Review: Even Jason Momoa isn’t strong enough to carry muddled ‘Sweet Girl’
Revenge thrillers don’t need to be realistic, but they do need to follow the logic of their own world building. David vs. Goliath parables don’t need to be populist, but they do need to precisely convey the loftiness of their villains. “Sweet Girl,” a mash-up of those two subgenres that stars Jason Momoa as a grieving husband who issues a death threat against pharmaceutical company higher-ups after his wife dies, frustrates both with murkiness in its conception of the individuals responsible for the vast inequity in the American health care system and with its convoluted message about how to fight back. Momoa can believably howl in anguish and throw a devastating punch, but he can’t carry a script this muddled.
Written by Philip Eisner, Gregg Hurwitz, and Will Staples and directed by Brian Andrew Mendoza, “Sweet Girl” aims at a pair of recognizably disliked and distrusted American figures: Big Pharma executives and politicians. The former are wealthy and never keep their promises, and the latter are wealthy and never keep their promises. Both those observations, given the world in which we live, seem pretty inarguable. But that is about as nuanced an analysis as “Sweet Girl” provides, and perhaps that would be tolerable if the film provided a certain degree of satisfying vengeance exacted against these enemies. Instead, “Sweet Girl” relies on a mid-film twist so nonsensical and tosses up a final Big Boss reveal so reactionary, that the film loses both insight and incisiveness.
“Sweet Girl” starts in the narrative middle, with blue-collar Pittsburgher Ray Cooper (Momoa) hunted down by FBI agents, then jumps backward in time to happier days. Ray, wife Amanda (Adria Arjona), and daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced) are an active, loving family who go camping, scale rock formations and sing Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to each other. Then Amanda gets sick with cancer and years of treatments on an expensive drug bankrupt the family — as BioPrime, the manufacturer of that drug, pays off a competitor to delay the release of a generic option.
Enraged by the corruption and the wealth changing hands as his family is destroyed, Ray threatens BioPrime CEO Simon Keeley (Justin Bartha) while he’s on CNN debating Pennsylvania Congresswoman Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman) about the crushing costs of American health care. And when Keeley ends up dead, Ray and Rachel go on the run, trailed both by the FBI and an assassin (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) who has the Coopers in his sights.
Momoa’s public image of “big dude with a big heart” works to his advantage in “Sweet Girl,” and the lack of artifice in his performance conveys two extremes: the impenetrable anguish he’s carrying after the death of his wife and the certainty with which he targets Keeley and his associates. The film’s fight scenes are overly edited, but Momoa holds his own, throwing his body around with commitment and verve.
“Sweet Girl” missteps by turning its back on the simplicity of its initial premise. Plaguing Ray with self-doubt slows the film to a numbing pace and overcomplicates the visceral relatability of Ray’s emotions. And the film’s parallel story about Rachel, her fear of losing both parents and what that concern leads her to do is sloppily executed despite Merced’s best efforts. “Sweet Girl” can’t decide if it’s a story about revenge or rebirth, and a frankly flabbergasting perspective shift midway through careens the film too far off-course. “I’m a little afraid of how deep this thing might go,” a journalist investigating BioPrime admits to Ray. No similar fears should apply to the narratively shallow “Sweet Girl.”
Rated: R for some strong violence, and language
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Available Aug. 20 on Netflix
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