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Good Dick: Marianna Palka's Indie Movie Classic finds True Love in Darkness

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Rest easy, moral police. Good Dick, Marianna Palka’s debut romantic comedy, may tout the excellence of ideal male genitalia in its title, but it is far from offensive. Bear in mind, though, the main characters are obsessed with pornography. They consume it often, joyously, and pathologically. They also talk about it a lot. As blue as the dialogue can get, there is very little bawdiness in the movie’s agenda. From the start, a mournful tone hints at underlying darkness.

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We never learn their names. The boy (Jason Ritter) is a poor video store clerk living in his car after getting evicted from his apartment. The girl (Palka, bravely directing herself) is idle and rich, living in a comfy but impersonal apartment bought by her moneyed father. She goes daily to the video store where he works to rent XXX movies. One good day, he finally dares to break the ice by warning her off renting a particularly trashy flick. “It’s really bad. Two definitely underage European girls hitchhiking through the most unattractive shots of Germany with greasy fat guys, basically raping them. Do you want to rent something else?” he volunteers helpfully. Her response is to dash off the store.

The boy is not discouraged. He stalks her to find her address and knocks on her door. When she dismisses a request for a date, he lies - “my aunt lives in the building” - and persists until he talks her into letting her crash on her couch. It plays slightly alarming today. The movie premiered in 2004, and in a way, the nonchalance with which the boy’s behavior presented as cute dates Good Dick more than the cars people drive or the clothes they wear.

Sexual mores change, "Good Dick" is eternal

It is unthinkable to imagine a romantic comedy pulling this stunt nowadays, almost 20 years later. Then again, it’s tricky to dismiss the movie for it. It comes from a female filmmaker with so much skin in the game she herself takes the lead female role. And I dare to venture that some relationships begin like this. In the immortal words of Vincent Vega in “Pulp Fiction,” “It’s freaky, but it happens!” At least, Good Dick has aged better than the indie box office hit 500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009).

For all the frankness of the screenplay’s language, the movie is mercifully modest at depicting sex. You find out the girl is a compulsive masturbator through a carefully framed shot of her legs seen through a window. From the moment Palka named her movie Good Dick, she teases us with the promise of saucy humor but only delivers tension. The boy is a good-natured stalker, and young Jason Ritter is boyishly handsome, but his romantic flourishes read more as desperation than an obsession. The contrast between the performers makes the movie compelling. There is a feral quality to Palka’s emotional containment, as opposed to Ritter’s expansive verbosity.

Far from anticipating the current rise of conservative reaction against the depiction of sex on film thriving in social media, Palka hints at how like any other aspect of human behavior, it can manifest our inner selves.

Far from anticipating the current rise of conservative reaction against the depiction of sex on film thriving in social media, Palka hints at how like any other aspect of human behavior, it can manifest our inner selves. She might bait the audience with the title but does not punish them for their curiosity. Anybody mildly informed can predict the secret behind the girl's pathological loneliness and fear of commitment. She is sensible for not making the answer a "gotcha" moment, a twist that banalizes trauma to spring a putative surprise on the audience.

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No "nepo babies" were harmed in "Good Dick"

Good Dick benefits from Palka’s measured direction. It draws a functional blueprint of a particular species of indie movies which flourished under the wings of the Sundance Film Institute labs: a tight screenplay with limited characters and few locations, somewhat provoking but ultimately warm and good-intentioned. There is a more than healthy amount of celebrity cameos, with Bryce Dallas Howard and her husband, the actor Seth Gabel, playing a couple of randy customers. The late Charles Durning offers a moving exhortation about the urgency of finding love. The scene is so tender and sweet that it goes against the tone of the rest of the movie.

The leads are wholly committed to their roles. Ritter may be the son of TV star John Ritter - who passed away in 2003 - but cannot be dismissed as a beneficiary of nepotism. By the time Good Dick came around, he had his share of credits on film and TV and debuted as a Producer on the project. The collaboration with Palka must have been agreeable since he returned to work with her on the 2017 comedy Bitch.

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The movie also works as a time capsule of the early years of the XX century and the middle, wanna-be creative class. The girl's father may be a rich asshole - Tom Arnold is game in a glorified cameo. Although brief, it pushes the movie to its natural conclusion -. The video rental place where the couple meets will bring memories to anybody who ever scanned shelves looking for an old favorite. Their combination of media is eccentric for the time: DVDs and VHS tapes are offered - in one of the funniest gags of the movie, the porn aficionados handle the tapes using ziplock bags as gloves -. Much to my surprise, I discovered online that Cinefile Video, the store in question, is a Santa Monica institution that is still open and thriving.

With the boy sleeping in his car and the girl living in an impersonal apartment, the video store is the closest thing the movie offers to a place that feels and looks like a home. Eric Edelstein plays a manager who functions as a benign father figure, the exact opposite of Arnold’s rich asshole, installed in a cold glass and steel office. Martin Starr and Marc Webber play coworkers with interchangeable bearded looks, hipsters doofuses that could pass as twins. Cinephile bona fides go deeper when catching a Krzysztof Kieslowski movie at the neighboring art-house cinema turns up as an opportunity to have a regular date. But by then, we know these damaged creatures would be hard-pressed to do anything normal. If they stumble upon love, it is by accident.

* Good Dick is streaming now at Popflick.

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Watch “Good Dick

A modern fairy tale about a troubled, reclusive young woman and the persistent video clerk who draws her out of her claustrophobic world by starting up a unique courtship with her.

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