Movie Review: “Patti Cake$” puts rhymes to her plus-size struggles

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“Patti Cake$” is a lowdown New Jersey epic, a down-in-the-dumps of Bayonne but dreaming big tale of a hard place and the hard people looking to get out.

Australian Danielle MacDonald, in the title role, carries the ghost of everyone who ever yearned to cross that river, to make it to New York on talent, chutzpah and feverish desire. From Sinatra to Springsteen, Latifah to Ice-T, being able to see that skyline is just enough to cling to keep a singer motivated, with eyes never wavering from the prize.

Patti fantasizes herself in music videos, getting epic introductions to sell-out crowds from her idol O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah). Then she awakens, psyches herself up with hip hop affirmations in the mirror and lumbers off to her job slinging drinks at a karaoke dive filled with aged drunks, one of whom is her mall makeup mistress mom (a fearsome Bridget Everett). 

Mom clung to her own music dreams once upon a time. Now, the only things she puts down her smokes and drinks for are to dismiss Patti’s dreams, and demand her paycheck. They’re drowning in medical debts.

Patti’s high school nickname stuck — “Dumbo ” — and not because of her ears. But she’s got a talent for improvising rhymes, be they obscene limericks for her sickly grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) or for rap battles with the locals — “My verse if full of curses cuz’ I live in Dirty Jersey.”

The one guy who feeds her ego is Hareesh (Siddharth Dhanajay) a delightfully delusional pharmacist who harbors his own hopes of hip hop fame. To him, she’s “Killer P,” “Marilyn Mansion,” “The QUEEN.” He ties his fate to hers.

Geremy Jasper’s film charts this motley duo’s struggles to chart a path to success. All they know is how others did it before them — cut some tracks, copy their own CDs, even though nobody plays CDs any more — get a showcase, make some noise.

But even that out-of-date path painfully evades them. The script makes the characters vulnerable but laugh-out-loud funny and only takes them seriously when they’re down.

Enter “Bastard the Antichrist,” an anarchic guitarist/tech whiz and poet whose articulate calls to “WAKE UP” inform his genre-busting speed-metal rhymes. They meet him (Mamoudou Athie) at an amateur night show, and even though he’s homeless and plainly a bit mad, they become PB&J, seemingly primed to take that one shot at getting “across the bridge.”

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Jasper gives his picture the muted colors of faded inner city graffiti, with sequences energized by extreme close-ups, swish-pans, hand-held cameras and natural lighting. Even Patti’s bartending/waitressing work scenes have a crackle thanks to the shooting and editing.

The grit and grime weighs on the characters, but they sparkle with grim, deluded optimism. Watch Patti spit rhymes as Hareesh keeps the beat on the hood of her ancient Cadillac (“PattiWGN” plates), staring across the river, and the whole film reveals itself. The goal is within sight, their longing for it is palpable, and their youthful optimism blinds them to their long odds.

Their setbacks will make you grimace for them, but their pluck is almost inspiring. Jasper has blended “Precious” with “Hustle & Flow,” and even if you don’t dig the music, you will root for the characters and hope for a happy ending even though disaster and tragedy lurk around every corner.

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MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, crude sexual references, some drug use and a brief nude image

Cast: Danielle MacDonald, Bridget Everett, Siddharth Dhanajay, Mamoudou Athie, Cathy Moriarty
Credits: Written and directed by Geremy Jasper. A Fox Searchlight release.

Running time: 1:48

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