Mucking with Movies: ‘Priscilla’

Jack Simon
Courtesy photo

On a Friday night, the movie theater was packed – more so than I had seen in a long time, making my little heart flutter with joy.

Adults totting toddlers, teenagers with bloodshot eyes joking about trying to talk to parents, and a full staff trying to get everybody through the popcorn line and into their screen time on time. To skip the line, I looked for a seat for “Priscilla” on the computer in the lobby, shocked to find there were not any left. Then I realized that they were all open – I was the only one there to see Sofia Coppola’s latest outing.

Having never transcended out of the niche to sell on prestige like a Greta Gerwig or a Wes Anderson, perhaps it is time we acknowledge Coppola has been overvalued.

Always melodramatic chores, the looks of her films have polychromatic flirtations that are nonetheless identically drab. Despite having all the settings to do so as Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) gallivants the globe with Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), nothing extraordinary happens visually throughout the entire film. Brief excitement is injected when the couple travels to Las Vegas for the first time, as Coppola does show Sin City in all its original glory, but that quickly fades away. At times, “Priscilla” comes close to being exhilarating whereas I, like our young protagonist, am caught up in the glamor of it all. But then, it returns to a dredge through the sludge towards its inevitable end.

Whole swaths of time are wasted where nothing is being explored. We, the viewers, are in the same emotional place as scene after scene passes us by. An entire subplot where Elvis dabbles in spiritually literally goes up in flames as he burns his books fifteen minutes after becoming obsessed with them. It does nothing to change either of their characters as the narrative continues to unspool.

Before I break down performances, I feel I need to disclose that I do adore Elvis, probably a bit more than most of my Gen Z counterparts. My mohawk is explicitly cut and styled as a pompadour meant to mimic his iconic look; when I take pictures, I’ll think of his classic camera stare-downs, and his music regularly finds itself in rotation on my many long drives. But still, even I thought that two Elvis movies in two years was a lot. I realize now, though, that this isn’t an Elvis movie – and that’s indubitably for the best.

A Priscilla movie is not just in name; everything is seen through her perspective. Sophia gives her a better chance than Elvis, and history ever did. The film gives her a will and a motive rather than a blank cardboard cutout to project onto. An empty jar for when he wants to dump trauma, a doll for whom he believes Elvis Presley’s girlfriend should always have been, and a tether to Earth in the space land of Graceland.

Spaeny in this role is downright extraordinary. Playing Priscilla from a shy, starry-eyed high schooler up to when she leaves Elvis as a modestly dressed adult, she conveys her emotions flawlessly. Not even needing much dialogue to do it, she expresses complexity through simple mannerisms. If I walked away from “Priscilla” with anything, it’s a simmering excitement for what Spaeny’s young career has in store for us.

Elordi as antagonist Elvis could not keep up. Playing Elvis right down the middle, not completely lecherous but certainly not unaware of his predatory actions that would have landed him on “To Catch A Predator” had he tried it in the internet age. He could have leaned more into the villainy, certainly within the scripted bursts of anger where the infliction of his husky voice hardly changes. Trying so hard to get the accent right, he hardly acts, and the accent even alternates between being overly indulgent and nonexistent.

Often, I leave the theater, and a movie will get better the more I ponder it. Time is kind in my mind – I’ll laugh, thinking of funny lines or try to decipher the deeper moments. 

“Priscilla” got worse, making me groan most the way home. Despite being unflinching in its noble honesty in addressing Priscilla’s ignorant innocence that Elvis took advantage of, neither the script nor the direction done by Coppola has anything noteworthy to say. She is the worst Hollywood nepo-baby, as now she is taking up pristine prestige slots with drivel based on her last name and movies made two decades ago.

Critic Score 3.9/10

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