The way a movie introduces itself to the audience matters. In just a few short scenes or lines of dialogue a movie needs to establish the kind of universe it exists in, who the characters are, and the tone of the whole enterprise. The opening shot of the Star Destroyer chasing the Republic cruiser through space, from Star Wars- Episode IV: A New Hope, is iconic and wholly sets up the type of movie to follow. On the other hand, the opening to Suicide Squad is a mess, introducing some characters repeatedly, but neglecting others, so there is little ambiguity over certain characters’ fates; reiterating things it already told the audience, and delivering a more muted, bland color palette than the neon-emblazoned title card implies. Those are two extreme examples, but each encapsulates their respective movies rather well.
Then there are those times where the introductory scene is wildly inconsistent with the rest of the film. The comedy Who’s Jenna…? starts off with a married couple trudging towards the car as the husband tells the wife that the car was just upholstered. This sends her into a rage, as they are heading to the hospital for the birth of their baby. She severely curses him out as their neighbors also prep to go to the hospital for their pregnancy. The wife in this newly introduced couple also lays it into her man, telling him she’ll “…bite his dick off…” if he ever comes near her again. Cut to the hospital, and the babies are born within minutes of each other.
None of what was just described has any bearing on the story proper for Who’s Jenna…? At a karaoke bar Jonathan (Bill Sorvino) and Andy (Joseph D’Onofrio), the grown-up babies from the beginning, are celebrating their birthday with co-worker Scott (Edwin Guerrero). When Jenna (Tracey Birdsall), and two of her friends, walk into the bar, the three male friends comment that Jenna looks like a particular porn star, but there is dissent as to which one–Jenna Jameson or Amber Lynn. Sizing them up as well, Jenna walks over to Jonathan and the two strike up a conversation. This leads to them dueting on a karaoke tune and having so much fun they go on a few dates, which morphs into a more serious relationship.
“…looks like a particular porn star, but there is dissent as to which one…”
As Jonathan is prepping for a major promotion at the finance firm where he works, he discovers that his boss, Jenna’s brother-in-law, is a racist jerk, not wanting to promote Scott for being black, and improperly messing with a new account. This account belongs to Kevin Steele (Michael Tota), a famous porn actor with legal issues surrounding his ex-wife. The more Jonathan uncovers about his boss’s lax attitude towards the law, the more frustrated he becomes. Jonathan’s coyness about how to handle these crimes leads to a big falling out with Jenna, as she is a lawyer, and is asking for ample evidence to take to court.
Do you see how literally nothing from those first 5 minutes come into play? The parents are never seen or mentioned again, that Andy and Jonathan share a birthday is a moot point, as the trio could have been at the bar for literally any reason at all, hell, even the cursing is considerably toned down after the opening scenes. At only 95 minutes long, Who’s Jenna…? is not in need of padding. As far as the writing for the rest of the movie is concerned, it is a bit of a mixed bag. Writer/ director Thomas Baldinger has all the right ingredients but undercuts them in some odd ways. For instance, when Jonathan and Jenna sing karaoke together, we don’t hear that. We don’t see them laugh at how bad the other’s voice is, or marvel at how amazing they can sing. Instead, a different song plays over a montage of them singing, the others at the bar drinking, and the night wearing on generally speaking.
Therefore, we miss out on getting to know these characters and, more importantly, the audience isn’t treated to these two getting to know each other. By the end of the movie, I had no idea how many weeks (months?) had gone by since the main couple first met. This makes all the characters rather shallow, as there is little gleaned about them beyond superficial details. That is a fault of the directing as well, also by Baldinger. He didn’t have to play a song over the karaoke, or he could have filmed a few more dates between Jenna and John or could have let the actors improvise, so each character becomes their own.
“…has all the right ingredients but undercuts them in some odd ways.”
Bill Sorvino as the moral but uncertain Jonathan is delightful and sells his character’s frustration at his work situation believable. His smiling, beaming face every time Jenna walks into the frame is sweet and, thanks to their incredible chemistry, their relationship has real credibility. Andy, a porn-addicted computer whiz, could have been annoying but Joseph D’Onofrio’s performance gives him quite the sympathetic edge, so the audience always understands his point of view. Michael Tota’s turn as the porn actor is hilarious, with every scene he’s in getting a big laugh out of me.
However, the unequivocal MVP is Tracey Birdsall. Most notable for her collaborations with sci-fi maverick Neil Johnson, she has a number of TV and genre roles under her belt. But this provides the first time she has headlined a full-fledged comedy and her skills here are put to fantastic use. She lights up the screen and has the charisma to spare, making the viewer invested in her in a way the writing fails to do.
Don’t turn Who’s Jenna…? off after the opening scene; it gets better, I promise. While the stakes remain low and the characterizations are weakened by odd writing and directing choices, there are plenty of laughs to be had. That is largely thanks to the amazing cast, with the luminous Birdsall elegantly winning the audience over.
Who’s Jenna…? (2018) Directed by Thomas Baldinger. Written by Thomas Baldinger. Starring Bill Sorvino, Joseph D’Onofrio, Tracey Birdsall, Edwin Guerrero, Michael Tota.