I loved Miss Congeniality even with the secretly awful “I can be a feminist and love beauty pageants!” storyline and the makeover in which the shlubby FBI agent turns into a stone-cold babe. Chalk it up to the appeal of Sandra Bullock, madcap writing, and the supporting cast (Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt, and Candice Bergen as the fussy cum psychotic pageant-show director). But after reading Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Feminism it got harder to watch, as it told women, “It’s okay not to be a feminist! It’s okay to want to be pretty and have girlfriends instead! Once you get rid of your frizzy hair and scary eyebrows, that superhot guy will like you!”

The Heat may not be perfect, but it dumps everything that’s objectionable about that earlier film and offers something slyly feminist while still feeling unthreatening.

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Taking into account that this film will win no prizes, I kind of loved it — and even better, it feels like the kind of movie I’ll keep enjoying when it makes its inevitable appearance on basic cable in 9 months or so. The writing is tight and smart and (I think) will wear well with age. Bullock plays an older, more effective, un-made-over version of her Miss Congeniality character, except she doesn’t actually seem lonely. And Melissa McCarthy is just so good to watch — she shows that she can deliver a sly line as well as she can do physical humor. Best of all, unlike Bridesmaids, this film shows that McCarthy’s physical humor doesn’t have to descend to fat jokes. Oh, excuse me — I meant enlightened fat jokes.

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The tepid reviews meant that it took me a long time to see The Heat, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and written by Katie Dippold (Parks and Recreation) — so long that I was surprised to see it still in theaters after 5 weeks here, considering how quickly films get yanked these days. Yet my theater had lots of people in it, and we all laughed throughout — even the 80-something couple behind me, who were unperturbed by the language, etc.

Let me repeat: it’s not perfect. The comedy is broad and often crude. The movie gets put on hold at the end of the 2nd act while the two leads bond by getting drunk in a bar together (right: never seen that one before). I loved the writing, but you can tell it was written for the small screen, even if it comes from a writer on one of teevee’s best shows. The Heat sometimes feels like the female comedy film is still in its awkward tween phase, with occasional disconnects between writing, acting, plot, and tropes.

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But to focus on its awkward tween-ness is to miss what’s really enjoyable about this film — and that has to do with how the story of a partnership between two 40-something women is different than between men.

Some of the snarkiest comments about the film come from critics who overstate its feminist elements. “Nothing quite says female empowerment like violating the civil rights of criminal suspects, am I right?” asks Andrew O’Hehir of Salon in a review that makes me want to use a blunt instrument to take some air out of his self-inflated balloon. But then, he thought the derivative male buddy movie Two Guns was completely “enjoyable trash,” so perhaps pity is the more appropriate response.

Anyway. Is The Heat overtly feminist? No, not really, aside from a few comments about how hard it is to be a woman in law enforcement. Rather, it’s a secret, sly feminism that emerges in the way the story refuses to play by the old rules.

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First is the way the film up-ends virtually every trope about female cops, as Ashley Fetters details in The Atlantic. Movies have taught us that women are the newest and least experienced cops on the force; that they hunt serial killers from a distance or in ways that don’t require mano-a-mano exchange with perps; that they don’t use violence; and that they just wanna be loved. In each respect, The Heat acts as if those assumptions never existed. 

Bullock’s and McCarthy’s characters don’t care how they look. Not only are they not looking for love, they seem to take for granted the fact that men are interested in them (and they are): McCarthy has a whole string of lovelorn former hookups who haunt the bars of Boston, hoping to run into her.

The-Heat banner bullock mccarthyBest of all, this film was not about The Pretty One and The Fat One. Bullock’s character gets a lot of shit for her mannish looks and heavy jawline — in fact, I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to look at her again without thinking of the whipsaw barrage of questions thrown at her by McCarthy’s obnoxious Boston family. There are no fat jokes. They’re both smart and capable and competitive and capable of violence and somewhat isolated. The way they find friendship with one another is sweet without being cloying.

I also noticed the actorly generosity between the two women. There’s no doubt that McCarthy gets the better lines, but that’s in keeping with the way that Bullock’s straight-laced character has to play catch-up. “That’s a misrepresentation of my vagina,” she says lamely (and very funnily) after one string of verbal abuse. I’ve never seen either woman share the limelight so effectively.

