We’ve all heard the term “old soul” before. Director Katie Aselton’s Mack & Rita explores that concept literally with the story of a 30-year-old who physically becomes the advanced age she feels on the inside. But Diane Keaton, leading a cast that includes Taylor Paige, Simon Rex, and Dustin Milligan, doesn’t quite deliver the effervescence needed to sustain this body-swap romantic comedy, whose enlightening ideas about the female pursuit of anti-aging, as well as the innate desire to live authentically, get hamstrung by its premise.
Mackenzie (Elizabeth Lail) has always felt much older than she actually is, preferring to be in the company of her elderly, fabulously fashioned grandma rather than girls her own age. But as she grew up, her narration tells us, she stopped listening to her inner voice and followed the trends that made her popular with friends. Now in her 30s and without her grandmother around, she continues to undermine her inner sense of self, swapping her aspiration to write a novel in favor of becoming an Instagram influencer. Her demanding agent Stephanie (Patti Harrison) encourages her to take the short-money gigs to pay her bills, even as she wrestles with a case of writer’s block.
Mack’s world quickly turns upside down when, on a Palm Springs bachelorette retreat with her bestie Carla (Taylour Paige), she spontaneously visits hippie-dippie traveling shaman Luka (Simon Rex) for his “Regress and Be Blessed” counsel. After she lays down on his pastel pink, ’80s style tanning bed, he chants, the air swirls, lights flicker, and whammo! She awakens as her 70-year-old self (Keaton), frightened and disoriented by the sudden transformation. As Mack gradually settles into her new skin, masquerading as Aunt Rita, Carla attempts to find the mercurial Luka and reverse the process. However, much to Mack’s surprise, many of her friends and followers instantly take to Rita, making her more popular than she’s ever been, forcing her to choose between changing back or staying the same.
Screenwriters Madeline Walter and Paul Welsh don’t do much to subvert expectations when it comes to the body-swap genre, borrowing some of the whimsical fantasy boilerplate of Big, 13 Going On 30 and 17 Again. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, but updating what came before would’ve been a sly way to refresh themes dealing with confidence, regret and friendship. Mack’s journey towards self-acceptance takes a hit since it’s Carla—not Mack—who, time and time again, is more interested in solving Mack’s conflict, when the desire for change should come from within the protagonist. On the other hand, Carla proves her worth as a best friend more than Mack does, considering how much the latter is shielding from her supposed bestie.
Meanwhile, Mack—under the grey-haired guise of Rita—pulls the rug out from beneath her puppy-dog-eyed love interest Jack (Dustin Milligan), a dog-sitting neighbor who falls for Rita. The filmmakers want the audience to believe that his burgeoning love affair with Rita is easily replaceable by one with Mack, since they share a soul as the same person, but suffice it to say that love doesn’t really work like that. Because our heroine starts many of her relationships under false pretenses, it becomes challenging to root for her. Rom-com conventions force us to accept the charade in order to arrive at an inevitable happy ending. But we know better—and these filmmakers should as well.
While the plot lacks genuinely comical shenanigans (one psychedelic drug trip involving a dog talking in Martin Short’s voice thoroughly underwhelms), the actors make up for it in their performances. Lail establishes her character’s awkward insecurities as endearing and delightful, while Keaton showcases her innate skill to make witty one-liners sting, as well as an aptitude for slapstick-y pratfalls (like struggling with a Pilates reformer machine, and leading an outdoor spiritual chant). The best sequences in the movie revolve around Rita’s newfound friend group, which includes charismatic actresses of a certain age Loretta Devine, Lois Smith, Wendie Malick and Amy Hill.
Visually, fusing the story with a warm, contemporary aesthetic makes it a pleasant enough affair. But ultimately, Mack & Rita is a passable work at best for Aselton (Black Rock and The Freebie serve as better showcases for her creative voice), and consequently, it’s unlikely to lead to her soon swapping chairs with the director of the next big-budget blockbuster.
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