We’re introduced to Jill as she paces, nervously, on top of her dining room table.
There’s a belt around her neck. And she’s trying to work up the nerve to hang herself.
That’s when she hears barking. That’s when she sees the feral canine in her yard, staring up at her.
It’s only when we get a taste of her life that we start to understand. Jill (Marianna Palka) is miserable. She’s got four demanding, high-maintenance kids who eat up all her time. Her husband Bill (Jason Ritter) is a cheating heel. We meet him between the legs of a younger colleague (Sol Rodriguez). He’s so self-absorbed he won’t let Jill go on a painting retreat she’s planned, so clueless he can’t see his company melting down around him.
Bill’s “I love you” wouldn’t convince a judge. He’s so thoughtless he thinks nothing of the belt he has to remove from around her neck when he finally comes home late that night. Suicide didn’t work, and he didn’t even notice she’d tried. Nothing for it but to become a “Bitch.”
Writer-director-actress Palka’s “Bitch” is a dark, allegorical and humane comedy about a wrecked marriage and Mom’s extreme way of checking out of it. The overriding joke here is straight out of that classic of the African American theater, “Day of Absence,” or the Mexican-American film that ripped that off — “A Day Without a Mexican.”
Nobody realizes just how Jill is the glue that holds them all together and makes their wives work until she disappears. Her husband frantically calls her sister (Jaime King), doesn’t know which schools to drive the kids to, doesn’t know how to make lunch, doesn’t even know how to drive Jill’s Sport Maternity Vehicle (SUV).
But when he gets home from the debacle that is his office (Roger Guenveur Smith is the layoffs-happy Big Boss), the giggling, fearful kids have figured it out.
“She’s uh, not being HERSELF,” they joke.
Mom’s gone canine. She’s a dog, barking and living in her own filth, in the basement.
Scottish expat Palka also wrote and directed “I’m the Same” and “Good Dick” (also co-starring Ritter), so “Bitch” isn’t her first provocative title or daring take, and “I’m the Same.” She’s convincingly feral, as an actress, in this one. Her dialogue-writing isn’t particularly memorable, though the script has some solid twists and sharp (if over-familiar) observations about family and a mother’s place in it.
Palka brings out the very best in her cast, though, from the just-bratty-enough kids, with only the young teen daughter (Brighton Sharpino) savvy enough to grasp what’s going on. Tellingly, she’s the only other person in the house to see the mysterious spirit dog that sends Jill off the deep end.
And Palka is wise to hitch her comic wagon to Ritter, all antic tantrums, testy befuddlement and panicky here, playing male privilege to the hilt, a cheater with the gall to scream about how “selfish” his wife is for doing this.
A favorite moment? Bill has just gotten the last kid into kindergarten, is frantically whining into his phone when Ritter abruptly just drops — fake-faints in the middle of a call, right in the playground — then pops back up because he hasn’t got time to faint.
Not with the wife nuts, the kids demanding him, the authorities nosing around with an eye toward committing Jill and his boss threatening his job and lifestyle.
It’s all rather pat and it wraps up in the most pat way possible. “Bitch,” truth be told, isn’t as daring and “out there” as its titles promises.
But it is amusing, a lady-turns-dog comedy with just enough bite to be worth streaming.
MPAA Rating: R (sexual situations, profanity)
Cast: Marianna Palka, Jason Ritter, Jaime King, Brighton Sharpino, Roger Guenveur Smith
Credits: Written and directed by Marianna Palka. A MarVista release.
Running time: 1:32