This is #CineFile, where our critic Rahul Desai goes beyond the obvious takes, to dissect movies and shows that are in the news. Today: Kaley Cuoco's Role Play on Amazon Prime Video.
This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on January 17, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)
IF I HAD a penny for every Hollywood film about a disillusioned contract killer who wants to quit the profession for family reasons only to be hunted down by their former employers, I’d be one of the faceless rich targets of said contract killer. Role Play is the mandatory two steps back after David Fincher took the genre one step forward with his subversive The Killer. It is so aggressively unoriginal and derivative that, after a point, it seems to simply give up and go home. Kaley Cuoco was having a bit of a moment as everyone’s favourite hot mess — what with The Flight Attendant, Based on a True Story and Meet Cute — but that moment is well and truly over with Role Play. Cuoco is hard to dislike, but she seems to be on frazzled auto-pilot mode here, almost as if she expects the audience to treat this film as a rejected episode of The Flight Attendant. That nervy energy she brings to the screen morphs into some sort of conveyor-belt hitwoman-on-the-run vibe, where the best performer of the film is the city of Berlin.
She plays the protagonist Emma, a skilled assassin whose domestic life in New Jersey comes under threat after a saucy role-play session with her husband Dave (David Oyelowo) at a hotel goes awry. Suddenly, she flies to Berlin to see her handler while Dave is informed by the FBI about his wife’s double-life, and all hell breaks loose once the boss of the murder syndicate enters the picture. The conflict is that this boss had raised and recruited Emma from the wilderness, and expects lifelong loyalty in return. Transatlantic geography becomes a footnote; Emma’s kids are flown down as if it’s the Hamptons. As a South Asian, it’s particularly annoying to watch Americans hop onto an international flight without the slightest worry about visas or paperwork. It’s why I get side-tracked while watching most spy actioners, too. I mean, how dare they? Even Indian writers are so weighed down by the threat of bureaucratic hassles that a globe-trotting movie almost always loses its audience at the first hurdle (what passport is that?) before the fantasy takes over.
But I digress. Role Play is such a slog. For exactly three seconds, there’s some fun to be had in how the title refers to the ambiguity of Emma’s existence. Is she an assassin playing the role of a mother and wife, or is she a regular woman playing the role of a contract killer? Which one is the dominant Emma? When the film begins, she is already tired of her job and wants out — it’s her last ‘mission’ and she’s saved enough money to live a peaceful life. Her marriage isn’t great, but it’s adequate, so the idea of “spicing” things up on their anniversary goes hand in glove with the performance she’s already putting on. But she’s also no Villanelle — the vanilla film gladly glosses over her ruthless career and unfeeling persona, painting her as a lying but (allegedly) loving partner whose fiction slowly turned into her only reality. It’s tough to root for her, though, no matter how much she plays the victim (“I was so young when she took me in”). That’s where the film really loses the plot.
Also, what is Bill Nighy doing as the mysterious rival who crashes the husband-wife roleplay session? Surely, the fine British actor has better cameos to choose from. Watching him flirt ‘menacingly’ with Emma at the hotel bar can make an owl cringe. And watching Cucuo practise her trademark curt-but-cool quirkiness in service of a story that is a disservice to modern storytelling is a difficult gig in the first few weeks of 2024. Watching David Oyelowo having to lower himself to the level of snacky-streaming-mediocrity is depressing, but at least it is a reminder of how the big streamers continue to be awful at mid-range feature film originals. Today it’s Amazon, tomorrow it’s Netflix, and the cycle never ends. I get the irony of a crisis becoming the role-play session that heals a marriage, but we’re not silly teenagers anymore.
Since we’re here, there’s no point pretending like the film ends on an unhappy note. Of course Emma chooses the boring life with absolutely no consequences for all the cold-blooded killing she’s done for years. It’s not like her psyche needs any reprogramming. It’s not like her husband feels icky at the thought of touching her again; murderers are humans too, you know. It’s not like she will ever face a problem back in Jersey after being exposed on the dark web with a bounty on her head; a wig should take care of that. It’s not like the older kid had an idea of what was going on around him; video games took care of that. The idea of a ruthless machine getting softened by a family and kids is sweet on paper, but we never really see her transformation happen, so we can never quite feel the weight of Emma’s sudden humanity. It feels like the last chapter of a book that mistakenly burnt its opening pages. The only sexual tension, then, is between the viewer and the pause button once they realise that they’re the ones stuck in a roleplay session with a movie that forgot to pay the bill at the adult toy store.