Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Women Wins Me Over

(Click on title to see the preview.)

Now this is a rare movie season indeed. Two films with star-studded casts almost completely people by women. “Mama Mia” has managed to confound men with its saccharine affirmations and charm women with its heart-on-the-sleeve dedication to summer fun. I would argue that the women who made it are just fine with that. For a bonus, Diane English serves us up her loose remake of 1939’s “The Women” – one of the funniest, sharpest films ever – never mind that there’s not a single man in it.

What? None?

You got it. But after attending thousands of female-less Westerns, shoot-‘em-ups and war films with our men friends and mates, I think you’d agree we deserve the break. After all, the vaunted ‘great age of independent film’ from the 1970s is also famous for what it’s missing: women. A crime of epic proportions when you consider the women available – riches like Cloris Leachman and Bette Midler who shone whenever cast – but at a tiny fraction of their male peers.

And here we are lucky. English found them – and many other modern marvels – and let them shine in this all-female playground. Not a goofy, over-the-top, feel-good schoolyard like “Mamma Mia.” Not by a long-shot. Still, it’s going to be hard to convince a man to walk into an all-female film, a huge risk for a studio. If you manage it, though, I’m willing to bet he’ll have a pretty good time – even if it doesn’t move him like “Generation Kill.”

No, it’s not perfect. While no film could hope to compete with Anita Loos and Clare Luce Booth’s original dialogue – witty as Wilde, with more gravity, I would argue – this one drops the ball completely several times. The gorgeous, witty Bergen could have used much better material than her bland monologue about being cheated on: “It feels like you’ve been kicked in the stomach.” Not really? And disappointing mostly because English delivers much better lines elsewhere. For instance, Bergen dazzles later as she admits her happiness for her daughter’s success is mixed with “jealousy, envy, maybe a little competition.” THAT we believe.

I knew going in that watching Meg Ryan’s (Mary Haines) face not move would distract me, maybe prevent me altogether from enjoying the film – especially as it’s set in the rarified, plastic surgery-heavy world of moneyed New York – a heavy source of the film’s jokes. But Ryan’s appearance ‘improvement’ isn’t the only monkey on her back. The distance Ryan’s been keeping from her audience is still evident here; the gorgeous vulnerability she invited us into in “French Kiss,” “Sleepless” and even snippets of the otherwise angry “Addicted to Love” doesn’t seem to be coming back full-scale anytime soon. Her only full-on crying scene – alone with best friend Annette Benning (Sylvia Fowler) – on her couch is filmed in a wide-shot from the lawn, camera looking into the inner sanctum, but not allowed inside. But Ryan sucker-punched me when she fought back real tears as Sylvia announces over drinks that she’s helped evil gossip Post columnist Carrie Fisher publish sordid details of the failing marriage (in a vain attempt to save Sylvia’s job). “This is so much worse” than her husband’s betrayal, Meg says, and we know she believes it. What woman wouldn’t feel that way? And presto, Meg Ryan inhabits the Everywoman skin again. Ryan’s cheeks might not emote any more, but her eyes – at that moment – were all she needed. Not her most engaging performance ever – but certainly the most of her last handful of films.

In contrast, Annette Benning’s opening retort to a saleswoman offering ‘face lift in a jar’ kills: “This is my face. Deal with it.” I can’t claim to know about Benning’s personal grooming or surgery habits, but she doesn’t seem shy about her modest wrinkles – and instantly we buy that this is an honest, direct person. Per usual, the best friend character contains the richest contradictions and inner conflict – an old specialty of Benning’s – most gloriously displayed in “Valmont” – the smaller budget, Milos Foreman take on “Dangerous Liaisons.” There, Benning crafted a more vulnerable killer than Glenn Close was allowed, and here she picks up that subtlety again. We can see her terror flicker across her face as her boss threatens to fire her over the phone at the beginning of the film, but her voice remains steady. An hour plus later, she’s still dealing out the confident dialogue in face of the same threat, but her voice cracks, her shoulders sag, and her face shows nothing but defeat. A nuanced performance and more penetrating characterization by English than the similar “Sex in the City” mold.

