“Mack & Rita,” the third film by Sundance darling Katie Aselton, is a bewildering generational culture-war comedy that sides with every j’accuse that baby boomers hurl at millennials. Mack (Elizabeth Lail), an awkward author turned reluctant influencer, describes herself as a “70-year-old in the body of a 30-year-old.” She tiptoes through life terrified to be out of step with her cohorts’ harsh judgments. Here, according to screenwriters Madeline Walter and Paul Welsh (both of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” who aren’t so much satirizing stereotypes about their own demographic as endorsing them), millennials recoil at reading, diners, scarves, carpeting, silence, sensible shoes, chain restaurants and non-conformity. In one scene, 50% of millennials don’t even understand the word “lothario.”
Exhausted from the pressure to sport thigh-high, spike-heeled snakeskin boots to a bottomless mimosa brunch, Mack stumbles across a shady huckster (“Red Rocket” star Simon Rex), collapses in his regression tank — and emerges in the body of Diane Keaton. The body-swapping contrivance is easier to believe than anything the film does with it. Introducing herself to the world as Mack’s Aunt Rita, the character unchains herself from youthful expectations and finds herself instantly embraced by the young as an elderly Instagram influencer: a “glamma,” in the words of her ferociously callow agent (Patti Harrison).
On its own, that twist isn’t so hard to believe in a summer where teens and twenty-somethings on TikTok have made trends of granny-chic classics like embroidered LL Bean tote bags and white linen trousers, as popularized by Keaton herself in her collaborations with Nancy Meyers. (A sequence where the newly transformed Aunt Rita picks up a kooky blazer and wide belt is presented with the anticipation of Bruce Wayne reaching for his cowl.) What’s mystifying is that the film has no grip on what it means to say about Aunt Rita’s overnight ascension into a millennial style icon. Were Mack’s hangups all in her head? (Not according to the opening scenes.) Is oddball fashion okay only when older people do it? (Not according to the ending scenes.) Should Mack/Rita embrace being an influencer after all? (No, but then yes, but then no, but wait — yes!)
Most audiences will give up sifting through these mixed messages by the time Aunt Rita squires her decades-younger neighbor Jack (Dustin Milligan) on a defiantly dorky date to a California Pizza Kitchen. The scene is about the two bonding over being uncool. But the film’s hummingbird attention span immediately discards its own setup for a throwaway joke where Rita gets jealous that their lunch is interrupted by a hipster babe in a midriff-baring top who also happens to be eating there.
“Mack & Rita” does as little with its ambition to turn Rita and Jack’s romance into an updated “Harold and Maude” as it does with its own grandstanding against agism. Agism is wrong, we’re told. Except when it comes to the shameful fact that Jack continues to skateboard as a man in his early thirties — a hobby that every character, including Rita, agrees is totally lame — in which case agism is totally correct. Momentarily, the film argues that getting old gives Rita the perspective to better stick up for herself — but this thesis, too, about-faces when Rita finds herself cowed into a situation that results in her literally being set on fire.
Keaton does her best with the material. Her own inner youth shines through the character even when the script lets her down, forcing her to wail in distress at the sight of her hair and breasts, or putting her through a punishingly long physical comedy scene where she struggles to use a pilates machine. The film does, at minimum, convince us that most people would want to transform into Keaton if given the opportunity.
Even more so, it convinces us that most actors are ecstatic to work alongside her: Keaton’s presence is the only reason one can imagine that talents like Taylour Paige, Loretta Devine, Wendi Malick, Lois Smith, and Nicole Byer signed on to this project to play the various friends and acquaintances in her orbit, each part more underwritten than the next. As for Rex, essentially cast as a human Voltar machine, he’s a funny blend of scuzzy smooth-talker and baffled inventor when his hand-painted tanning bed zaps the plot into motion. “Time is merely a construct!” hey barks. That mantra may help the movie go by faster.