new show of which he is the stage manager is about to premiere. It’s a lively and funny sequence in which we learn Nick’s basic backstory and we meet every major character we’ll see over the next 90 minutes, all with a low-fi, handheld graininess that screams “indie.” Soon, though, we’ll see that the energy established by this intro is doomed to fizzle out, borrowed as it is from so many other, better movies that have come before. Sadly, other than a healthy number of quite good jokes, there’s little about Opening Night that is original at all.
Nick wasn’t always a stage manager. He used to be a Broadway performer himself until a terrible opening night pushed him out of the spotlight. Now he’s running this opaquely lazy jukebox musical called One Hit Wonderland, starring J.C. Chasez (playing himself and doing so hilariously) and featuring musicalized versions of songs from pop music’s biggest one-and-done careers. Nick’s ex-girlfriend, Chloe (Alona Tal) is in the chorus but gets bumped up to the second lead when the fading Broadway star cast in the role (Anne Heche) gets injured by a clumsy prop guy (Paul Scheer). Meanwhile, Nick confides in close friend/performer Malcolm (Taye Diggs) while being pressured by the show’s producer (Rob Riggle), encouraging the timid assistant stage manager (Lauren Lapkus) and helping the theater’s medic (Brian Huskey) take care of Heche’s concussed diva. And those are only some of the plotlines.
Perhaps the most exciting element of Opening Night comes when you realize that it is not just about a jukebox musical, it is a jukebox musical in its own right. We see some of the onstage performances but characters also spontaneously break into one hit wonder songs backstage, from Chasez doing “Mambo No. 5” or Diggs and Lesli Margherita mashing up “I Know What Guys Like” with Bloodhound Gang’s “The Bad Touch.” These numbers are the best in the movie and, certainly, any good satire is powered by a true affection for its subject. Unfortunately, Opening Night doesn’t hold up the other end of the bargain.
Though the laughs are plentiful, almost none of them come from taking pokes at Broadway musical culture. Other than Nick’s saying that musicals are stupid, few of the jokes are about the format or milieu itself. Most of them simply revolve around the scandalous behavior of the cast and crew, from sexual oneupsmanship to extreme drug abuse. For all I know, that could typify the experiences involved in a Broadway show. Yet, funny as they often are, the jokes lack the sting that should accompany a bitter lead character like Nick.
These kind of high-pressure, roughly real-time ensemble movies are designed to drop the audience into a world and accelerate the feeling of camaraderie between viewers and characters. Opening Night is far too superficial and forced to have that effect. You’ll leave having laughed but not having seen anything new.