Imagine all the ways a mash-up of Quentin Tarantino and The Brothers Grimm could go wrong and you’d end up with Judy & Punch, Australian actress Mirrah Foulkes’ feature-length writing and directing debut that sees Kill Bill filtered through the nastiness of the Grimms’ most gruesome fairy tales. What starts as an electric lampooning of toxic masculinity quickly devolves into a simplistic revenge plot that barely chugs along on style alone before sputtering into a whimper.
All the right pieces are in play for this to be an exciting, effective revamp of our ideas of a classic fairy tale. The film follows puppeteering duo Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and Punch (Damon Herriman) as they try to revive their marionette show in Judy’s woeful, prejudiced hometown of Seaside (nowhere by the sea, the film jokes). While Punch is the star of the show, it’s clear from the get-go that the show’s real magic comes from Judy’s inherent talent, setting up a tension between the pair that fuels Punch’s penchant for drinking. After Punch’s drunken behavior causes him to commit a pair of terrible crimes, it’s up to Judy to dole out justice on her wicked husband.
It’s an admittedly simple and familiar plot, but inject it with the right sense of energy and this could be a biting piece of satire. Instead, the whole thing feels flat as a piece of 2×4. The only person involved with any sense of energy is Herriman, who brings to Punch’s evil ways to live with a scenery-chewing performance. He knows the success of the movie hinges on you despising Punch, making his character an undeniably villainous symbol of masculine pride and greed before the movie even really admits his flaws. His assured take on the role sets up the movie for a cathartic home run, but the film strikes out at the plate time and time again. Foulkes is so preoccupied with making the film feel edgy that it quickly loses any sense of edge provided by Herriman’s performance.
Part of the problem lies in the fact this film shouldn’t depend on Herriman, it should depend on Wasikowska. She’s a magnificent performer often betrayed by underwritten roles, and it turns out Judy is no exception. For a film that wants to be about a woman reclaiming her agency, the film doesn’t give her much of a chance to establish her character or her wants and needs. The film wastes much of its time on tertiary characters in pursuit of making them the butt of lame jokes, leaving Judy as a character more defined by others’ actions than her own sense of self. Wasikowska’s performance suffers as a result, and not even her more charming moments can save this thing from itself.
Judy & Punch is a satire with its head in the wrong place about what it means to take old-fashioned methods of storytelling to task. The script’s plea for you to think it’s provocative is undercut by its twee humor and unearned sentimentality, with an ending so neat and tidy it renders the emotional crux of the film completely inert. While Herriman and Foulke’s slick directing style might lure you into its genre-bending trappings, this is a tonally confused and uneven film unworthy of the literary and cinematic influences it so gleefully cribs from.