Last night, I had the opportunity to watch the Netflix movie Unicorn Store, which stars Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Joan Cusack, as well as being Larson’s directorial debut. There’s a lot to say about it.
This movie’s trailers marketed it as a feel-good piece, and it is that – but not all the time. Unicorn Store seems, in fact, unable to decide what genre it wants to be, as it jumps from feel-good to drama to theater-of-the-absurd. It seems to always understand that its premise is wacky and bizarre, best-suited to a wacky and bizarre approach, but it never seems fully committed to being that abstract masterpiece that it wants to be. The tone, and thus the plot, shift awkwardly and uncertainly as the movie tries to be all three genres at once. When it’s absurd, you might have a lady walking around at night carrying a floor-lamp, talking about professional single women being murdered – when it tries to be dramatic, you’ve got emotional and very powerful dialogue between a mother and her daughter – then, when it wants to make you feel good, you’ve got Brie Larson’s character Kit doing an uplifting dance-number with her coworkers. But these shifts always feel peculiar. The delivery man who delivers a mysterious invitation to Kit in the first act seems like an enigmatic character himself – but then, we find out in the third act that he’s just misunderstood and looked down on, and, in fact, he likes to do crossword puzzles, and read. The film’s score takes the opposite journey, from a strangely ominous and eerie sound in the first act, to being light-hearted and cheerful in the third.
Brie Larson makes this movie shine, however, when she feels comfortable being absurd: when Samuel L. Jackson rides in on a scooter, or when Kit and her family sit down to a dinner of kale – these moments are the best, because they don’t try to be anything other than what they are, which is crazy good fun. The humor is brilliant: the troop-circle camping scene is my favorite part of the film, and features some incredible acting from Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford, who plays Kit’s mother and father.
Cusack, in fact, is the stand-out performance in this movie, as she elevates every scene she appears in, and always has perfect comedic timing. Every time she wasn’t onscreen, I found myself wanting her to return. Unfortunately, she is used sparingly – as is, rather surprisingly, Samuel L. Jackson himself, who plays The Salesman, the man in charge of The Store. Jackson makes the movie crazier and wackier, but the script doesn’t seem to know what to do with him by the end.
This same problem is evident with many of the film’s subplots, of which there are far too many. There’s Kit’s boss, Gary (Hamish Linklater), who is both deadpan and cryptically creepy; there’s the Mystic Vacuums, which dominate so much of the film’s second act; there’s characters like Crystal and Sabrina (Martha MacIsaac), and the aforementioned delivery man, or Kevin, or the other kids on the Emotion Quest camping trip, all of whom look like they’re intended to be cartoonish caricatures, which would be fine and funny, until the movie suddenly decides it wants to do something with them – and then never does. Unicorn Store would definitely have worked a lot better without some of these subplots.
The only side character given enough screen-time is Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), the janitor at the hardware store who is at first suspicious of Kit, and begins to question her sanity. His journey with Kit is a good counterbalance to the craziness and bizarre stuff going on around them, as he tries to navigate the half-fantasy, half-reality environment in which he lives.
The fantasy elements of the movie, namely the Unicorn itself, are peculiar: mainly because the fantasy appears to be metaphorical at first, until it becomes apparent that, no, there really is a unicorn. The resolution to the Unicorn’s story is a spoiler, so I won’t go into detail save to say that it was something of a letdown for me. I can see where it made sense, but I was disappointed and wanted more. The whole reason that the Unicorn exists in the first place is never explained: we are told that Kit always wanted a Unicorn in her childhood, but we get just one montage of flashbacks in the opening scene, and it’s entirely focused on her art – not on Unicorns. And her art is another subplot that the movie drops along the way.
Overall, Unicorn Store manages to entertain, and is wickedly funny, when it feels comfortable being what it takes for granted that it already is. It’s worth watching for the humor, and for Larson and Cusack’s wonderful performances. But it’s odd that, for a movie ostensibly about accepting who you are, Unicorn Store somehow falls short of doing that, and instead tries to be too many genres, all at once.
Movie Rating: 6.5/10