"Black Bear" is a proudly weird film that shakes up the formula to the point that it explodes like a soda left in the freezer.
The experimental film's fortunes rise and fall around the dryly comic talents of Aubrey Plaza, who delivers in a major way, exploring a playful cruelty she's subtly hinted at in many of her comedic roles.
Plaza explores her dark side as Allison, a manipulative actress and filmmaker who rents a home from Blair (Sarah Gordon) and her husband, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) to shoot a mysterious new project. She quickly inserts herself into their personal disputes, taking a sadistic pleasure in driving a wedge between the couple with subtle insults and provocations.
Allison sees people as her playthings, and freely spins lies, half-truths and seductive inferences, slithering in and out of suspicion, trust, hostility and feigned kindness toward her mysterious goals. The interplay between Allison, Gabe and Blair was enough to carry the movie, which would have been better suited had it stuck with the theme to its bitter end.
Instead, the script flips just as the intensity level simmers.
Writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine divides the film into two parts. The first is a captivating psychological game, but the second seems like a slew of barely-connected outtakes in which actors have swapped roles.
While the scenes are often fascinating as they stand alone, they don't coalesce into much of a unified purpose. If the goal was to satirize the art of filmmaking or play with the quirks of the actor-director-writer dynamic, the result is a convoluted mess. Whatever inside jokes or buried subtext Levine was going for just doesn't translate.
The title, which is no doubt some sort of opaque metaphor, also refers to a literal bear who just shows up, because, well, why not? Once Levine has stripped his project of any sense of cohesion, just about anything goes. If his goal was to show how a promising artistic project can derail, he succeeds too mightily.