Good on Paper review – Netflix dating comedy is OK on screen

It would perhaps be overly generous to say that the Netflix dating caper Good on Paper was itself an embodiment of its title but pre-release there were enough reasons to at least label it “fine on paper”, a welcome addition to the streamer’s growing sub-genre of female-fronted, and created, comedies. First, and what’s often most depressingly appealing these days about a Netflix “original” is that it was produced by an actual studio before being acquired (in this instance, Universal), gracing it with the feel and aesthetic of a genuine movie. Second, it’s based on a true story from comedian Iliza Schlesinger’s life, one that she’s turned into a script, craftily giving herself her first major lead and also telling a dating story from an authentic place, rather than leaning on a married person’s broad strokes idea of what swiping, flirting and shagging is like in the modern age.

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Schlesinger’s ferocious, fast-paced brand of comedy, while far from unique, can often be extremely funny, combatting misogynistic ideas of women who don’t “conform” as well as relatable bits on the messier, easily judged ways we often act in relationships. Elements translate well to a film about dating, something she discusses in great length on stage, but not quite well enough, given how specific and hilarious she can be in her standup, the film often feeling a bit beige and shapeless in comparison. Schlesinger plays Andrea, a fictional version of herself, a single comic who ends up dating and sleeping with hot, but lightweight, guys with names like Kaden. On a flight home one day, she encounters Dennis (Ryan Hansen), a nerdy but friendly co-passenger, who is nothing she would usually go for (physically, she compares him to “an accountant who loves missionary”). They became fast friends and eventually it turns into something more but Andrea starts realising (along with help from her friend, an under-utilised Margaret Cho) that Dennis might not be the person he says he is.

The story that Good on Paper is based on (Schlesinger says the film is about two-thirds accurate), is one that’s been told on both Joe Rogan’s podcast as well as during a Comedy Central special and it’s the kind of endless “and then” tale that would have you gripped if it was being shared with you in person. On screen it’s a little less effective, mostly because in trying to force it into the structure of a broad comedy, it loses some of its edge. Schlesinger’s comedy also gets a little too smoothed out in the process, the film playing it safe when we want it to run wild. There are brief flashes but nothing gets close to watching her on stage, where she has the freedom to go further, to risk more, a freewheeling thrill to watch in her funniest, darkest moments.

The plot is spliced with moments from her standup, a la Seinfeld, which again aren’t as funny as they should be, but do provide some of the film’s more acute observations such as a bit about how a singleton is told to feel grateful after a certain age for getting the bare minimum, as if something bad is still better than nothing. Schlesinger has said in interviews that she was keen to grace her character with a certain sense of togetherness that she often feels is missing from female leads in comedies, who are fuckups in a way that feels over-egged and reductive. And that she does, tidily avoiding certain cliches and conventions (unlike Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck there’s not a whiff of the conservative slut-shaming that ultimately tanked that movie), but we still don’t know her quite well enough and it’s too hard to understand why she would fall for someone who is such a flashing assemblage of bright red flags. A lot of this is down to Hansen’s performance, which is far too broad, as if he just walked on set from a TBS sitcom that was cancelled in the 2000s, never convincing us that he’s someone who could attract anyone, let alone a self-assured, smart comedian.

It all goes off the rails in the worst way in the chaotic final act, as Schlesinger invents a farcical, and increasingly ludicrous, way to wrap things up, the truth of what happened proving far too pedestrian for the framework she’s created. It feels at times that in tying herself to this particular anecdote, she’s a little hampered, and one can foresee a better project for her as an actor and a writer somewhere in the future, something that’s both good on paper and on screen.

  • Good on Paper is available on Netflix from 23 June