Mirrors reflect who we are, or at least how we want to appear to others. Director Mike Barker’s “Luckiest Girl Alive” uses them as a motif throughout this tale centered on a woman whose pristine, calculated image disguises a mess of insecurities and intense psychological pain. Yet the picture portrayed in author Jennifer Knoll’s adaptation of her own novel struggles with its tone, poor character construction and annoying screenwriting contrivances. Utilizing a traditionally glossy, chick-lit-retrofitted heroine as a mouthpiece for somber, serious activist sentiments isn’t so much provocative as just downright batty.
Ani (Mila Kunis) seemingly has it all: She’s sharp-witted, gorgeous, holds a coveted position at a Cosmopolitan-like magazine and shares a palatial apartment in New York City with her loving, upper-crust fiancé Luke (Finn Wittrock). She’s even earned her demanding boss Lolo’s (Jennifer Beals) adoration. But she’s also secretly abrasive, judging by her acid-tinged voiceover. Ani craves a higher status amongst the elite, looking to get ahead in her career and grasp more power in her personal life. Luke’s old-money family heirloom that dangles from her ring finger — a giant emerald and diamond engagement ring — acts as a deflective shield against anyone’s scrutiny.
However, Ani’s perfect life is upended when, a few weeks prior to her Nantucket wedding, she’s approached by a true-crime filmmaker (Dalmar Abuzeid). He’s hoping to get her side of the story for his documentary about a devastating event that took place when she was a teen attending a prestigious private school. This distressing situation has haunted her for years, and has compelled her to bury the traumatized girl she once was (played in her teen years by Chiara Aurelia) in favor of a fashion-forward socialite. Naturally, excavating these emotional landmines threatens her meticulously-planned future, plaguing her with harrowing daydreams and nightmares.
Screenwriting convenience drives much of the action: Characters show either over-familiarity or under-familiarity with Ani’s situation according to the needs of each scene. Who is and isn’t aware of her backstory only extends to certain supporting characters — and those are ham-handedly revealed. They’re the folks who parcel out enough hints for the audience to figure out the mystery before we’re explicitly and bluntly shown what’s been referenced. It’s maddening to see this transpire, whether it be the documentarian, whose dialogue is mostly comprised of hacky exposition and clunky foreshadowing, or Ani’s fiancé, who pulls a supremely toxic move out of nowhere for stupid reasons that run counter to what’s been shown of his character thus far.
Barker and Knoll toggle between past and present timelines with little to no ease, perhaps simulating the jarring, jagged edges of the protagonist’s bad memories being unearthed, but this interrupts narrative momentum. Character development, particularly in the cases of Luke, who’s supportive until he’s not, and Ani’s former teacher Mr. Larson (Scoot McNairy), who conveniently appears and disappears, could use a lot more finesse as the filmmakers botch their arcs. Worse, there are scant amounts of sensitivity in the reveal of Ani’s painfully disturbing ordeals. These highly emotional sequences are less riveting and more revolting as they’re primarily used to add shock value, graphically depicting their triggering subject matter.
Kunis is up to the task of portraying a multi-layered leading lady. Her droll delivery makes Ani’s passive-aggressive arrogance seem like an art form. She’s also rather nimble when a spot of levity is brought into stressful situations, as when she insults her obnoxious future aunt (Leah Pinsent) or rolls her eyes at her gauche mother (Connie Britton). Though the material severely hobbles him, Wittrock adds a modicum of depth to his one-dimensional character. Justine Jupe, who plays Ani’s blonde bestie, is also decent, if not hampered by her all-too-brief screen time.
While the story fails and the acting underwhelms, the film’s aesthetics add luster. Barker and production designer Elisa Sauve play up the thematic notion of duality, incorporating reflective surfaces that echo Ani’s dual personas. Alix Friedberg’s contemporary costume designs give characters a sophisticated sheen as an interesting juxtaposition to their messy misery. Colin Watkinson’s cinematography gifts the project with a necessary depth to the imagery. Flashbacks evoke a sullen and cold feeling not terribly far from adult Ali’s color palette, emphasizing the past and present’s connective throughline.
“Luckiest Girl Alive” reminds that not every author with a best-selling, female-led thriller can be as talented as Gillian Flynn, whose “Gone Girl” adaptation provides much of this film’s inspiration. With its superficial sentiments hinting that our harried heroine can survive and thrive if she’s willing to confront difficult truths, the film lacks a genuinely heartening pull. Because of its unwieldy aspects, primarily those shoe-horned into the climax, its simplistic conclusion draws ire instead of the inspired elation these filmmakers crave.