Olivia Munn often plays whip-smart, no-nonsense, badass characters who might not give out the warmest vibe and don’t seem particularly vulnerable — which makes her performance in Justine Bateman’s searing and bold and emotionally impactful “Violet” all the more impressive. Munn delivers the finest work of her career playing a woman who on the surface appears to have it all but is in fact struggling with deep-rooted anxiety and insecurity, to the point where she literally hears a voice in her head that keeps pounding home the message that she’s terrible, she’s incompetent, she’s worthless, she’s nobody.
This is a kind of high-octane take on “Adaptation,” with Munn’s titular character looking cool, calm and collected on the surface while a cacophony of voices, thoughts and memories rattle around her head. The dominant voice is a harsh-sounding, demeaning, constantly critical male (Justin Theroux), who is forever telling Violet she’s not worthy of love or happiness or professional success and she shouldn’t take any chances or ruffle any feathers or stand up for herself. (A sample offering from this monstrous alter ego: “You’re a freak, you’re fat, your hair is gross, you’re a baby, you smell, don’t be a bitch, how do you expect people to take you seriously …”)
A second voice comes in the form of cursive writings that scroll across the screen, with Violet speaking in her own voice and saying things like, “Why can’t I just be happy?” and, “I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore” and “I’m OK I’m OK I’m OK.” On top of all THAT, Violet has vivid memories of certain incidents from her childhood that play like old 16mm films, and on top of all THAT, writer-director Bateman (the former “Family Ties” co-star) goes bold and big with stylistic touches including mash-up montages of jarring images of decay and destruction, and the screen sometimes turning a kind of sepia-toned blood red when the ugly inner voice berates her. At times the art-house touches can be overwhelming (and in some cases unnecessary), but “Violet” remains consistently enthralling due to the smart and savvy screenplay and the fine performances from Munn and the supporting cast.
Violet is the head of production at a well-respected boutique studio — the kind of place where they turn out awards contenders and the occasional smash commercial hit as well. She allows her underlings to get away with lazy work habits and borderline insubordinate behavior because her philosophy is not to cause a scene, to go along and get along — and because the voice inside her tells she’s a fraud and shouldn’t even have this job. The brilliant character actor Dennis Boutsikaris plays Violet’s boss, Tom, who has a glad-handing, aging hippie demeanor, but is simmering with sexist resentment for Violet, who is clearly better than him at every facet of the business. (Among other knowing touches, “Violet” is spot-on in its treatment of the motion picture industry, from the scenes at Violet’s studio to a Hollywood party crawling with self-involved artists and odious studio executives.)
Although Violet often feels as if she’s alone in the world — she’s estranged from her family and isn’t even sure she’ll attend her mother’s funeral — she does have a couple of allies. Her best friend Lila (Erica Ash) keeps her somewhat grounded and tells her no, it’s not normal to have “the committee” (as Violet calls the voices in her head) controlling one’s every move. Then there’s the almost too-good-to-be-true Red (a laid-back, handsome and likable Luke Bracey), a screenwriter who has been Violet’s loyal buddy for years and is clearly in love with her. (In a play off an old Hollywood joke, the voice in Violet’s head tells her it would be career suicide for a head of production to date a lowly screenwriter.) I’m not sure what the symbolism is in having a “Violet” and a “Red” potentially embracing each other, but perhaps this melding of personalities and colors will help quell the voices in Violet’s head. Thanks in large part to Munn’s elegant, authentic, grounded and moving performance, we’re rooting hard for Violet to find some inner peace. She deserves it. The voice is all wrong about her.