A pretty obvious dark comic conceit rests at the core of Marianna Palka’s Bitch: Suburban domesticity turns women into subservient animals, with zero respect for their dignity or happiness. It’s clear from the start that the put-upon housewife Jill (Palka) is falling to pieces, attempting suicide from the dining room chandelier. When her husband Bill (Jason Ritter, by now a go-to authority on playing privileged male assholes) returns home to the shattered ceiling-decoration and his belt still wrapped around Jill’s neck, he’s ignorant and unphased by the anomalies, callous and uncaring about his wife’s degrading mental state. In her last scene of (relative) sanity, Jill is left seemingly expressing her anxieties to Bill, only for it to reveal itself as an amusing delusion.
The hope, in these early moments, is that Palka will steer us into a scathing comic psychological study, and she does… just not focusing on the character we expect. Jill’s dramatic role onscreen ends as, overwhelmed by the barking dogs of suburbia and the pressures of overtime motherhood, she reverts to feral, vicious state. When Ritter, after a frantic, disorienting day of barely fulfilling the parental obligations he casually assigns his wife, returns to find her naked, covered in shit and locked in the basement, behaving like a wild dog. From there, the conventional hope is for something broader, about the family coming to terms with her new condition.
Palka, however, goes a different way with it, centering not on Jill’s own crisis, but on Bill’s. Hell, since nobody is gracious and selfless enough to allow Jill the attention she desperately needs, Bill practically hogs all the film’s attention, raving manically about how he can’t believe Jill did this to *him*. Meanwhile the children are running manic, the tenets of domesticity in their household falling away to chaos, a family system without rules or logic, much less the levelheadedness to take care of themselves, much less Jill. It’s the sharpest, and least expected, element of Palka feminist critique: Not precisely how the mother withers under the weight of her de facto role, but how ultimately unsustainable that role is for either the mother or the family.
Since Bitch rests nearly its entire critique on that conceit, though, it starts spinning its wheels remarkably early, the central joke, less of Palka’s rabidness than of Ritter’s incompetence, going rather pathetically stale. Ritter is still begging on his knees, without an ounce of respectability or reason backing him up, well past the time his situation’s a lost cause. While some viewers will be open to the gag’s slowly re-conciliatory conclusion, others will be validly irritated by how much attention and privilege the destructive husband has been given, by the characters and filmmaker alike.