Sandra-Bullock-Melissa-McCarthy-The-Heat-TrailerSo yeah, the movie is occasionally crude and won’t pass any authenticity tests with police-show aficionados. I’m mostly uninterested in those complaints. I want to see The Heat 2, with a more experienced Dippold doing the writing and these two growing into their characters — simply because for the female comedy film to flower as a beautiful teenager, we need plenty of funny, watchable, and well-written films to pave the way. Because in the meantime, awkward tweens can still make for damn good viewing. And what else do you want to do on a Saturday afternoon other than guffaw at a lot of goof, with women (for once) doing the goofing?

 

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I. “Non-consensual sex” at Yale.

Oh, Yale. You can’t even use the word rape in trying to address the “hostile sexual environment” at school? The latest report shows that what Jezebel calls “non-consensual sex-havers” are given written reprimands, and sometimes given probation, and most of the time advised to seek counseling.

Daaaammmnn! Rapists beware!

Before I speak too soon: one rapist was suspended for two whole semesters.

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II. Difficult men and women.

The pleasure I’m getting while reading Brett Martin’s Difficult Men– about the sociopathic male characters who have dominated the highbrow cable television drama for the past 15 years (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Al Swearingen, Jimmy McNulty, and on and on) and the sociopathic men who created them and portrayed them onscreen — is matched by the pleasure I got from Emily Nussbaum’s superlative reading and defense of Sex and the City (1998-2004) in last week’s New Yorker. A snippet:

The four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged to contemporary debates about women’s lives, mapped along three overlapping continuums. The first was emotional: Carrie and Charlotte were romantics; Miranda and Samantha were cynics. The second was ideological: Miranda and Carrie were second-wave feminists, who believed in egalitarianism; Charlotte and Samantha were third-wave feminists, focussed on exploiting the power of femininity, from opposing angles. The third concerned sex itself. At first, Miranda and Charlotte were prudes, while Samantha and Carrie were libertines. Unsettlingly, as the show progressed, Carrie began to slide toward caution, away from freedom, out of fear.

See what I mean? It’s excellent.

III. I can’t care about Anthony Weiner. 

I understand fully how sleazy he appears, but I’m having a hard time seeing why people are more exercised about him than the comebacks of Mark Warner and Eliot Spitzer, who committed actual crimes and are also guilty of moral hypocrisy. Lying and being a terrible husband seem endemic these days, but tweeting some crotch shots just seems stupid and mortifying.

anthony_weiner_huma_abedin_a_lAnd honestly, how Huma Abedin deals with this is her own @#$%ing business, not mine.

IV. I’m thinking of seeing some underrated girl comedies.

I hadn’t planned on seeing the big hit The Heat (with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy), but its remarkable staying power in the theaters and a great essay entitled “The Heat: Not Enough Peen for Critics” over at Mighty Damsels have persuaded me to check it out. Also the new film The To-Do List. More soon on that one.

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V. WHO WANTS TO TALK WITH ME ABOUT MY CRUSH ON GIANCARLO ESPOSITO FROM BREAKING BAD?

Don’t tell me what happens; still making my way through Season 3 and into Season 4. He might be the best secondary/ tertiary character I’ve ever seen.

VI. Just go read Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Ridiculously enjoyable, cleanly-written, funny summer reading. And I’ve had a pretty good summer of reading, relatively speaking.

Okay, you know me: I have the whole snarky thing down. I’ve never even seen Forrest Gump or Titanic. I can barely bring myself to watch a trailer for a film starring poor Katherine Heigl. I’d rather re-watch that 2-hour, grueling, and explicit film about illegal abortion in Romania — it was excellent — than submit myself to 30 minutes of the Julia Roberts feature, My Best Friend’s Wedding. So what’s the deal with my weakness for Practical Magic, which gets only a 20% approval rate on RottenTomatoes.com?

Confession: I’ve probably seen it 10 times.

I’ll grant you the obvious: this is not quality filmmaking or screenwriting. The list of goofs and continuity errors is long. The background music is annoyingly cheery and sentimental, even during scenes when it shouldn’t be. It claims to be set in a Salem, Massachusetts-type place but is obviously filmed using the dramatic coast and sunsets of the Pacific Northwest. The film keeps cycling back to themes of love and loss and longing, like any Katherine Heigl film. The resolution to the characters’ problems — an ancient curse on this family of witches — is completely inexplicable. I know. But it always gets past my radar, and I seem to keep coming back.

My latest viewing of it prompted me to wonder about guilty pleasure films.

Why should I feel so embarrassed and apologetic about liking this film? What is it about liking this unabashed chick flick that makes me feel sheepish to confess it? Why does liking this film make me wonder whether I might have some kind of tumor growing smack on my frontal lobe?