“The Women” never was about Mary Haines’s love story; its real question was: how do you cope with its breakdown? Who helps you through the wrenching betrayals in life? Who can you trust? Is there anything a woman can count on? What the modern version might be missing in clever dialogue (gorgeous in the 1939 film and sparingly sampled here), it replaces with emotional honesty. Poor old Norma Shearer was surrounded by self-centered wits and a mother more than willing to sacrifice her daughter to the double standard. She relied emotionally on one person: her daughter. This Mary Haines needs her best friend, period. When that relationship falls apart, she does not substitute her emotionally unprepared daughter. In fact, she abandons her, consumed by her own despair. Not perfect. Not admirable. But if you’ve ever been around a divorce, realistic.

And so it comes as no surprise that the most emotionally satisfying scene in the film is Benning and Ryan’s reconciliation – a shouting match of contradictions. “You’ve failed your daughter” accuses Benning. “I can’t figure out how you could betray your closest friend for a job,” counters Ryan. Benning throws fruit. Ryan insults Benning’s wardrobe. But they can’t stay mad. They exhaust each other, and once they sit to catch their breath together, we know it’s going to be alright. That’s love in action – forgiveness – and the core of the movie.

Other critics are writing about this version’s not living up to the original – incidentally, one of my favorite films. And of course nothing could replace it. But English wisely here isn’t trying to. She’s updating the issues modern American women are dealing with, how they’re coping, and most importantly, adding the missing emotional core. Gone is that awful sell-out ending, Mary Haines’s justification for forgiving her husband: “Pride is something a woman in love can’t afford” – something I think we can all be thankful for. Kept in: strong women with wildly differing and entertaining takes on life and love. Bette Midler’s hysterical, pot-smoking talent agent advises, “Be selfish,” while Debra Messing’s goofy housewife begs Mary to show human kindness. Messing also performs one of the most entertaining simulated births I’ve ever seen on camera. And Jada Pinkett Smith steals her every scene with her lesbian writer’s obsessions – cynicism, sensuality and caffeine. And hey, thanks to Haines’s professional turnaround, we still get a fashion show! (My completely unofficial time estimate puts it at roughly half an hour shorter than the original – the Technicolor umpteen-minute insert remains one of classic film’s great mysteries.)

The pacing’s a bit slow at a solid two hours, and we really feel the loss of Pinkett Smith and Messing in the middle. Debi Mazar seems uncharacteristically uncomfortable though the minor, quirky part which should have suited her perfectly, and Cloris Leachman, in a more restrained role, sometimes effuses in spite of herself – not given the room to show her range as she did so beautifully in “Spanglish.” And I doubt anyone’s rushing out to snatch up the vanilla soundtrack.

However, the movie’s original strength remains: women shown dealing with the messiness of men in their lives – how they really do it – with other women.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Can of Worms Opened: What's a Chick Flick Anyway?

Photo: Rosalind Russell isn't buying Walter Pidgeon's line in Man-Proof (1938)

What IS a chick flick? Any movie that features women, or just the weepy love lost-and-found fests?

I believe my answer is that a chick flick allows me to fall in love again, or lose love again. In short – to feel the urgent rush of vital, intimate connection, vicariously.

Most of us only get the actual high of real love once, twice, maybe half a dozen times in our lives. Surely the deep kind doesn’t pop up every day – even for someone as adventurous as Madonna or Jay Z. The real thing – the hormonal flicker of attraction, the gradual unfolding of another’s mystery, the shaky wonder of self-confidence that their attraction gives you, and the inevitable, gorgeous resistance before surrendering to no-longer-aloneness – that rivets us to new love, and we crave its highs and lows, even when we’re much further down the path – four, fourteen or forty years into the same relationship.

Our loves grow deeper, wiser, stronger, but as we get further and further away from our beginnings, I believe we’re constantly looking back at our original sparks, re-examining them, reliving them as we retell the stories of how we fell in love. We ask our new acquaintances, “How did you two end up together?” “What made you know she was the right one?” “How did you ask her to marry you?” We watch gossip shows about celebrities getting together, breaking apart. We buy magazines which promise the juiciest stories of intimacy and heartbreak. Our connection to others’ stories, and our craving for them, feeds our need for the experience of falling in love again.

