Movies

The Real Judy Greer Effect: She’s Still Unappreciated In Lead Roles

Let’s not slight Greer in our cultural discourse the way she was slighted in most of her movies this year.
By  · Published on October 8th, 2015

Remember all the fuss about Judy Greer over the summer? The actress appeared in four major movies in three months, one of them the highest-grossing blockbuster of the year, yet she had only small, “thankless” roles in them. But did you know that she’s in another movie out in theaters as of last Friday, and she’s the lead? If you’re actually a fan of Greer, you should, because you’d be paying attention to her career, especially after getting frustrated about her talents being underused in Tomorrowland, Entourage, Jurassic World and Ant-Man.

The new movie, which was first released on VOD a month ago, is called Addicted to Fresno. When it debuted even earlier at SXSW, the title was simply Fresno, and beginning there it has mostly received negative reviews. Or it’s been ignored. A lot of my colleagues seem to have never heard of it, though I’m sure many of them got the same emails publicizing its release as we did. Still, it hasn’t had much of a promotional push. Even Greer failed to tweet about it, and to put that into context she hypes her TV show Married on social media every week. To be fair, she didn’t tweet about her other movies, either, not those four summer tentpoles nor Grandma, her more celebrated indie ‐ in which she has another smaller part ‐ also currently in theaters.

Addicted to Fresno is not a great movie, but it’s definitely nothing to be ashamed of. Greer is hilarious, enjoyable throughout, and it looks like it was at least fun to make. She has terrific chemistry with her co-lead, Natasha Lyonne, who plays her character’s sister, she got to work with a director she must really like ‐ Jamie Babbit, who is a producer and regular director of episodes of Married — and a supporting cast that includes Fred Armisen, Allison Tolman, Ron Livingston and Aubrey Plaza, plus amusing bit parts for Beth Grant, Kumail Nanjiani, Clea DuVall and Molly Shannon.

It should be much better, though. The script is by Karey Dornetto, a former staff writer for Arrested Development (on which Greer broke out as a recurring player) and current staff writer for Portlandia (she’s also married to Babbit). And the director, who started out 15 years ago with the stylish Lyonne-led LGBT comedy But I’m a Cheerleader, is perfectly capable with a funny ensemble and a silly premise. The plot of Addicted to Fresno is beyond silly, unfortunately. At its core, it’s just another black comedy where a main character (here played by Greer) accidentally kills someone and then tries to cover it up, with ridiculous results, rather than face the possibility of a manslaughter charge.

So, here’s the question: is it worse for millions of people to see Greer slighted in a mediocre but enormously popular movie like Jurassic World or for very few people to see her shine as the star of a mediocre but well-intentioned movie like Addicted to Fresno? She’s being unappreciated with both, but for the latter it’s primarily the audience’s fault. Anyone who thought she deserved better than her blockbuster appearances may criticize this movie for still not being adequate material for Greer, but there’s no denying it’s an adequate showcase of her talent, particularly for playing sardonic characters. If you like Greer’s work and you want more of it, you can excuse the movie’s faults for a speedy 85 minutes with her.

I get that articles like Scott Meslow’s “The Judy Greer Effect” think piece at The Week had a larger point to make and were just using Greer’s summer movie situation as an example of how bad it is for 40-year-old actresses in Hollywood overall. When Meslow writes, “in the theoretical version of Hollywood’s path to stardom, putting in the hours on [her much earlier] small supporting roles ‐ and performing them well ‐ generally leads to bigger and better opportunities.” Addicted to Fresno isn’t exactly bigger and better, but the opportunity is meatier and surely still more rewarding. It is also an indie, however, not a Hollywood movie, and Greer could have had a lead role like this one at any point in her career.

The difference now is that she should at least be more famous, more popular, and drawing fans to her lead roles like this one. And small films like Addicted to Fresno are easier to see, if maybe still hard to get noticed. In the video store days, it would be a simple sell on the new release wall with appealing cover art and cast list. Now it might also do okay with VOD and iTunes browsers who give a movie a shot based on who’s in it over what critics are saying. This is the sort of movie that attracts with its performers, that’s why it fills tiny roles with more familiar faces, and as a vehicle for those performers it reaches its destination just fine, delivering a worthwhile home entertainment rental.

I’m not sure that Addicted to Fresno would be talked about that much more or be seen by a lot more people if it had a smarter, more focused script and more laughs and anything else its critics would have preferred. Greer hasn’t fared any better with the often brilliant Married, maybe in part because it too received a lot of negative reviews, most of them too focused on its characters being unlikable. Greer regularly plays awful people, though, and actually on this show she’s comparably levelheaded, relatable for many middle-aged women with husbands and kids these days, if only a little more outwardly cynical and derisive.

The series has the lowest ratings of all of FX’s original programs, despite it also letting Greer do what she does best and also featuring a very funny supporting cast, including last year’s indie film darling that everyone’s apparently forgotten about, Jenny Slate, as well as guest appearances from the likes of Michaela Watkins, Martin Starr, Amy Landecker, Rob Huebel and others (sadly, though, John Hodgman is terribly grating in his ill-fitting recurring role). So, it’s not like Hollywood isn’t allowing Greer greater (if lower-paying) opportunities, but if the audience doesn’t follow her there, does she truly deserve them, from a business perspective?

At least her minor summer movie roles had people taking more notice of Greer than usual. Even though I’m a longtime follower of her work, I might not have highlighted her best in a list had it not been for Meslow and others’ address of her blockbuster bit parts. And I would have just watched Married and Addicted to Fresno as a fan and not thought to write about them. But now because we took notice there, we have to continue taking notice of the rest, or else we’ve done a disservice to her career instead of truly promoting and celebrating her as an actress. Let’s not slight Greer in our cultural discourse the way she was slighted in most of her movies this year.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.