For Shlesinger though, this isn’t a theoretical exercise. Years ago, she started dating a man who seemed to check all her boxes, but she never got that fairy tale ending. “It turned out the person was a total sociopath, and everything they had ever told me was a lie,” she said.
That experience is the inspiration behind Good on Paper, a new Netflix film that Shlesinger wrote and stars in. In a literal case of art imitates life, she plays Andrea Singer, a stand-up comedian and aspiring actress. On a flight from New York City to Los Angeles after a disastrous audition, Andrea meets Dennis (Ryan Hansen), a nice enough guy who wheedles his way into her life with charm, intelligence, and wit. On paper, he seems perfect: a great job in finance, a house in Beverly Hills. Plus, he’s supportive of Andrea’s career, gives stock tips to her best friend Margot (Margaret Cho), and is close with his mom. So, when Andrea first catches him in a lie, she initially brushes it off. But soon enough, the cracks in his story reveal themselves to be chasms, and the inconsistencies become impossible to ignore. Turns out, Dennis isn’t rich or successful. He’s $200,000 in debt, lives with two roommates, and lies about his mom having cancer to ingratiate himself with women. In other words, he’s just another Dirty John — an emotional relationship con man.
“The more I tell the story, the more I find out that a lot of people have gone through this type of relationship with someone,” Shlesinger said. According to her, the first two-thirds of the movie are very much based on her experience. The third act, which sees Andrea and Margot teaming up to expose Dennis’ lie, was born out of an attempt at catharsis. “I started writing this movie as this sort of revisionist history,” Shlesinger said. “Most of it's true, [but] then, of course, the end is not something that happened. I wanted to write this sort of revenge fantasy ending to kind of give people who have been screwed over that ending that they never got.”
Good on Paper is funny, of course, but it also raises some serious questions about the assumptions we as a society make about what certain women want — or deserve. Shlesinger’s character isn’t your typical rom-com heroine, searching for love and finding it in the wrong places. She’s just a regular woman with a job, good friends, and ambition. But she’s also white, blonde, conventionally attractive, and successful in her field.
“Andrea is not hapless,” Shlesinger said. “She's not clumsy. She's not a hopeless romantic. She isn't the normal rom-com girl that, like, can't get it together. She is probably more like most women: You went to school, you built a career, and you're just living your life. You're not a hot mess. It was Dennis’ assumptions about her and putting her in a box that actually in the end is what was his undoing.”
As she reveals toward the end of the movie, the things Andrea truly loved about Dennis were the only things about him that couldn’t be faked: his kindness, sense of humor, and intelligence. But the fact that Andrea also buys his story, viewing his credentials as some kind of reassurance, also signals that on some level those expectations have been internalized.
Shlesinger hopes her story will act as a warning to other women who are so often discouraged from trusting their instincts. How many times have you gone on a bad date, only to be told that you should give them another chance? “One thing I am not is dense,” she said. “And I think once you start watching the movie, you see how someone would want to believe this guy. We always tell women to give a guy a chance, even if you are chemically, sexually, and physically not attracted.”
Good on Paper ends with Andrea using her creativity to heal from her harrowing experience. Similarly, Shlesinger says that the process of turning her story into art has helped her reclaim it as her own. “I don't even think about the real Dennis Kelly,” she said. “When I think of the story, I think about Ryan Hanson and Margaret Cho and the comedy I created. All the anger has been removed, and what I was left with in the end is something very positive.”
"Good on Paper" is now streaming on Netflix.