Movie Review: Riseborough and Greasers send up gender roles in “Please Baby Please”

Imagine a “West Side Story” where the gang-bangers are unisex toughs and the squares are forced to confront their own unspoken gender identity issues, all set on neon-soaked sound-stages dressed with 1950s props and “Cabaret” decadence.

That’s “Please Baby Please,” a fascinating but frustrating overreach that is never more fun than when it’s most over the top, but never really gets a handle on what it’s supposed to be about.

Andrea Riseborough produced and stars in this vamp, playing a wild-haired, wild-eyed ’50s hepcat, co-hosting jazz record parties in their under-furnished tenement flat with husband Arthur (Harry Melling), making the scene at all the cool beat poetry readings.

But when the finger-snapping, “Wild One” leathered, gender-blurring Young Gents murder a mother and her child on the street in front of their apartment, the curtain is opened on their marriage and the gloves come off.

Arthur is fey and nebbishy and can’t be goaded into intervening, or for that matter defending the shocked and awed Suze.

“I won’t be terrorized into acting like a savage.”

In their crowd, Ida (Alissa Torres) and Les (Yedoye Travis) and others, that stance is an excuse to dive into what is “expected” of a man and a woman in their era. Men have the burden of masculinity, which can entail violence at times. Women?

“Ida, tell me, how does a woman get respect?” “Easy. Be BORING,” because let’s face it, “We ARE the fantasy.”

Suze is bowled over by the life lessons of their rich new (In a tenement?) neighbor (Demi Moore, even further “out there” than Riseborough) and our heroine finds herself sifting through a lot of 1950s gender “rules” that don’t fit her reality.

“Men are the executors of history,” so her being a lot brassier than Arthur won’t matter. That’s not how anyone will remember these Eisenhower “Happy Days.”

Arthur finds himself drawn to a pretty-boy/murderer (Karl Glusman) in the gang. Suze takes a lot of abuse from the gang’s tough-guys and transgender punks. Yeah, she hears the Dutch word for wall that keeps the sea from flooding in — a lot.

Director and co-writer Amanda Kramer (“Ladyworld”) isn’t content with just one or even two points of view. Still, the narrative does settle on a tone and style, as does the production design — lurid on a budget, with a leather bar and porn theater settings and obvious “prop” versions of the appliances that so delighted Americans of the I-like-Ike age.

It’s the sort of stage-show fantasy that cries out for song and dance, and gets just a taste of each — a transgender woman crying through “Since I Don’t Have You” (a hit for The Flamingoes and the The Skyliners), Riseborough and Melling swirling a sort of interpretive dance to the doo-wop and rockabilly for the film’s “Well, this is all I could come up with” finale.

I didn’t dislike this. But it isn’t exactly satire, never quite nails parody and Kramer seems to fumble around groping for one or the other.

Sure, I’ll watch anything Riseborough does, and she was the best thing in “Amsterdam.” But “Please Baby Please” had me begging for more…something.

Rating: unrated, violence, nudity, profanity, adult themes

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Harry Melling, Demi Moore, Karl Glusman, Ryan Simpkins, Jaz Sinclair, Alisa Torres, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Dana Ashbrook.

Credits: Directed by Amanda Kramer, scripted by Amanda Kramer and Noel David Taylor. A Music Box release.

Running time: 1:36

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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