Who doesn’t love Diane Keaton? Or frankly, want to be Diane Keaton? The Oscar-winning star has had a film and television career spanning six decades, she’s a fashion icon, and she’s done it all in her own singularly unique and quirky way. It’s not surprising then, that in the fantastical and fluffy comedy “Mack & Rita” — written by Madeline Walter and Paul Welsh, directed by Katie Aselton — a struggling young writer wishes to be as cool and confident as Keaton herself, or someone like her — as in, older. Rendered literal, that wish results in a tale that could be described as “Freaky Friday” meets “Old.” It’s a cute concept, but turns out to be a lemon once you start kicking the tires.
Watching Keaton read the phone book would be entertaining. Unfortunately, the phone book would have made more sense than the screenplay for “Mack & Rita,” which ditches character establishment and clear conflict for fish-out-of-water physical comedy and some vaguely affirmative lessons about learning to be yourself, unapologetically.
Twenty-something Mack (Elizabeth Lail) is an author turned social media writer/influencer. Though she looks young and hip, she’s truly an old soul, who dreams of living like her dear grandmother, swanning about in colorful caftans, not caring about what other people think. This desire for the caftan life is apparently a struggle for Mack, as she violently resists the youthful capers of her friends during a Palm Springs bachelorette party for her best friend Carla (Taylour Paige).
Worn out from a bottomless brunch, aghast at the notion of a “Bad Bunny concert in a refrigerator,” Mack stumbles into a “past-life regression pop-up” and clambers into an old tanning bed at the behest of Luka (Simon Rex ). He guides her through a meditation about who she really wants to be, and out pops, naturally, Diane Keaton. All of a sudden Mack is the bold and stylish 70-something she’s always dreamed of becoming.
Posing as her “Aunt Rita” until the problem can be remedied, Mack slides back into her life with a few bumps along the way. She’s got a new groove as Rita, flirting with her next-door neighbor Jack (Dustin Milligan), and becoming a surprise Instagram sensation. The story is ostensibly about how the privilege of age can help one learn to embrace their foibles and idiosyncrasies, but we’re never quite clear on specifically what those are for Mack.
If growing older is empowering, it’s due to the experience you gain and the lessons along the way; those years spent earning gray hairs and laugh lines. It’s not something you can skip. Mack/Rita eventually figures this out, thanks to a sassy wine club of grandmas, but it’s a little too late.
Any and all age-swap shenanigans, baffling scenarios, and flaws in the concept could be forgiven by a better understanding of Mack, whose issues seem muddled and trivial. Rita, well, who even is Rita? She’s meant to be Older Mack, but she’s just Diane Keaton delivering her signature adorably neurotic routine (if it aint’ broke). There’s no consistency of character or performance between Lail and Keaton, and it always feels like we’re watching Mack AND Rita, not two versions of the same person.
Aselton has a light touch as a director, and she wisely proudly out an all-star parade of comedy heavyweights to distract from the script issues. It’s hard to be mad at a movie in which Patti Harrison juggles three cellphones as Mack’s harried agent, and Nicole Byer leads a beachside breathwork session that somehow ends up lighting Rita’s hair on fire. The supporting characters, even in the smallest of roles, are a highlight.
Perhaps a little Keaton cosplay can be therapeutic, but true wisdom comes from time spent, not just an age swap. Thanks to the adventures of Rita, Mack finally learns to just wear that caftan if she wants to, though exactly what was stopping her in the first place remains a mystery.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service movie critic.
‘Mack & Rita’
Rating: PG-13, for some drug use, sexual references and language
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
playing: In general release Aug. 12