“You didn’t want to be old. You just wanted to be you.”
Before we start, I have to take a moment to point out that the new Diane Keaton-starring comedy Mack & Rita is not a body-swapping movie. I repeat, Mack & Rita is not a body-swapping movie. I feel the need to accentuate this detail since the trailer is only able to do so much when it comes to pointing this fact out. Fellow critic friends of mine who have been aware of the movie (including one with a strong aversion to this sub-genre) have branded it body-swapping, while my boyfriend proclaimed it to be a 2022 Freaky Friday. But Mack & Rita’s concept is a bit more profound. It takes the soul of a woman and attempts to examine it from opposite ends of the spectrum in a bid to help her see that she’s exactly who she was always meant to be. At least that’s what it attempts to do.
Thirty-year-old Mack (Elizabeth Lail) is frustrated with her life. Despite a steady writing gig, the interest of a cute neighbor (Dustin Milligan) and a loyal best friend (Taylour Paige), Mack’s life is lacking something. After a lifetime of not fitting in, what Mack wants is to be the old soul she knows she is inside. After accidentally crossing paths with a mystical guru (Simon Rex), Mack is suddenly transformed into the older version of herself (Diane Keaton). Using the alias of Rita, Mack rediscovers the life she resisted for so long.
As anyone would expect from watching the trailer of this film, Mack & Rita quickly turns into another Diane Keaton vehicle almost as soon as she turns up on the screen. The gags she’s asked to perform here are the kind of physical comedy the actress does well, but are devoid of any kind of laughter or actual reality. A trip to a trendy pilates class has her falling all over herself on a machine, while her wig catches fire at an aggressive self-help beach side event, of which she’s the star. The movie asks us to make some definite leaps of faith, which are a stretch, even for a premise such as this. Yet nothing is worse than having to see this screen legend try and sell them. It’s frustrating to see Keaton perform these scenes since she’s so clearly above virtually every single one. Looking at some of the actress’s turns in recent projects like 5 Flights Up, The New Pope, and Hampstead, it’s clear she’s still capable of delivering quality work. But Mack & Rita never gives her the chance to show it.
Mack & Rita wastes far too much precious screen time by indulging in the ridiculousness it asks its legendary leading lady to perform. When it does decide to play it straight, the movie actually works in tandem with its fantasy concept to tell the story about someone always longing to feel comfortable and true in her skin. The filmmakers do some musing about old souls and what it means to be one, both parodying and homaging the concept in the process. What is an old soul really about, Mack & Rita attempts to ask. Are they thumbing their nose up at their generation’s modernity, or are they hiding something they’re afraid to show the rest of the world? Mack & Rita gives an easy answer to this question, but ultimately succeeds when it forces its young protagonist to question if she’s truly been living her life to the fullest.
There’s really little to say about Keaton’s work here. She’s a pro and a legend. Even when the script has her attempt some of the lamest comedy bits she’s ever done, the Oscar winner throws her all into it with the same kind of gusto she’s always shown. She’s perfectly in sync with Lail, herself a warm glowing presence. Meanwhile, Paige and Mulligan manage to give their characters some actual shades and the quartet of Loretta Divine, Wendie Malick, Lois Smith, and Amy Hill all provide a steady stream of laughs.
For all of its faults, Mack & Rita does manage to end on a note of sweetness with a conclusion that succeeds in bringing home the themes far better than what came before ever could. Amid all the slapstick and predictable turns, there is a genuine acknowledgment the movie gives to the old souls watching who, like Mack, never felt they belonged in the time they were born in. Anyone willing to look past the pratfalls will surely recognize this and appreciate it. It’s far beneath an actress of Keaton’s profile, but Mack & Rita does ultimately force its audience to ask itself: Am I wishing I could live the life I was meant for, or simply ignoring it?