(Spoiler alert: at some point below I’m going to talk about That Great House. Also: if you’re eager to know my two favorite insights, get down to the last half of this post.)

Now, there are lots of reasons to like this film. First: the cast. Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as the kooky old witch-aunts who raise the orphaned sisters Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gilly (Nicole Kidman). Oh, to have aunts like Channing and Wiest!

Moving on, the men-folk are all superbly gorgeous and desirable: Aidan Quinn, Goran Visnjic (slurp!) as the bad boy, and the total mensch Mark Feuerstein as Sally’s short-lived husband. Even Sally’s little daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Alexandra Artrip) manage to be believably appealing.

Also, no one should underestimate Sandra Bullock’s appeal. The critic David Thomson jokes that she’s been inducted into the Hall of Eternal Likeability. This induction occurred in 2009, Thomson quips, when Bullock won an Oscar for Best Actress (for The Blind Side) and a Golden Raspberry (aka “Razzie”) for Worst Actress (in All About Steve) — and she appeared to both ceremonies “with the same easygoing attitude that guesses she didn’t quite deserve either award but that knows her life has always been something of a gamble.”

I’ve always liked Bullock, and have a particular weakness for her skills in slight rom-coms (While You Were SleepingMiss Congeniality), again in spite of myself. How does someone possessed of such exceptional beauty seem to be someone I’d be friends with? How does she manage to seem convincingly the ugly duckling for even one second? How does she nevertheless seem to be at ease in her own skin?

Two things I always notice in Practical Magic: she goes bra-less in most of the scenes. And although she’s thin as a rail (of course), her body looks real — especially her big, strong legs. Who wouldn’t like a beautiful woman with healthy-looking thighs who skips the bra most of the time?

Okay, now that I say that out loud, I’m starting to see where some of my sheepishness comes from.

Just because I like all the actors is no guarantee I’ll like a film, however. Lots of good actors have appeared in terrible films. Remember my refusal to see Titanic despite the fact that it stars Kate Winslet, who’s in my Top 5 current favorite actors?

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In thinking about my perverse attachment to an ostensibly weak film led me to scour The Land of Blogs for insight, and here’s what I found: us ladies love that house. Love it.

This very fact makes me embarrassed … because I’ll admit I love that house too. Shouldn’t I feel like I’ve been manipulated?

Now, just because a girl confesses a propensity for nest-building and a weakness for a good kitchen should not make you presume she wants nothing but housework and a hubby who brings home the bacon. Virtually everyone I know has found themselves susceptible to the house porn shown to us on those real estate, cooking, and bedroom re-design shows on cable TV. And when I call this porn I fully admit to have had unholy desires for that one hunky handyman who seems to know his way around every power tool known to man. So yeah, I love this house — and I’m not the only one.
Entire websites appear to be dedicated to screen capture shots of the kitchen and/or attached greenhouse. I get it. Who wouldn’t want all that great tile, lots of cupboards, big central kitchen table, and that awesome stove?

There’s so much room here for those kinds of decorations you could never be bothered with because you’re a Busy And Important. Big wooden bowls of pears or round loaves of bread. Cunning little bottles of herbs and witches’ potions. Scattered potted plants that need to be kept alive somehow. This is not the kind of house I could manage (or clean) in real life.

But I think the reason why this kitchen/ greenhouse/ dining area has hit some kind of world-wide Lady G-Spot is because these rooms are the location for so much of the film’s drama. Just like in real life, except these settings are a lot more attractive than our cramped kitchens. Gilly and the little girls whip up a Go Away spell to put into the maple syrup; Gilly and Sally try to bring the terrifying Visnjic back to life (with a spray-can of whipped cream, I say as I shake my head woefully); Sally and the hunky Arizona investigator Aidan Quinn have a special moment in the sunroom/ greenhouse.

(Mental note: must procure sunroom/ greenhouse so I, too, can have special moments with Aidan Quinn.)

I’m joking, of course. Although some bloggers seem eager to transform their own homes into Practical Magic-style palaces, I say that sounds like too much work. In fact, this leads to my most important insight: no matter how appealing, that house doesn’t fill me with consumer desire — I like the idea of the house, and I like it for reasons other than the fact that it looks good. Another film might have used the same house and sunroom and still failed to capture people’s imaginations (i.e., mine).

