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Your eyes deserve better than Lena Dunham's Sharp Stick , so resort to The Resort

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Sharp Stick

In theaters now

Sundance Film Festival Preview
Sundance Film Festival Preview

Sundance Institute 'Sharp Stick'

Across six seasons of Girls, Lena Dunham famously became a voice of a generation by exploring ideas about young womanhood in ways that were maybe outrageous (at least at the time) and often divisive but rarely not interesting. It's a lot harder to find a point of view, or even a point, in Sharp Stick, a supposedly liberated portrait of sexual awakening that is so strange and sour, so relentlessly softcore yet somehow sexless, it feels almost defiantly stripped of any meaningful message.

Besides maybe that girls in pinafores and knee socks are hot: Sarah Jo (the inarguably lovely Kristine Froseth) is a lithe, pillow-lipped naif who says she's 26 but seems set at a mental age — and a dress code — much younger. She lives with her blowsy divorcée mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and sister (Zola's Taylour Paige), both inveterate hustlers, in a shabby Hollywood bungalow, and works as a part-time companion for the young son of a heavily pregnant real estate broker (Dunham) and her underemployed husband Josh (Jon Bernthal) — a sweet, shaggy slacker who agrees, after a brief show of resistance, to relieve Sarah Jo of her burdensome virginity.

The journey of carnal self-discovery that follows might make more sense if Sarah Jo wasn't such a wildly inconsistent character, cheerfully reciting unusual penis shapes with her mom one minute, then playing a holy fool who's never heard of this thing called oral sex the next. Scott Speedman, doing his best downmarket Justin Timberlake, drops in as an affable, neck-tattooed porn star, and actors like Bernthal and Leigh are too good not to drill down on the finer points of their winky L.A. archetypes. But if there's supposed to be some kind of deeper empowerment in the mere fact of Dunham's female gaze, it doesn't manifest any differently than, say, Roman Polanski's or Larry Clark's. The movie's last frames ask us to believe that Sarah Jo has finally, ecstatically found herself; it just never gives us the logical framework to care. Grade: C– —Leah Greenblatt

The Resort

Streaming now (Peacock)

THE RESORT -- Episode 103 -- Pictured: (l-r) Cristin Milioti as Emma, William Jackson Harper as Noah
THE RESORT -- Episode 103 -- Pictured: (l-r) Cristin Milioti as Emma, William Jackson Harper as Noah

Peacock Cristin Milioti and William Jackson Harper in 'The Resort'

Wherever you go, there you are — unfortunately, all your emotional baggage comes, too. It's a lesson learned slowly, and with a few too many detours, by the not-quite-happily married couple at the center of The Resort, Peacock's darkly comic mystery from Andy Siara (Palm Springs).

Noah (William Jackson Harper) and Emma Reed (Cristin Milioti) are celebrating their 10th anniversary at an all-inclusive resort the Mayan Riviera. Actually, "celebrating" might be a bit of an exaggeration — the Reeds are at the point in their marriage where Noah falls asleep on the couch before dinner and Emma takes quizzes like "How Do I Know If I Should Leave My Relationship?" on her phone. When Emma discovers an old cell phone in the jungle, she jumps headlong into a rabbit hole about the mysterious disappearance of Sam (Skyler Gisondo) and Violet (Nina Bloomgarden), two teenaged tourists who vanished from a nearby resort fifteen years earlier.

"What happened to Sam and Violet is just one thread in a tapestry of interconnected stories," muses the resort's philosophical detective, Baltasar Frías (Luis Gerardo Méndez, radiating melancholy charm). Episodes follow dual timelines: As Emma and an increasingly reluctant Noah chase down leads in the present, roving through the hurricane-ravaged ruins of Sam and Violet's hotel and trying to dig up dirt on a powerful local family, the teenagers pursue their own adventures — involving a stolen skateboard, an obscure novel about the jungle, and their resort's eccentric owner (Ben Sinclair) — in the past. But Baltasar's aforementioned tapestry soon begins to unravel: Answers just lead to more questions, some that never get answered at all. Too often, Harper's Noah is reduced to trailing behind his wife muttering things like, "I did not sign up for this sh--."

Everyone at the center of The Resort's mystery, past and present, is dealing with some kind of loss, and the more Emma tries to escape with amateur detective antics, the more Sam and Violet's story forces her to face her grief. When The Resort lets its characters sit with their pain, the results can be profound. Milioti, an exceptional actress who has yet to find a TV vehicle worthy of her talents, holds a reservoir of Emma's anguish behind her large brown eyes. And Nick Offerman is quietly devastating as Violet's father, who structures his whole existence around the void in his life — unlike Emma, who tries to fill hers with distractions. Though the eight-episode season is about two episodes too long, The Resort's mystical conclusion delivers an unexpectedly emotional catharsis. As with most vacations, the journey is sometimes exhausting, but the destination is ultimately worthwhile. B —Kristen Baldwin

Vengeance

In theaters now

(L to R) Ashton Kutcher as Quentin Sellers and B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz in VENGEANCE, written and directed by B.J. Novak and released by Focus Features
(L to R) Ashton Kutcher as Quentin Sellers and B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz in VENGEANCE, written and directed by B.J. Novak and released by Focus Features

Patti Perret/Focus Features

A single man in possession of a mild case of writer's block must be in want of a dead ex-girlfriend. At least that's the basic logline on Vengeance, which B.J. Novak wrote, directs, and also stars in (and thus, must bear full proof of concept for). He's Ben Manalowitz, a journalist specializing in zeitgeisty essays for the New Yorker who spends his evenings gaming the endless possibilities of Manhattan's dating roulette with his friend John (John Mayer, really leaning in), and pitching a bemused radio producer (Issa Rae) on turning his deep thoughts into podcasts.

A narrative hook arrives sooner than he thinks when Abilene (Lio Tipton), a girl he once shared a few casually indifferent encounters with, ODs back home in deep Texas, and her family mistakes him for her last proper boyfriend (and, clearly, a decent human being). Attending a near-stranger's funeral promises to be both deeply awkward and geographically inconvenient, but hey, the story possibilities! And so Ben heads down to Denton. And when Abilene's jittery, bright-eyed brother (Boyd Holbrook) insists that her overdose was not an accident but a coverup for murder, a light bulb pings. If Ben follows him down that rabbit hole, he might be able to wring some trenchant this-is-America commentary from the Texas-size characters she left behind: Succession's J-Smith Cameron as her grieving mother, Dove Cameron as her aspiring-influencer sister, and Ashton Kutcher as the swaggering local scene-maker with a penchant for ivory suits and long, improbable monologues.

Novak, who spent years refining the squirrelly ticks of his self-regarding salesman Ryan on nine seasons of The Office, isn't a demonstrably different dude here. His callow-millennial act — and the navel-gazing vagaries of modern content culture — make fertile ground for satire, and many of the jokes here do find their soft targets. But it can also feel hollow and exhausting in main-character movie form. For most of its runtime, Vengeance can't really decide whether he's supposed to be the hero or the heel; when it finally does, it signals that by swerving abruptly into another, bloodier genre entirely. As for Abilene? She's still dead, but she's served her sole purpose: making Ben, and perhaps B.J., a better man. Grade: C—LG

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