It would be difficult to conjure a clearer picture of the suspect and scattered intentionality woven through Anna Kendrick’s directorial debut, a true-crime thriller ripped from the bloodsoaked headlines that takes aim at the pivotal role misogyny plays in framing the genres narratives, than to chart its various titles, starting with Woman of the Hour’s original name, Rodney and Cheryl.
Rodney and Cheryl plays out like a two-hander narrative between notorious, real-life serial killer Rodney Alcala (Daniel Zovatto) and struggling actress Cheryl Bradshaw (Kendrick) and centers on their implausible encounter under the romantic conceits of a prime-time television game show. Intertwining Alcala’s killing spree — told through tense, disturbing tableaus of him stalking, toying with and viciously executing his victims — with the professional crisis of Bradshaw’s hitting-of-the-wall with her dream of stardom in a male-controlled Hollywood, this film’s primary aim is to marvel at the extraordinary brush with death this unsuspecting woman faced when she agreed to an appearance on “The Dating Game” show to boost her career.
Kendrick’s assemblage of the script’s dueling timeline is curiously misshapen, given the perspective on victim empowerment that the film believes it is making. This seemingly 60/40 split of screentime between Zovatto’s portrayal of the chilling, enigmatic Alcala and Kendrick’s fiery, put-upon Bradshaw — revels in the crimes and biography of Alcala, who is bumming around New York and California and unceremoniously taking victims (played by the likes of Kathryn Gallagher and Kelley Jackle in thankless roles) in padded flashback sequences whose inclusion feels like a contextual footnote rather than scenes of tension or horror.
Inevitably, the hot-property, true-crime buzz of Rodney and Cheryl courted a buyer at the Cannes Film Festival and was promptly renamed and given the SEO-amenable title The Dating Game. In this take, the patriarchal rule of the decade’s television industry is placed squarely in the script’s vicious crosshairs in order to “take down” the commonplace misogyny that would lead to a dehumanizing show like “The Dating Game” to be the ratings magnet that it was.
Kendrick as director proves most engaged in this version of the film, spelling out the microaggressions and ingrained chauvinism of this culture with a deft hand and observing eye. Her camera lingers poignantly on her face while absorbing the skeevy compliments of host Jim Lange (Tony Hale) and zooms in on the wandering hands of any male who invades her space or a passive aggressive sticky note on the set demanding she check her lipstick. The strained and uncomfortable point of view of Bradshaw is placed front and center and provides the film’s most cogent statement in its disjointed amalgamation of perspectives on this strange chapter of a true crime story.
And yet, this version of the film does not work either, due to Ian MacAllister McDonald’s script’s virtuous need to correct the record and pull meaning from a bizarre moment in television history. Rather than absorbing the passive misogyny of being a contestant on the show, Bradshaw instead hijacks the “The Dating Game” in a spout of poetic license, by exchanging the ditzy, titillating questions placating the male ego with witty punchlines at its expense.
This allows Kendrick to promenade around the host and her mystery bachelors with the actress’ signature, rapid-fire and witty dressing-downs. It’s a crowd-pleasing moment of empowerment invented for the film that tonally clashes and further brings the film’s intentions into question. While continuing the sloppy cutting to brutal vignettes of underdeveloped victims, the premise of this deviation from history hinges on Zovatto’s Alcala winning “The Dating Game” to show that even a depraved serial killer can somehow be considered charming in that male-dominated environment. Divided as it is between this peppy gotcha of the industry that fostered a show like “The Dating Game” and the to-the-letter depictions of Alcala’s crimes, the film cannot make up its mind about what it wants to say.
So, we arrive at “woman of the hour,” a signature phrase said on every episode of “The Dating Game” to introduce the unlucky contestant, as the final release title. It’s a compromise that markets the film well but nevertheless illustrates its mixed message and its inability to arrive at a cohesive statement. Woman of the Hour is a thriller-tinged biopic of Alcala highlighting his method of entrapping his victims; a pithy takedown of “The Dating Game” and the chauvinist culture of that era’s industry; and a hastily drawn parallel analysis between Bradshaw and the victims, equating the dehumanizing view of a serial killer for his victim with a studio camera’s leering gaze on the “woman of the hour.” Kendrick’s debut is a mess of intentions and perspectives that squanders its 94 minutes trying to make up its mind on what it wants to say. Instead, it opts for all these possible directions and does none of them particularly well.