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So here’s my big realization: this film gets me every time because it portrays such rich and important relationships among women, even when they’re flawed. The warmth of the house matters when Sally and Gilly lie under the covers together, healing one another’s wounds, or when they go to the kitchen to exorcise demons. Ultimately the reason I like the house is the fact that I am so impressed that the film takes for granted the intense connections amongst this group of women.

The house feels so warm and comfortable because that’s where the film portrays the most important plot points, bringing together the warmest of relations between the characters. It’s those moments in the film that get me every time. Scenes that convey the close communal and familial relations that encompass a kind of closeness that isn’t reducible to something as simplistic as “love.”

There’s a hard edge to some of this as well. Women who are very close to one another also piss each other off, or they say things that hit nerves even if they have no intention of hurting anyone. One of my favorite random scenes in the film, in which they all blend up some Midnight Margaritas and dance around the house (who hasn’t been there?) is immediately followed by a scary scene at the dinner table, when no matter how good their mood, none of them can keep from spewing bile at one another — and it takes a while for them to realize the ugliness of this weird moment.

Ah, the scene of female bonding and mutual support … and pissing each other off. Was there ever a time when I didn’t imagine growing old, living in a big house (or neighborhood) with my sister and a bunch of my best old-lady friends, all cooking and gardening and exercising together? I remember being stunned to learn that every single one of my friends has the same fantasy. It’s not that we don’t like men — some of us are partnered up with them, after all. It just seems so natural to have tight, mutually-constitutive relationships with women, especially as you grow older.

All the more eerie to find that this film explicitly imagines that scenario for its characters, too. “We’re gonna grow old together!” Gilly says to Sally when they’re teenagers, on the night when Gilly is about to run off with some guy, and the unglamorous Sally stands there in her awful bathrobe, stringy hair, and gigantic glasses. “It’s gonna be you and me, living in a big old house, these two old biddies with all these cats! I mean, I bet we even die on the same day!” Tell me, isn’t that your secret dream, too?

For Sally it is. “Do you swear?” she asks her sister.

In the end I think it is that female closeness that gets me about this film and which makes me slightly embarrassed to admit it — because I suspect that by using some kind of dark magic, the filmmakers cooked up a heady brew of fine men-folk, house porn, and scenes like Midnight Margaritas explicitly to fly under my critical radar and keep bringing me back. I fear my uncritical affection for this film because it feels manipulative to me, not a genuine dedication to women’s relationships and good houses above & beyond women’s relationship to men. I feel embarrassed that what I had long believed was an unrealistic and slightly embarrassing fantasy — that my friends and I would all grow old together — has been packaged into a very pretty filmic production for me to watch. Shouldn’t I feel all the more guilty about this pleasure?

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But there’s one other reading that works even better for me, and I lift this directly from the great documentary The Celluloid Closet. This insight goes something like this: I watch and appreciate Practical Magic not for what it is but for all that I read into it, all that speaks to me beyond the surface. I don’t see Midnight Margaritas as a throwaway scene or as instrumental for forcing Sally and Gilly to deal with their mistakes. I read into it a world of intense female closeness that I rarely get to see onscreen. What gives me pleasure in this film is what I imagine in between the lines of its essential mediocrity.

I remember so vividly Susie Bright, one of the commentators in The Celluloid Closet, describing how she spent her youth combing through old movies just to get to a single scene that seems a little bit queer. For LGBTQ persons who saw virtually no one who looked like them onscreen, “It’s amazing how, if you’re a gay audience and you’re accustomed to crumbs how you will watch an entire movie just to see a certain outfit that you think means that they’re a homosexual. The whole movie can be a dud, but you’re just sitting there waiting for Joan Crawford [in Johnny Guitar] to put on her black cowboy shirt again.”This is ultimately the reading that allows me to feel pleasure in watching this film without much guilt. It’s discouraging to realize that on some level, what I get from Practical Magic is what I don’t get very often onscreen: happy, complex, and intense relationships among women that aren’t just about appearing sexy and finding a man. I very seldom get to see onscreen relationships that look like the ones I enjoy with my friends and family. Sure, the movie concludes with a happy kiss between Sandra Bullock and Aidan Quinn — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but I’m arguing that the whole package sparks a happy endorphin rush for far different reasons.

And finally, let’s also not forget that this movie is about a family of witches. Witch being such a stand-in for bitch, as well as conveying all manner of notions about women’s powers, both dark and light. This film probably flies under my radar in part because it’s about women who possess powers that they can choose to use (or not). The false cheeriness of the music and the generally lame spells might well downplay as much as possible any sense of real danger — and probably seek to undermine objections from crazed evangelicals who might see this film as the work of the devil. Nevertheless, I’d argue that the subject matter can’t help but speak about power.

