Anna Kendrick’s directorial debut, “Woman of the Hour,” is one of the trickiest balancing acts at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. You could call the film, which premiered Friday at the Princess of Wales Theatre, a black comedy — but that term usually suggests a seriocomic tone running through the film.
“Woman of the Hour,” by contrast, is humorous sometimes and not funny at all at others. It can be amusing when portraying kitschy ’70s pop culture shot through with casual sexism, but it is simply horrifying when sexism turns to rape and murder.
It’s the kind of tonal schizophrenia that would be a challenge for an experienced director to pull off, but first-timer Kendrick manages to make her film both weirdly entertaining and thoroughly disturbing.
The premise itself is completely bizarre, not least because it’s true. In 1978, serial killer Rodney Alcala was a contestant on “The Dating Game,” a cheesy Los Angeles-based show in which three bachelors would sit behind a partition giving purposely double entendre-laden answers to a bachelorette’s silly questions. Alcala used his real name and was inexplicably booked on the show, despite the fact that he’d already been on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list and had served prison sentences for child molestation and for raping and assaulting a 13-year-old girl.
Not only was he on the show, but he won. He was chosen by the bachelorette, an aspiring actress named Cheryl Bradshaw, who later ended up declining to go on a date with him because she thought he was creepy. In the year between his appearance and his arrest, he’d go on to kill more women. (Alcala died in prison in 2021.)
That story is anything but funny, but it’s impossible to put the technicolor inanity and sniggering, juvenile sexuality of “The Dating Game” on screen without drawing some laughs. So Kendrick, who did not appear at TIFF because of the SAG-AFTRA strike, leans into the disconnect, structuring the film so that Cheryl’s TV appearance serves as a comic throughline around which the details of her career struggles and Rodney’s crimes are dropped.
There’s a fair amount of fictionalizing that takes place in “Woman of the Hour,” in which Kendrick plays Cheryl as a whip-smart high achiever who loves serious drama from Edward Albee and Sam Shepard, but finds herself auditioning for lousy projects where the producers invariably ask, “You’re comfortable with nudity, aren’t you?”
When she answers, “No, it’s just not for me,” the condescending reply comes quickly: “Oh, I’m sure they’re fine.”
Just as Cheryl’s about to give up on her acting dream and head home to Pennsylvania, her agent books her on “The Dating Game” and assures her it’ll be good exposure. Once there, she gets a makeover from the hair and makeup team, with the veteran makeup women confiding that virtually all the bachelors on the show are dumber than rocks. She’s told not to act too smart by host Ed Burke (Tony Hale as an alternative version of the real “Dating Game” host, Jim Lange) before going to meet three contestants – one really stupid, one totally sexist and full of himself and one a bit closer to normal.
Bachelor No. 3, though, is also a serial killer, as we already know because the film has flashed back to a couple of his early murders. A would-be photographer who preys on runaways, drifters and young women with stars in their eyes, Rodney is played by Daniel Zovatto with a chilling bluster that only occasionally cracks to show the terror inside this predator.
The two halves of the film run simultaneously, but are almost separate films. One mocks “The Dating Game” and the whole commodification of women as pop-culture prizes, a point it drives home by having Cheryl turn the tables and writing her own challenging questions rather than following the insipid script. (The original show is on YouTube; suffice it to say that the real Cheryl did not do this.)
The other storyline, though, doesn’t fool around as it details a predator who, in this telling, pursued his killings unimpeded until one woman outsmarted him. The two parts are half-heartedly tied together through the character of a woman in the “Dating Game” audience who thinks Alcala is the man who murdered a friend of hers, but this feels tacked-on and underwritten.
But another character, that of a woman who says she’s been doing makeup on the show for a decade, does manage to tie the disparate strands together when she talks about the questions that the bachelorettes ask their would-be suitors. “I’ve been on this show since 1968, and … one thing that never changes is the question beneath the questions,” she says.
“What’s the question beneath the question?” Cheryl asks.
“Which one of you won’t hurt me?” she answers.
In a way, that barb captures what Kendrick has done in “Woman of the Hour.” She’s taken a ridiculous situation and found the not-so-ridiculous problem at its center. And she’s dealt with predatory misogyny with a sharp blend of humor and anger. “Woman of the Hour” can be light on its feet, but it can also dig in and stomp down hard.