Occasionally distributors opt not to screen films for the press, presumably reasoning that their product will find its intended audience with or without the benefit of critical input. Having seen the trailer for The Roommate a few times, the decision by Screen Gems to skip press screenings for their college-days ripoff of Single White Female seemed like a solid business decision. After all, the film features a skinny, crazy, doe-eyed girl who develops an unhealthy obsession with another girl who looks a lot like her. There seemed to be some scenes involving bathing, some hints at lesbianism. It’s not as if this was supposed to be an Oscar vehicle, right?
Oh, right. I won’t say that fear of missing the next Black Swan solely motivated me to join other paying customers at the very first theatrical screening of The Roommate near where I live. Heavier factors in my decision were a mild annoyance at being shut out — I’ll see your movie after all, Screen Gems! — and the fact that Fridays aren’t particularly busy days for a movie critic. Also, sometimes there is valuable research in seeing exactly what an intended audience looks like. (I expected a youthful demographic, texting madly throughout.)
The two lovely women who star in The Roommate, Minka Kelly (of TV’s Friday Night Lights and Parenthood) and Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl, Country Strong) both have an old fashioned beauty, like the profiles on vintage cameos. Indeed, they practically look like sisters. Their high, sweet voices almost match as well, which comes in handy when whack job Rebecca (Meester) answers the phone late at night pretending to be Sara (Kelly) and deceives her roommate’s ex-boyfriend into having phone sex.
During Rebecca’s phone sex scene, Sara is off having the real thing with her new college boyfriend, Stephen (Burlesque’s Cam Gigandet, who apparently was practicing the fine art of the sexy squint one day and got his face frozen in that position). These scenes, choppily edited together, are far less compelling than they sound — shot in extreme close-up, they stir the urge to shop for lipstick more than they do the loins. There is a dramatic c omponent missing; if Rebecca “borrows” Sara’s ex, who cares? Because get this: Sara had made a pact with her ex, Jason, that the couple would go to college together. But when Sara got into Brown and he didn’t, she dutifully mortgaged her future to enroll in the fictional University of Los Angeles, a place that admitted Jason as well as the possibly bi-polar, possibly schizophrenic Rebecca (screenwriter Sonny Mallhi leaves the medical nature of her problems ambiguous, perhaps to avoid any psychiatrists getting bent out of shape). And then Brown offered Jason a spot and he took it. Certainly, this is a young man who deserves some special attention from Rebecca.
Brown might not have been such a good fit for Sara anyway; she seems to be majoring in Project Runway with a minor in jogging. Her design professor, played by Billy Zane, decides to admit her to an overbooked class after giving her an oily once over. “You already have two things I can’t teach,” he tells her. “Style and desire.” Would the Ivy League have mentors like that?
The movie proceeds with no major surprises. As soon as generous, sparkly, sweet Sara tells Rebecca about her beloved sister Emily, who died when Sara was nine, and Rebecca, a lonely rich girl, says wistfully “I always wanted to have a sister,” the writing is on the wall. The nice meet the needy and the next thing you know, someone in a tank top is going to be throwing someone else in a tank top out a window. I will say that Rebecca’s shift from a kitten-cuddling, clothes sharing roommate to dangerous stalker happened so abruptly that I wondered if the projectionist had accidentally skipped a reel. But no, it was just Mallhi and director Christian Christiansen rushing to get to the sleazy, creepy stuff. Which brings me to the company at my matinee: four people. There were two young women sitting together. Maybe they were Gossip Girl fans; I just was glad they were there, because the other two, men in their 50s, each sitting in remote corners of the theater, looked more like members of the raincoat-flashing demographic. The movie is exploitative schlock; both its stars — particularly Meester, who has something, although she herself has perhaps not yet figured out what — deserve better.