Role Play

2024 | rated R | starring Kaley Cuocco, David Oyelowo, Connie Nielson, Bill Nighy | directed by Thomas Vincent | 1h 40m |

{The following review contains spoilers for the HBO series The Flight Attendant}

With the Amazon original streamer Role Play, we get to kick off 2024 with a clunky movie that doesn’t know what it is and is fundamentally broken. Hazzah!

Emma (Kaley Cuocco) and Dave (David Oyelowo, Selma, See How They Run) are approaching their 12th wedding anniversary looking to add a bit of spice to their routine by role playing as strangers at a local hotel. The game is interrupted by a man (Bill Nighy) with an interest in Emma, and encounter that blows open Emma’s secret double life as an international assassin. When Emma disappears, Dave journey’s halfway around the world to find out the truth.

Role Play is a movie that sets itself up as one thing, plays out as something completely different and leaves you to gradually realize that as it’s going along. One where an astute editor with a vison could probably re-assemble the film – as is – in a different order and make something better. Let’s start with the first questionable choice: the POV. The film starts from Emma’s perspective, showing us her life of assassination and how she effortlessly weaves it into her life as a super-mom juggling her two kids. The movie wants her to be likable and show us how cool she is. At about 1/3rd in, David is brought into a police station and learns the truth and it’s at that point when we get the sense the movie would have been a lot more surprising and impactful if we were also learning the truth at that moment along with him. Role Play doesn’t want that because then we would feel deceived by Emma and she would have to earn our trust back. Instead of having David’s POV, he’s just cast out as the foil. For reasons we’ll get into later.

The film, directed by Thomas Vincent of the acclaimed action series Bodyguard, seems to have multiple points of inspiration. The first is actress (and producer) Kaley Cuocco who after decades in sitcoms delivered an excellent star-turn performance in the terrific HBO series The Flight Attendant. In that show, Cuocco played reckless party-girl flight attendant Cassie, who after a night with a stranger wakes up to find him dead and herself embroiled in an international murder mystery – ultimately becoming a globe-trotting spy herself. Cassie’s arc in the series is incredibly smart and satisfying and Cuocco handles it expertly. For a myriad of reasons Role Play is not The Flight Attendant. But the movie isn’t just a bait-and-switch. This movie actively tries to be the HBO series, inviting the comparison from the double-life escapades to replicating sound-alike music.

By contrast, The Flight Attendant is a show that knows what it is, it is at every point a crime-mystery in which Cassie’s party-girl ways are played as an alcoholic who needs to get her life together. Role Play sets itself up like Date Night or Sex Tape or The Lovebirds or last year’s The Family Plan with virtually the same plot. A couple in a rut, trying to rekindle the spark, put in a real adventure way out of their dept that strengthens their relationship. That premise is fundamentally a fish-out-of-water comedy. Some stories dictate their own genre. Role Play is never played for a laugh, and that’s the realization I had halfway through of why this doesn’t work. It’s a square peg of a comic premise shoved in the round hole of a serious spy film. It’s why the film in it’s first half feels like it is chugging along from one talky scene to the next where a movie that new it was a comedy would be snappier.

Also, by the way, this movie’s gimmick into the spy film, the role play itself, isn’t fleshed out at all. Why do they want to do this? Why this particular role play? A bit more of their relationship on the rocks would have set it up better. This move is rated R already let’s go into their relationship more.

So why are we not put in David’s perspective? Because Role Play is a not-so-subtle gender role reversal film where the woman is the action hero and the man is the bumbling, emasculated damsel-in-distress just trying to keep up. It’s inarguable that most action movies (at least in the 90s) have this dynamic. It’s also inarguable that those movies don’t turn their women into the bumbling stooges that David is made to be here. That the man in those movies has to make an extra effort to win the trust of his woman back that Emma does not have to here. In those movies the guy getting out of the doghouse with his wife is put on the same level as stopping the villains and saving the world.

Now, I’m not saying never do a gender-role-reversal where the guy is a bumbling wimp and the women takes the lead. There are a ton of great examples of women poking fun at action movie tropes and it working (The Spy Who Dumped Me also comes to mind). I’m saying in this particular case, with the way this movie plays out, the surprise it robs us of, the sheer seriousness at which everything unfolds, the tin-ear for the genre and dialog required for this story – that the desire to force this role reversal is one of the competing elements that keep it all from coming together.

Dare I say nobody in the world dislikes Kaley Cuocco. She’s a charming, versatile actor who can handle comedy and drama and action. She handles the action well in this movie. But Role Play does her no favors, isn’t challenging and most criminally fails to capitalize on the The Flight Attendant’s momentum.

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