I see it as metaphorical. This is about women’s power — and their power in numbers. I may be trying very hard here to stop feeling so guilty about my appreciation for this film, but this works for me:

  • terrific cast
  • eminently likeable lead
  • great range of attractive men-folk
  • fantastic house
  • rich portrayals of women’s relationships
  • the movie facilitates queer readings against and/or alongside its mainstream messages
  • it’s about women’s power, and their power in numbers

I welcome your thoughts, quibbles, and good-natured derision for my poor taste in film!

Mark Harris has a piece in GQ right now that offers a dark explanation of why Hollywood makes such a lot of garbage — you know, all those sequels and superheroes — but I’ve gotten stuck on a passage midway through. Hollywood makes movies for one group of viewers: men under 25, he explains. Moreover:

In Hollywood [if you] have a vagina, you’re pretty much out of luck, because women, in studio thinking, are considered a niche audience that, except when Sandra Bullock reads a script or Nicholas Sparks writes a novel, generally isn’t worth taking the time to figure out. And if you were born before 1985 … well, it is my sad duty to inform you that in the eyes of Hollywood, you are one of what the kids on the Internet call “the olds.” I know—you thought you were one of the kids on the Internet. Not to the studios, which have realized that the closer you get to (or the farther you get from) your thirtieth birthday, the more likely you are to develop things like taste and discernment, which render you such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie that, well, you might as well have a vagina.

In short, as writer-producer Vince Gilligan explains, “Hollywood has become like Logan’s Run: You turn 30, and they kill you.”

Except hang on, that doesn’t make sense vis-à-vis the actual numbers of moviegoers. As the blogger Melissa Silverstein shows in her roundup at Women & Hollywood, women buy tickets and attend films in exactly the same numbers as men, and it’s viewers over 25 who see vastly more movies — over 60%. In short, Hollywood is still putting all its eggs into that basket made up of 23% of the moviegoers between the ages of 12 and 24. Hell, it’d make more sense to market to the whopping 15% of the moviegoing populace between the ages of 2 and 11 — and to their parents.

Nor does it make sense when you look at the trends with big-budget cable TV series. Suddenly it’s not just HBO making quality series; it’s also TNT and AMC and USA (and Showtime, natch), all of which seem to be targeting a population in its 30s & 40s. From Justified to The Closer, Saving Grace, Mad Men, and Nurse Jackie, these shows feature a surprising number of great women actors in their 40s, for gods’ sake. Hollywood could sell more tickets to me if my choices weren’t limited to the appalling The Green Hornet and Justin Bieber Never Say Never; but now that you mention it, I’d rather stay home with Edie Falco.

Oh, did I forget that Hollywood has thrown to us ladies movies like Just Go With It (the Jennifer Aniston vehicle) and No Strings Attached (Natalie Portman’s poorly-considered followup to Black Swan)? Can you feel your intelligence being insulted?

A long time ago I remember hearing a news story about the brilliance of McDonald’s, which varied its menu to suit local populations. In Hong Kong it sells fried rice; in India it sells the McAloo Tikki burger; in Turkey you can get a Kofteburger. McDONALD’S DIVERSIFIES TO SELL FOOD. Why can’t Hollywood?

Feel good

9 March 2010

Two thoughts on the Oscars last night.  First, and most obviously, it takes truly awful writing to make the naturally funny Alec Baldwin fall flat as host.  Second, and more substantively, it takes a collective cultural willingness to ignore reality to award the best actress Oscar to the woman who plays the nice, rich white lady who helps the poor black boy rise out of poverty and ignorance — rather than give it to the woman who plays the overweight, impoverished, sexually & psychologically abused black woman. 

I don’t think I’d be complaining so much if one of the other actors had won.  And my response has nothing to do with the actual performances by Bullock and Sidibe.  It’s just that the politics are so transparent here.  Sidibe forces us to witness the experience of one of America’s true subalterns; Bullock gives us hope for white agency.  And then there’s the fact that we already know and like Bullock, despite a career of mostly pulpy films — whereas few can imagine Sidibe getting many parts from here on out (Jennifer Hudson, the lighter-skinned, thinner, and vocally extraordinary singer, has obtained only minor parts since winning a best-supporting actor award three years ago).  Sigh.