Do I really care whether Brad Pitt left Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie? Does it have any bearing on my life? Not even the tiniest bit. But that doesn’t matter. I’ve already fallen in love with all of them, or hated them, sometime on the screen. Whether larger than life in a movie theater, or on home video-size in my living room, those faces have asked me in. I sympathized with Jen in “Good Wife,” whistled at Brad’s bottom in a dozen films since “Thelma and Louise,” and laughed myself sick as Angelina as “Mrs. Smith” – in a minivan – outmaneuvered four carfuls of assassins while bickering with her husband for being thoughtless and less than emotionally truthful. I loved all those films, and I wouldn’t have if I didn’t fall in love with the people in them.

That’s the great trick of the movies: perfect strangers allow me – no, beg me – to live with them, see them say the wrong thing to the boss and finally figure out what to say the cute guy in the next cubicle. I’m not arrested for voyeurism. I’m thanked for being a loyal fan. Watching the story is the next best thing to being in the story. And the beauty of it is, I can enjoy it alone or with friends. Either way, it’s a shared experience. It’s between me and the folks onscreen, first and foremost. When Mandy Patinkin at last tracks down the evil Count Rugin, I scream with glee as Inigo announces, “Hello! You killed my father! Prepare to die!” But when my boyfriend or roommate or sister scream along with me, then we can laugh about it later, together – a real shared experience of a manufactured one.

I don’t think this is unique to the world of romantic comedy, or even the broader term ‘chick flicks.’ This is what any good movie does. When my husband got bad news at work – the kind that would drive me to “A Room with a View” and a box of Girl Scout Cookies – he waited for me to be gone, fixed himself a steak and a beer, and cleared his schedule for his entire boxed DVD set of “Band of Brothers” – the gritty, realistic World War II series which follows a paratrooper company as they bond – and get obliterated, one by one – across Europe. When I came home late that night, he had found his calm. “Makes you realize you really don’t have that bad,” he explained.

So maybe a chick flick is just the kind of emotional experience that appeals to a large number of women vs. men. I can appreciate “Band of Brothers,” but my friends and I don’t usually feel closer after bouts of random violence together. We weren’t allowed to play tackle football or be on the wrestling team; certainly, we couldn’t beat each other up without becoming social pariahs. Upset? Got a gripe? Want to kill someone? What to do? Talk.

Therapy is talking, right? Women socialize each other, by and large, to practice it from Day One. “Do you feel okay today, honey?” “Don’t feel bad about it.” “Tell me how you feel.” Just listen to any conversation between women – mother and daughter, best friends, even a random bank teller and her female patron – and see how often that word “feel” gets used. Then listen to men have an equivalent gab session, and do the math. I’ll bet the women’s “feel”ings outnumber the men’s fifteen-to-one.

It’s not that men don’t have them, but they don’t encourage each other’s feeling therapy like we do. Who has to, when you’re allowed to just haul off and smack someone – or thing – every once in a while? “He had it comin’.” “Everyone loses it now and then. Don’t worry about it.” “Wanna go hit a few?” And when you can’t really go get in a brawl, like my husband, you can just watch other guys doing it for you.

I am far from the first person to try and peel this label off a film and see what it really means. Joanne Weintraub in Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel this month argued that “Mama Mia” didn’t even have a shot at industry respect, regardless of healthy box office, because of its feelings-oriented, female goofiness, but critics – still largely male – don’t see “Dark Knight”’s over-the-top moments as detractions – because they’re about violence and power – pet topics for the boys’ club. (

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times argues that Judd Apatow has taken over the chick flick genre by casting neurotic, pudgy men in the traditionally female leading roles of romantic comedies. Seth Rogen replaces Bridget Jones. (

What do you think? Are you a sucker for the feelings flicks? And if so, why? Only in certain moods or anytime? Do men you know value movies as emotional tools? What makes a movie just female-targeted versus a chick flick? Are men replacing us as the new hapless romantics onscreen? COMMENT away!