I'm Totally Fine actually isn't, despite Jillian Bell's best efforts

(from left) Jillian Bell as Vanessa and Natalie Morales as Jennifer in I’m Totally Fine.
(from left) Jillian Bell as Vanessa and Natalie Morales as Jennifer in I’m Totally Fine.

Certain films are less bad than wholly unsuccessful. As such, they can elicit a unique, low-key dejection, given the contours of grander possibility one can make out with a bit of intellectual squinting.

The latest exhibit in this bummer classification arrives in the form of I’m Totally Finea science-fiction dramedy that misses its intended mark (any mark, really). It’s a movie that purports to root itself in grief, but instead wraps itself in such a cloak of wispy, noncommittal vagueness that virtually everything about it dissipates on contact.

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The film opens with Vanessa (Jillian Bell), distraught on a solo road trip. After she settles in at a rental property where the catering for a party has not been canceled, the full reason for the depth of Vanessa’s sadness becomes evident when she is visited by an extraterrestrial who takes the form of Jennifer (Natalie Morales), her recently deceased best friend and business partner.

This Jennifer identifies herself as an alien “observation officer,” tasked with putting Vanessa through a series of easygoing tests and then basically just hanging out with her for 48 hours before filing a report. Vanessa of course initially believes this to be a dream or delusion, but eventually comes to accept the truth of the situation when Jennifer shares things Vanessa confided only in her.

Beginning in 2011, Bell co-starred in the anarchic Workaholics, and became one of its most potent comedic weapons, appearing in over half of the sitcom’s episodes over a seven-season run. I’m Totally Fine serves as an unofficial reunion of sorts for the Comedy Central series, with former co-star Blake Anderson contributing a FaceTime cameo as Vanessa’s boyfriend, and Workaholics co-creator Kyle Newacheck not only executive producing but appearing as a townie who crosses paths with her. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why the movie lands with such a thud—because of the knowledge that some of its core participants are capable of much more.

Among the recent science-fiction comedies, I’m Totally Fine tonally recalls are Safety Not Guaranteed and Palm Springs. While those films flirted with temporal plot dynamics, they were each substantively about regret and loss. (More on this later.) Each also possessed thin ribbons of mystery—something from which I’m Totally Fine might benefit.

But in lieu of any plumbed narrative seams about, for example, whether this version of Jennifer really is an alien, or whether her stated intentions and mission are fully truthful, Alisha Ketry’s script (from a story devised with feature debut director Brandon Dermer) instead indulges surface-level conversational patter and low-hanging comedic scenarios. The latter leads to a cameo appearance by Harvey Guillén as DJ Twisted Bristle, a party deejay (again, uncanceled) who shows up and allows for an extended, druggy dance sequence that features Papa Roach’s “Last Resort,” a song mentioned more than once.

Dermer has helmed music videos for Panic! at the Disco, Diplo, the Jonas Brothers, and Blink-182, among others. Here, working with cinematographer Wojciech Kielar, he crafts a movie with visual appeal, if not enormous ambition. There’s a palpable energy to segments told in montage, or set to music. And the selective use of Southwestern vistas enlivens the movie’s telling, around the edges.

But I’m Totally Fine feels like it never meaningfully engages with the themes it’s set up to explore. Shot in late 2020, its COVID quarantine production is an embraced metaphor for the isolation and powerlessness one feels following the passing of a loved one, but the movie is unwilling or unable to tease out insight or laughs from that juxtaposition.

Bell (22 Jump Street) is a gifted comedic performer with crackerjack improvisation instincts. But she also proved, in Brittany Runs A Marathon, that she can tap into swallowed sadness, and ground colorful lashing out and/or otherwise self-destructive behavior in relatable dormant feelings. She gives I’m Totally Fine a bright, radiant, and somewhat watchable core, despite the movie’s steadfast refusal to exercise the full range of her talents.

Morales, herself a director (Plan B, Language Lessons), also has the ability to navigate deeper dramatic waters. Unfortunately, here she crafts a one-note performance without a sturdy peg to hang a multidimensional character upon. Morales adopts a stilted manner of speaking, with an avoidance of contractions, that feels crafted for in-the-moment amusement. The result doesn’t really work, either in terms of generating laughs or filling out an arc in which Jennifer comes to her own realizations about humanity.

I’m Totally Fine Trailer #1 (2022)

So-called small-stakes cinema, including movies in which only one person’s first baby steps toward emotional healing are the driving dramatic force, can compete with any CGI spectacle. They can do that even when their moment of big catharsis is arguably a conclusion grounded in a pat aphorism about the spirits of those whom we love living on in shared memories.

But what’s needed is a trajectory that makes those elements believable, and matter. And that is, sadly, what I’m Totally Fine lacks. It cries out for a more sincere tackling of Vanessa’s loneliness and anguish. There isn’t enough emotional gradation to her interactions with Jennifer, enough push and pull as she copes with learning things about their relationship, and how Jennifer viewed her.

There’s a line toward the end of the movie, where Vanessa says, “I’m sad, but okay.” This communicates its intended emotional resting place. It doesn’t take an alien’s report, however, to establish that the manner in which it lands at this spot is entirely unearned, and thus hollow.

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