by Rob DiCristino
Let’s start this week with a reminder: Conformity is not always a vice. Genre tropes are not always the enemy. As fun as it may be to color outside the lines every now and again, it’s important to remember that structure and formula exist because they can be reasonably expected to deliver results. They’re reassuring, comforting, and the real masters are the ones who know how to make them feel fresh without straying too far into the derivative. Will Dennis knew that when he wrote, directed, and starred in his 2019 feature debut, Vanilla. It’s a romantic comedy in which straight-laced Elliot (Dennis) and carefree Kimmie (Kelsea Bauman-Murphy) go on a cross-country road trip for Reasons That Will Matter Later. Vanilla is well, vanilla. It’s cute and mostly inoffensive. It does the things that romantic comedies usually do (with one major subversion) at a scale and pace befitting its modest budget and production value. Vanilla has all the trappings of cinematic comfort food. Why, then, does it taste so bland?
Any capable student of romantic comedies could set their watch to Vanilla’s story beats and character archetypes: Our lead is a stuffy, buttoned-up consumer who needs to Live a Little. His love interest is as Manic and Pixie as they come, an adventurous rabble-rouser hiding her vulnerability behind quirky dance moves and cynical aphorisms. She works for her ex-uncle Sal (Eddie Alfano), whose mild eccentricities are employed in the destruction of rats for most of the movie. Elliot needs someone to talk to on the phone, so we get Kathryn Grody as his mother and Johnny Sibilly as her young Latino lover, Fernando. Their interactions are hilarious, the movie insists, because old ladies and young men don’t usually have sexual affairs. Anyway, Elliot and Kimmie have playful banter and mark the various legs of their journey by breaking down personal barriers, establishing trust, and hastily boning on, like, Day 2. But again, these are not criticisms; every great cocktail has its necessary ingredients.