We’re not sold on Brie Larson’s directorial debut.
If you couldn’t get enough of Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson’s buddy-cop comedy vibes in Captain Marvel, you’re likely as pumped as I was for their reteam in Unicorn Store. Hot off the success of her MCU hit, Larson is rolling out her directorial debut exclusively on Netflix. This quirky coming-of-age comedy wears its glittery heart on its sleeve and boasts a stellar supporting cast that includes Deadpool’s Karan Soni, Party Down’s Ryan Hansen, Superbad’s Martha MacIsaac, Get Out’s Bradley Whitford, and comedic genius Joan Cusack. Plus, it gives us the sensational spectacle of Samuel L. Jackson in a bright pink business suit and an afro streaked with tinsel. Yet somehow this promising comedy is an astounding misfire.
Written by Samantha McIntyre, Unicorn Store centers on Kit (Larson) a lonely young woman whose expulsion from art school has left her lost on how to become an adult. Kit is obsessed with rainbows and unicorns. Her closest friends are her Care Bears. The soles of her feet are literally caked in glitter (for some reason). At 29, Kit is the kind of “failure to launch” Millennial lamented about in Baby Boomer-penned op-eds. She’s unemployed, lives in her parents’ house, watches TV all day, yet feels entitled to some special destiny.
Kit gets a job not because she has bills to pay or ambition, but because she doesn’t want to be a “huge disappointment” to her coddling parents (Whitford and Cusack). To prove she’s ready for first day as a temp at a PR firm, she spouts off grownup lingo like Grapefruit! Flax seed! Legal pads! However, her haphazard efforts to mature find focus when she discovers The Salesman (Jackson) and his eponymous store, which is “a legitimate place of business, and the opposite of murder.”
Handmade pop-up cards direct Kit to The Store, where The Salesman takes her on a tour of its unicorn salon, hay-specific restaurant, and ice cream parlor. He tells Kit she can have a real, live unicorn that will love her forever. All she has to do is earn it. That means building a home for it, securing a financial plan for its future, and cementing a strong family bond for support in raising it. Essentially, the unicorn is a metaphor for parenthood. The Salesman is telling Kit she needs to be a mom to be a real grown-up woman deserving of love.
This sly shaming of child-free women is kind of shocking coming from Larson in the wake of the Captain Marvel press tour, where female empowerment was a key talking point. But that’s not all. Unicorn Store doubles down on its problematic plot points by introducing potential boyfriend Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) as an alternate path to self-worth and maturity. Kit learning to love herself is just an afterthought in this sloppy story of self-discovery.
Beyond its cringe-worthy messaging, Unicorn Store just flat out fails at being funny. Which is frankly confounding when you look at its cast. Soni, Hansen, and MacIsaac bring verve. Sadly, they are given only scraps of screen time and forgettable punch lines to make any impact. Hamish Linklater fares better, bringing a low-key comedy as the office creep. However, Whitford and Cusack are absolutely wasted here. They’re handed underwritten roles of aggressively perky parents, then undercut by an edit that favors Larson’s scowling reactions over their almost achingly eager faces.
Jackson’s character is paper-thin too. But between the outrageous costumes and his cartoonish zeal, he manages to at least bring fun–if not funny–as The Salesman. Meanwhile, Athie delivers sharp straight-man timing to the largely thankless role of love interest who puts up with Kit’s tantrums. But the big, glaring problem at the center of this comedy is its lead/director.
While she’s been a laudable supporting player in comedies like The United States of Tara, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and 22 Jump Street, Larson fumbles in shouldering and shaping Unicorn Store’s humor. Kit comes off as a nightmarish cross between Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope and Napoleon Dynamite. She’s got the tenacity and child-like naiveté of the former, with the short-temper and intense social awkwardness of the latter. Which makes for an insufferable bully of a protagonist and a comedy that never really lands its tonal footing. Larson doesn’t achieve the levity or lunacy that might have made Kit’s journey funny. So instead, we’re left watching a pretty, privileged, overgrown brat sulk and shout.