Not that you needed further proof that 2012 was going to be the year of Lizzy Caplan, but the actress steals her scenes in "frankie go boom" with the fervor of someone trying to become your next favorite indie queen. She manages to lift what could have been a rote comedy of sibling rivalry and escalating embarrassment into something heartfelt and human.
"frankie go boom" (title intentionally lowercase), which had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on Saturday night, is one of those movies you'll stumble upon at 1 a.m. on Showtime and wonder how director Jordan Roberts managed to get everyone you love into the same movie. There's Caplan as Lassie, the female lead, Charlie Hunnam ("Sons of Anarchy") as the titular Frankie, Chris O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids") as his ne'er-do-well brother, Bruce, and Chris Noth and Ron Perlman -- as a manic Hollywood star and a transgender ex-con, respectively. Toss in supporting turns from Whitney Cummings, Nora Dunn and Sam Anderson (Bernard from "Lost"!), as well as a brief cameo from Adam Pally ("Happy Endings") and "frankie go boom" is almost always enjoyable, if only because of the cast's considerable charm and chemistry.
If it doesn't amount to much else, that's because the story is somewhat disjointed: it revolves around a missing sex tape, Bruce's desire to become a director, and Frankie's push to overcome his biggest fears. Where the film shines is in the little moments between Lassie and Frankie, two damaged souls who become bound together by the various forms of humiliation, both big and small, they experience throughout the film.
"I wanted to make a comedy about a second chance in love, a second chance at whatever thing you got slapped down in. I was fascinated by humiliation, and by overcoming humiliation," Roberts said during the post-screening Q&A. "I love comedies that are grounded in the real world; it's a broad comedy but we really wanted to make it feel emotionally real."
Good thing he cast Caplan, then, who is tasked with handling a lot of that emotion. Best known for her role on "Party Down" (and for playing Janis Ian in "Mean Girls"; suck on that!), Caplan made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in January for her performances in "Bachelorette" and "Save the Date." (Vulture called her a contender for Sundance "It-Girl.") In "frankie," she takes what could be another variation on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl -- Lassie literally runs into Frankie while drunkenly riding her bike one night -- and makes her into someone three-dimensional. There's a scene at the end of the first act, where Lassie -- through tears -- must explain why she's biking-while-intoxicated; it's both heartbreaking and hilarious, and Caplan nails the tonal subtleties with ease.
"What Lizzy does in the backseat of that car, in that early scene, is so extraordinary to me," Roberts said. "She threw herself in, 100 percent."
Judging from her recent run of choices and performances, that seems par for Caplan's course.
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