For the 30-year-old at the center of Mack & Rita, a repurposed tanning bed and a New Age charlatan’s mumbo-jumbo summon body-switch magic: She emerges from the gussied-up contraption as the older woman she believes she truly is. The good news for the audience is that the septuagenarian is played by Diane Keaton. For Keaton, the movie is better news than Poms, but still a hit-and-miss affair. At times disarming, at others plain silly, it takes a few daring leaps without quite avoiding middle-of-the-road sitcom territory.
This makes sense given that screenwriters Madeline Walter and Paul Welsh are vets of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Actor-turned-filmmaker Katie Aselton (Black Rock, The Freebie), who played Keaton’s daughter in Book Club, directs the material with a sunshiny SoCal sensibility and an appreciation of the terrific comic cast, though more than a few barely escape being wasted. If there’s magic here, it belongs not to the story, which wavers between clearly stated insights and an overemphasized quirk factor, but to the actors’ chemistry and the ineffable movie-star wattage of Keaton — the smile, the laugh, the idiosyncratic line readings and, not least, the fashion sense.
Mack & Rita
The Bottom Line
Best when it isn’t trying too hard.
Mackenzie, known to all as Mack and played by a cheery-yet-weary Elizabeth Lail, of You, Gossip Girl and Ordinary Joe, likes to take things slow — so much so that you might want to offer her some Geritol for iron-poor blood. She has a love of all things vintage and is the published author of a book of essays about the grandmother (Catherine Carlen) who raised her. Her agent (Patti Harrison), an amalgam of over-the-top sour expressions and social media jargon, assures Mack that books are passé and keeps her busy with minor branding opportunities as an Instagram influencer.
Mack’s best friend, Carla (Taylour Paige, of Zola, making an impression within the constraints of the role), is about to be married, and her bachelorette weekend offers Aselton and DP Sean McElwee a chance to revel in Palm Springs’ midcentury glamour for a minute before the movie returns to a basic celebration of L.A.’s eastern stretches and downtown, old-school as well as gentrified. (The pre-nuptial celebrations are curiously underpopulated, probably a reflection of COVID restrictions on the production.)
Its ideas about ageism can be cutesy or vague or sharp, but the screenplay effortlessly nabs the idea of an old soul in a young body, and the strain of pretending to your peers that you want nothing more than to see and be seen on the party circuit. And so while Carla and two of her bridesmaids (Addie Weyrich and Aimee Carrero) head off to a pop-up concert, Mack follows her yearning to just sit or, better yet, lie down, and enters the tent of Luka, who promises the experience of a past-life regression. He’s played by Red Rocket’s Simon Rex in flowy robes and with the perfect blend of distracted cluelessness and hucksterism. Mack exits his tanning-bed “regression pod” in the throes of a future-life progression, her hair gray and her body older. Luka is gone. And, à la Big, when she later returns to the site of her hocus-pocus transformation, his tent is nowhere to be found.
Initially freaked out over becoming her inner “old gal,” Mack quickly gets into the swing of things, calling herself Mack’s aunt Rita, with a story about a house swap that involves Scottsdale, Arizona, perhaps a nod to Keaton’s Book Club character. Keaton puts her signature spin on in-the-moment dissembling, and on Rita’s clothing ensembles (pieces from her personal wardrobe made it into the movie). Where Mack was tentative and shy, Rita, presto-change-o, is assertive and soaks up attention, embracing her role as an in-demand “glammy grammie” influencer. In the movie’s most nuanced angle, she lets the sparks fly with smitten neighbor and occasional dog-sitter Jack (Schitt’s Creek regular Dustin Milligan, evincing full-on charm and unforced chemistry with Keaton).
Within its PG-13 borders and a general American squeamishness about aging (aka the process every human being is undergoing from the moment they’re born), the movie questions generational clichés, with the older actors for the most part rising above them. Mack & Rita offers the exquisitely mouthy and irrepressible Loretta Devine as Carla’s mother, and a comic Greek chorus in her “wine club” — i.e., her perpetually drinking friends — played by Lois Smith, Amy Hill and Wendie Malick.
The movie could have used more of their exchanges with Rita, and less of such strained slapstick as Rita’s Pilates misadventure. The latter bit aims to showcase Keaton’s undeniable physical comedy skills but aches for modulation and rhythm. Far better on that front is a delightful sequence in which Rita blisses out to shrooms (a voice performance by Keaton’s Father of the Bride co-star Martin Short is the scene’s bonus or a step too far, depending on your Martin Short tolerance level). A sequence set at a beachside influencer event teeters between overkill and just-right, with Nicole Byer injecting the perfect touch of oomph.
Paige’s natural warmth as Carla, the only person Mack/Rita confides in about her unusual situation, grounds the often flimsy material with a firm sense of a lifelong bond. Rom-com beats notwithstanding, female friendship is at the heart of the film, with only two significant male characters onscreen and Carla’s fiancé a nonentity.
The uneven screenplay is strongest in its throwaway lines, such as mention of a Bad Bunny performance in a walk-in refrigerator and Rita’s preference for “red wine with ice cubes.” When it insists on telling us what’s important (being yourself!), as it does in a final summing-up, whatever energy has built up deflates. That energy defies the movie’s product-placement neatness, and all too gently subverts its happy vision of a world of corporate ambassadors.