Even the committed lead performance by Elisabeth Moss can’t quite save Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell,” a grimy, in-your-face chronicle of a punk rock singer’s descent. The film is divided into two halves that couldn’t be further apart.
The first half of the picture is a nearly unwatchable series of backstage scenes during which Becky Something (Moss) berates fellow bandmates, managers, relatives, ex-lovers and pretty much anyone else who’s around, often attacking them physically or verbally. Due to the loud warbling rock music permeating from the background, it’s often difficult to even distinguish who’s yelling and what they’re shouting about.
Surprisingly, the film’s quality increases fairly significantly during the film’s second half, during which Becky attempts to make amends, becomes more of a mother to her young daughter and makes an attempt at a comeback, despite her fragile state. These scenes work much better, although it’s difficult to get a sense of how Becky let these people down in the past – sure, we see her acting in a shockingly unpleasant manner to all involved during the earlier scenes, but there’s little in the way of context and it doesn’t help that I could only make out about one-third of the dialogue from the earlier scenes.
As the film opens, Becky is on the path to alienating her two bandmates – guitarist Marielle (Agyness Deyn, giving off a Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde vibe) and drummer Ali (Gayle Rankin) – as well as her manager (Eric Stolz), seemingly estranged mother (Virginia Madsen) and a fellow rocker (Amber Heard) who wants to tour with her. To her credit, Moss throws herself completely into the role of the self destructive Becky. When she’s not laying into those around her, she’s attacking them with a broken bottle. She also mentors a burgeoning band led by a drummer named Crassie Cassie (Cara Delevingne), although these young women quickly begin to question how much they’ll put up with to hang out with their idol.
Perry has thus far modeled his career somewhat after Noah Baumbach, telling stories about characters who are often difficult to like. However, Baumbach’s films are more insightful and funnier, while the general unpleasantness of Ross’ characters in such films as “Listen Up Philip” and “The Color Wheel” is often difficult to take. “Her Smell” fits in well with these films, but its second half suggests an emergence from the gloom that I’d love to see explored in his next films.
Moss is a great actress whose range is on display in the various TV work she has done – “Mad Men” to “Top of the Lake” – and Becky is a challenging role. She’s good even when the film occasionally grates. “Her Smell” is two movies – the first of which is often irritating, the second of which more compelling. If only there had been more of the latter and significantly less of the former.