Edwin Arnaudin: As someone who had a respectable following in mid-‘80s New York City performing Superman-themed hip-hop shows under the name Man ‘o Steele, you’re right in the crosshairs of Patti Cake$’s target audience. Did writer-director Geremy Jasper’s tale of rap stardom dreams bring back memories of your own experiences in the music world?
Bruce Steele: Ha! In truth, I’m tone-deaf to rap music and have avoided movies like 8 Mile and Straight Outta Compton because my brain can’t synthesize the beats. So Patti Cake$ was a pleasant surprise: It was a gritty story that I really enjoyed, including the music — which, I would hasten to add, ranges from ‘80s hair ballads to opera. Did Patti Cake$ surprise you as well?
Edwin: Pleasantly so! I actually am a longtime hip-hop fan with a preference for intelligent lyrics and beats made with live instruments. Still, I figured the Sundance and Cannes selection would be little more than an updated amalgam of 8 Mile and Hustle and Flow with a Rebel Wilson lookalike (TV actress Danielle Macdonald) on the mic. Patty Cake$ is those things, in pretty much the best possible sense, but with more emotion, humor and a sense of why these very real characters are in dire straits.
Bruce: Yes, I believed these characters and their miserable circumstances: Patti works at a crummy New Jersey bar where her alcoholic mom, a failed singer, is a regular, and lives with Mom and a sick grandmother (an unrecognizable Cathy Moriarty, playing 11 years older than she is). In her spare time she hangs with pharmacy tech Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), who serves as beatbox to her rhymes. It’s all pretty dismal, and even when possibilities open up, the magic moment remains elusive. Perhaps the bravest touch of realism: Patty isn’t a great rapper. Am I wrong about that?
Edwin: I think she’s a gifted lyricist, capable of inciting oohs, ahhs and chuckles with her punchlines while also being a respectable storyteller. Her flow is a little raw, especially contrasted with the occasional smooth-tongued competition she encounters along her journey, but I feel like that’s an aspect on which she can improve in time. Did many of her words make an impact on your — *digs for photographic proof* — allegedly novice ears? Or did her creations primarily play out as noise?
Bruce: Patti’s delivery is pretty conversational, so I had no trouble following her flow. And from her and other rappers in the movie, I believe I learned that rap is almost wholly dependent on brand names, celebrity references and insults. That may be why Patti’s climactic rap seems, well, kind of sweet, because it’s more authentic to her life than that kind of swallow, aspirational posturing. But it also made me wonder: Can this kind of rhythmic confession be extended to an entire career?
Edwin: 8 Mile star Eminem peaked with “Lose Yourself,” an autobiographical work so well-crafted and passionate that it’s dwarfed everything he’s made since 2002. Sad attempts to capitalize on the song's success haven’t helped, so hopefully Patti will be able to mix up her approach a bit. With Jheri’s enthusiasm and especially producer extraordinaire Basterd (Mamoudou Athie, one of many elements of The Circle I’ve since forgotten), I think she has a shot at a regional career. Were you taken with these side characters and/or others?
Bruce: They’re all nicely sketched, vivid without a lot of detail. Basterd is the most fascinating and enigmatic — and also the least believable, with his undetected recording studio in a cabin squat in the woods.
Edwin: Yes, from whence is that cabin pulling electricity?
Bruce: Exactly. Among the other characters, Moriarty’s Nana and Patti’s Mom Barb (Amy Schumer associate Bridget Everett) seemed the best imagined and emotionally engaging, perhaps because they’re closer to writer-director Geremy Jasper’s Jersey childhood. I love that Barb has such an unsympathetic introduction in the film and remains an awful mom even though we come to like and understand her. Do you think we’ll be seeing more of Macdonald or Jasper? Or does Patti Cake$ seem like a one-and-done?
Edwin: I don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of filmmaker nor star. Physical comparisons to Wilson aside, Macdonald and her breakout turn here suggest promising range. Jasper’s writing and directing skills show even more potential. He’s a gifted technician who knows a thing or two about pacing and getting strong performances from a cast of largely unknowns — the combination of which gets an A-minus from me.
Bruce: I agree if Jasper can apply his skills for subverting expectations to other subjects, he could do very well. He juggles a lot here and only drops a few balls. Basterd could have used some more thought, the street rappers who seem important early on are sidelined and some uncomfortable questions about race are glossed over. But those are quibbles. He gets the grit and the heart. I’ll give him a B-plus and hope for even more in the future.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Starts Aug. 30 at the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures)