When I checked the showtimes online for Bridesmaids, here’s what the theater website told me:

This spring, producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad) and director Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks) invite you to experience Bridesmaids

And to think I was going to see it because it’s a movie written by women (Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) and stars six of them. Hollywood has just discovered that not only are women funny, but audiences will flock to see them (the movie took in $7.8 million yesterday alone, coming in a close second to Thor 3D) — so, to smooth the way, it puts up a lot of male boldface names in the movie’s ads.

Yet I left the theater with the realization that, in terms of tone at least, this film has Judd Apatow all over it. In fact, if one fed the scripts for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad into a supercomputer, one would find there’s an Apatow formula that strikes a balance between poop jokes, awkward sex scenes, eccentric secondary figures, and genuinely affecting sentimental moments between the main characters. Am I saying that Bridesmaids is just warmed-over Apatow? Not at all: this film is in many ways a total delight. Placing those elements into a film about the biggest chestnut of all female-oriented plots — the run-up to your best friend’s wedding — seems, to me at least, much better than just a female version of Apatow’s own clichéd plots (high school boys on a quest for alcohol and girls, etc.).

Maybe I’ve just been reading too many articles about Hollywood’s slow acknowledgement that audiences want to see women being funny, but it was hard for me to see it without that topic in mind, as if the film was trying to make a point. (Remember when Hollywood discovered, via American Pie in 1999, that women liked sex? Gee, thanks for small favors.) Previously, Hollywood has tended to hold to a three-part philosophy concerning female humor, as Tad Friend notes in his piece about the comedian Anna Faris in The New Yorker:

  • Women don’t have to be funny.
  • Also, women aren’t funny.
  • Really, they’re not.

If nothing else, Bridesmaids blows those concepts out of the water. The women in this film use every comic trick in the book — they run the gamut from subtle to broad and display great gifts for physical comedy when it’s required. Plus, the film wins prizes from me for taking apart the wedding industrial complex fairly handily, especially considering I’d just spent an hour on the phone with a friend suggesting plausible-sounding excuses for skipping a bridal shower.

But I also don’t want to oversell this movie. It’s exactly what you think it’s going to be, not much more. As with last year’s Easy A, this movie is funny, alternately gross and sweet, and features some surprisingly touching moments; Kristen Wiig in the lead role knows when to trot out her Saturday Night Live absurdities and when to rein them in; and the other leads (Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne) are terrific, while Wendi McLendon-Covey (the blousy blonde from Reno: 911) doesn’t get quite enough screen time for my liking. For two much more diametrical responses, read the smart back-and-forth about this film on the Bitch website between Kjerstin Johnson and Kelsey Wallace.

My strongest criticism boils down to the fat jokes. I love the actress Melissa McCarthy — she played the best friend on The Gilmore Girls and more recently had a brief and celebrated run on Mike & Molly, a show I never saw but which got a lot of love from people whose opinion I respect. Those same writers have been divided on her appearance here. Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood loved the film and especially McCarthy, saying “she shows a woman who is fun and sexual and raunchy and real and ready to beat the crap out of you on a moment’s notice. That’s what was so great about her character, you had no idea what was coming next.” On the other hand, Bitch‘s Johnson and Wallace decried the “lazy” jokes levied at the “unrefined fat woman” who burps out loud, waddles through a couple of scenes (har, har!), and comes across as butch. (McCarthy has explained in interviews that she modeled her character on the abrasive, loud, yet oddly appealing Food Channel star, Guy Fieri — a decision I find brilliant.)

I’m going to take for granted that readers of this blog are enlightened enough to be aware of fat phobia, unlike the 20-something woman jackass in the theater next to me who squeaked, “Gross!” at the sight of one of McCarthy’s big ankles. Obviously none of us wants to see a movie that gets cheap laughs from the sight of a fat woman. But equally obviously none of us would say that fat women should be kept out of comedies, or that they’re not allowed to be funny, or that they’re not allowed to use physical humor. Silverstein puts it nicely: “Fat women never have fun in films. They might laugh but always when people are laughing at them” — whereas in this one McCarthy’s character is having a blast, moving forward with that Fieri-like assuredness that renders impossible a simplistic reading of her character. It’s important to note that at a crucial moment in the film, McCarthy’s character steps forward to show a truly heroic self-awareness, competence, sensitivity, and dedication to her friends (in fact, it sounds as if McCarthy herself is responsible for that plot development). So I return to the question: do I forgive the few bad fat jokes because overall we laugh with McCarthy and appreciate her character so much?

In the end, I remain divided on whether the fat jokes ruin Bridesmaids. I’m still persuaded enough by a Silverstein-like appreciation for McCarthy’s character and performance to refrain from a full-throated complaint. Perhaps this is Hollywood’s first experiment with enlightened fat phobia, pace Susan Douglas’s enlightened sexism: that is, the film tries to tell us that it’s okay to regress back to fat jokes because the fat woman is a successful and comparatively three-dimensional character. Let’s face it: I laugh at some of those enlightened sexist ads on TV — first and foremost the Old Spice dude who says, “Look again! It’s an oyster with two tickets to that thing you love!” That extra layer of irony seems to excuse the fat jokes because they’re not the old, unenlightened fat jokes. It’s a fat phobia that seems to accept — even celebrate — the fat woman on the surface, but in reality it repudiates fat people and keeps them in their place as the comic sidekicks. Maybe.

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Once upon a time a director named Allan Moyle bought a secondhand sofa, and as he was cleaning it he found a diary stuffed into its cushions. As he read through it, he realized it had been written by a young woman, one who’d lived on the streets and had probably been emotionally disturbed. Even though Moyle had only directed one film in his career, he used the diary to start writing a script, and eventually came up with Times Square. There aren’t many movies about female rockers, but the few that exist have become cult favorites — hence starting Feminéma’s very first Cult Marathon for Movies About Female Rockers.

When I say cult movie, I don’t mean the big-budget numbers like last year’s The Runaways or 2006’s Dreamgirls, nor do I mean the Spice Girls movie Spice World (1997) or Josie and the Pussycats (2003). The very term evokes little-known movies, or films that died at the box office, or were critically panned and went undiscovered for a while — like Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, which I wrote about last month. Thus, I’m not writing about films that were wrongfully denied prizes; on a strictly critical level, these films have their problems. The pleasure of the cult film comes in other, secret, subtextual meanings — occasionally demanding that we read against the film for the things it implies yet seems to reject. Times Square is just such a movie; and for some of those readings and/or personal responses to it, check out this fanblog, DefeatedAndGifted, or this response by the author of the PussyRock Fanzine (and many thanks to both of them for these great screen caps):

When I first saw this movie, it was a fucking epiphany. I was 14 years old, hospitalised in a psychiatric unit and just getting into alternative culture. Times Square was a revelation. It showed you how exciting and chaotic the big city could be and how it would inspire and stimulate you as well as scare you. That was my dream — to run away to the bright lights and have my own creative renaissance and be discovered by some cool alternative media Svengali. It seemed like Nicky and Pamela represented the 2 halves of my personality and my 2 possible futures. … This movie seemed like the only thing remotely resembling and evoking my mood and hopes and fears at the time.

Pamela (Trini Alvarado, left) is the über good-girl daughter of the NY city commissioner, but being good has left her feeling like a soulless zombie; Nicky (Robin Johnson, right) is a street tough with disruptive, antisocial tendencies. They meet in the mental ward of a hospital being checked out for similar conditions — how else can adults explain these girls’ unwillingness to be “normal” and “happy”? — and despite the differences between them, they recognize one another as similar souls, so they run away together to live in an abandoned building near the downtown docks. At first they focus just on surviving. But because of Pamela’s father’s efforts to find her using posters and radio notices that emphasize Nicky’s mental instability, they gradually start to articulate a reaction against the normative world around them. Those articulations are easier for the educated, poetic, gentle Pamela; but they’re more explosive from Nicky, who embraces their new underworld identity as The Sleez Sisters:

The film’s fame comes from moments like that — the girls’ energizing, exuberant defiance of the status quo. It also comes from the queer relationship between them which, though never explicitly sexualized, is clearly the real story of this film. In fact, the original cut had far more lesbian content; due to radical conflicts between the film’s producer Robert Stigwood and director Moyle, who eventually quit the project in frustration, Times Square was brutally edited — and it shows in choppy and nonsensical narrative leaps. (Do any diehard fans out there know whether that cut footage still exists? What a great addition it would make to a DVD.) The only way men matter to the lives of Nicky and Pamela is as conflicting authority figures — Pamela’s uptight father and, at the other end of the spectrum, a local radio DJ with his own agenda (Tim Curry) — these girls are primarily dedicated to one another in a way that goes beyond simple friendship and even simple love.

The most poignant and perfect expression of their bond is a beautifully-shot scene in the drydock, looking out over the harbor. They’ve just found it and have decided this’ll be their home, and they need to adjust to their new style of life. Nicky tells Pamela that if either one of them is ever in trouble, they should scream out the other’s name for help: “PAMMY! PAMMY! PAMMY!” she screams to demonstrate; Pamela responds: “NICKY! NICKY! NICKY!” It’s the equivalent of one of those male bonding scenes in which two dudes slice open their hands to exchange blood with one another, but this is more subversive; it signals that these girls might well face sexual violence or attack while living on the street. Yet screaming together gives them a voice (just like we were taught in those self-defense classes in college) and it makes them giddy and giggly, too; it’s like a spell they cast around them that cements their tie to one another. It’s specifically a feminine bonding moment based on female danger and a rejection of female victimhood — no wonder the film reads so obviously as queer despite the heavy editing.

Watching this film reminds you of the commentators in the amazing documentary The Celluloid Closet who describe watching certain films over and over and over just to catch that one amazing queer moment. No wonder Times Square was “a fucking epiphany.” The rock/punk scenes — “I’m a Damn Dog Now” in the above clip, and the “Your Daughter is One” scene you can find on YouTube — don’t just confirm the girls’ outsider status, but show how that music looked different if it was done by girls, and how subversive it might be if they embraced a whole lot of racial and sexual epithets. So what if this movie’s crazy storyline leaves you scratching your head a bit (who ever saw homeless girls with such enviable wardrobes? with such a great furnished “apartment”? who so easily get jobs in a topless joint, yet don’t have to go topless?). I can be snooty about such things (remember my unwillingness to overlook the narrative gaps in Easy A?), but I finished watching it and only wanted to return to certain scenes over and over and over. One of the last scenes, in which an army of teenage girl fans of the Sleez Sisters show up wearing the same black-mask makeup as Nicky, didn’t make any narrative sense but made me wish the statement would come back, even thirty years after the movie’s initial release.

One final note about that army of teenage girl fans: there was a similar plot element in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, although it was deeply troubling in that later film. Clearly, films of this early 80s generation realized that teenage girls were looking for an outlet, a leader, someone to articulate their frustration. Was this how filmmakers addressed the question of feminism as it pertained to a young generation? Or was it a more ambivalent gesture — in Susan Douglas’s terms, filmmakers “took feminism into account” for a brief moment and then ignored it? I’m left on the fence…with only a long list of more cult films about female rockers to help me answer it. Rock on, readers.

Has anyone else noticed that articles like this one in New York Magazine don’t get written about young female actors?  “The Brainy Bunch” is about five young men (Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Fassbender, James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy) who, according to the journalist, bust a bunch of stereotypes because they play twitchy, complicated, and most of all brilliant characters.  The author marvels that these smart actors “bring the raw nerve of indie sensibility” to the screen; moreover, “in so doing, they are reimagining the mainstream.”  Articles like this one are inevitably about men — not because actresses aren’t smart, but because they’re not playing smart onscreen.  This has lathered me up into a rant because I think this is yet another example of the exceptionally disturbing moment we’re living in, during which women’s primary value is their hotness, not their smartness.  Considering that I grew up in an age when the tomboy/ smartypants Jodie Foster was the pre-teen It Girl — a multilingual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Yale — I’m not prepared to let men be smart while women commit their energies to being hot.

Yet I’ve been putting some muscle into coming up with a similar list of remarkable young female actors who play smart onscreen and it’s really hard.  Not hard for older women, mind you; as a culture we seem perfectly willing to grant brains to women over 35 (witness Helen Mirren, Holly Hunter, Tilda Swinton, Charlotte Rampling, Frances McDormand, Judy Davis …).  The one vivid exeption to the rule is Mia Wasikowska (above), she of that remarkable 1st season of In Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, as the teenaged daughter in The Kids are All Right, and the upcoming Jane Eyre.  Other than that?  Can you think of a single young actor who plays smart onscreen from one role to the next?

I can’t.  As much as I loved the fast-talking smarts of Carey Mulligan in An Education and Emma Stone in Easy A this year, there’s one thing that ruins those tales for me:  ultimately these smart characters are shown to be dumb when it comes to men and sex (respectively).  Get it?  Smart girls aren’t smart about everything. I can think of a couple of one-off performances this year — Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and Noomi Rapace in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, but I have yet to be convinced that these actors can translate one excellent part into the kinds of careers that New York Magazine‘s favorite young men have achieved.  Consider the career of Harvard grad Natalie Portman, who’s now getting close to 30 (and therefore into the age range wherein Hollywood allows women to be brilliant) — has she ever played smart onscreen?  And don’t even get me started on the fact that the last time I saw a smart young Latina, Asian, Native American, or black woman onscreen was Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson (2006) — and where have the roles gone for Epps in the meantime?

If any of you doubts the perversity of this trend, consider one of the prevailing cultural anxieties appearing in major media of the past six months:  the idea that boys are falling behind girls (or, in Hanna Rosin’s trademark hysterical terms, THE END OF MEN).  At the same time that we watch smart boys and hot girls onscreen, we’re also supposed to feel anxious about the fact that girls do better in school and young women are going to college in vastly larger numbers than boys (they make up roughly 60% of college populations).  This has prompted Rosin and her ilk to proclaim that women are “winning” some kind of battle against men.  Thus, the fact that our films persist in peddling some kind of retro fantasy about boys’ smartness seems to reject our anxieties that girls might be pretty and smart, and reassures us that smart dudes will always bag the hotties.

If you need an explanation for my bleak mood, it’s because I just finished reading Gary Shteyngart’s incredibly disturbing dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story.  In this America of the future, women wear clothes made by the JuicyPussy brand, Total Surrender panties (which pop off at the push of a little button), and have their hotness level perpetually broadcast to everyone around them via a version of a smartphone called an äpparät.  It’s a brilliant characterization of the future (I cringed and laughed at the fact that the hero’s love interest, Eunice Park, majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness in college — we all know that’s where we’re heading) but ultimately one that reiterates that tired trope:  shlubby, bookish, imperfect, aging hero falls for very beautiful, very young, very anti-intellectual woman — and wins her, at least for a while.  You know what?  I love shlubby men in real life (hi, honey!), but I have grown to despise their perpetual appearance in narratives.

So to cleanse my palate of the oily aftertaste of Super Sad, I’ve plunged myself into Muriel Barbery’s wonderful novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which moves back and forth between the interior monologues of two brilliant women:  the autodidact Renée, who hides behind her mask as an unkempt, sullen concierge in an elegant Paris apartment building; and Paloma, the precociously intelligent 12-year-old who lives upstairs and despises the pretentions of her family, teachers, and classmates.  They seem to be on a path to discover one another — but I’m at the point in the novel when I’m so enjoying just listening to them think out loud that I’m not sure I care whether the narrative goes anywhere (Paloma has a diatribe about why grammar is about accessing the beauty of language that’s so wonderful I’m thinking of plagiarizing it for use in my classes).

Here’s what it would take to cultivate a generation of young actresses known for their braininess:

  1. Just jettison the smart vs. hot binary for women onscreen already.  If I see glasses used as the “smart” signifier one more time…
  2. Write some stories in which young women aren’t just interested in dudes all the time, but have wholly stand-alone loves of language, art, math, con artistry, biology, music, sports, comic books, religion, killing demons, other girls, or food — even drugs or booze, for gods’ sake — just like actual women.
  3. Stop resigning smart girls to the sidekick position in kids’ films like Harry Potter, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and TV shows like Buffy, etc.
  4. Show that smartness isn’t just a magical quality endowed by nature, but is something that takes work.
  5. Show that smartness can pose a problem beyond scaring off potential dudes — when young women face idiotic, paternalistic bosses, teachers too tired to teach to the top 1% of a class, or families in which no one has ever gone to college.
  6. Let girls play brilliant anti-heroes along the lines of Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg — or, hell, just weird antisocial types like Lisbeth Salander.
  7. Let girls play funny.
  8. Let young female actors fail occasionally in a part the way we just keep forgiving failures by Jonah Hill, Zach Galifianakis, Ashton Kutcher, even Robert Downey, Jr. — the list goes on — without career consequences.
  9. Give me a central female character besides The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who’s a computer whiz.
  10. Display explicitly feminist characters onscreen, and have them explain their opinions.

Maybe then we won’t experience that odd whiplash of suddenly having our actresses arrive at the age of 35 and suddenly become smart (does this read as unattractive and/or ball-busting to male viewers, I wonder?).  I, for one, am looking forward to my movies looking a bit more like reality.

Here’s what I like about this movie:  it’s funny; Emma Stone makes an adorable, smart, eminently watchable star; and it sneaks in a literary tie-in to Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (what can I say? I’m a geek).  About a year from now when it appears in heavy rotation on Sunday afternoon cable TV, I’ll watch it and laugh all over again.  But don’t get me wrong:  this is not a great high school sex comedy in the vein of “Clueless” or “Say Anything” — it just doesn’t quite hold together, especially after about the midway point.  Watching it made me realize two things about this genre:  that these films rely on perversity to explain the absurdity of high school, but that viewers’ credulity can only be stretched so far.  

Oh, it starts so well.  Olive (Stone) is smart, overachieving, and pretty, but invisible in her Ojai, CA high school.  Smart in a good way, that is:  when her English class is assigned The Scarlet Letter, she rants to us that all her peers have rented the Demi Moore adaptation — which, she explains, isn’t just unfaithful to the book but a bad movie, especially compared with the original film, a 1926 silent with Lillian Gish.  (You see how much this was working for me?)  But this isn’t a geekfest, it’s a sex comedy:  she then proceeds to tell us, both to her webcam and in a series of flashbacks, how everything changed.

One day in the girls’ bathroom, Olive finds herself making up an elaborate tale about having sex with a college guy rather than admit she just didn’t want to go camping with her best friend, Rhiannon, and her nudist parents.  It convinces Rhi, but is overheard by the school’s sanctimonious queen of the super-Christians (Amanda Bynes) — and soon the word is out, as the camera pans to find everyone on campus whispering and texting furiously.  First misstep:  who ever heard of a high school where no one is having sex, much less in Ojai, CA?

But for the moment I suspended disbelief because this is where high school sex comedies invariably take us:  they explain for us the perverse and surreal internal logic of its cliques, unspoken rules, hopeless crushes, humiliations.  Whether it’s John Cusack trying to kill himself over and over in “Better Off Dead” (1985) or Winona Ryder hooking up with a Jack Nicholson-esque Christian Slater to kill their high school’s douchebags in “Heathers” (1989), these stories work because high school is so bizarre on its own.  It makes sense in “Easy A” that Olive not only shoulders her new reputation, but uses it to poke her fellow students in the eye when her friend Brandon, who’s tired of being harassed for being gay, begs her to pretend to be his girlfriend.  (Again, in Ojai?  Why not set the story in Idaho if you need an anti-sex, homophobic locale?)  She agrees, but ratchets it up a notch:  they show up to a big party, lock themselves in a bedroom, and pretend to have the noisiest, most raucous sex they can muster.  She’s saved Brandon’s reputation by turning herself into a full-fledged school slut — so, being a wry, irreverent, smartypants type, she buys a bunch of naughty bustiers, pins on a big red A, and wears them to school.

Okay, so the literary tie-in doesn’t work, because it’s not possible to translate The Scarlet Letter into a high school sex comedy, especially when our heroine hasn’t had sex at all.  This is no “Clueless” (1995), for which director Amy Heckerling translated Jane Austen’s Emma; nor is it “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999), a movie that improved on Shakespeare’s misogynistic Taming of the Shrew, if you ask me.  But the movie goes beyond high-school perversity when all manner of overweight, acne-scarred, hopeless boys at school ask Olive to work her fake-slut magic on their reputations — and she agrees, but only if they’ll give her gift cards.  That is, in exchange for a $50 gift card from Beds-n-Things, she’ll say she made out with you; for a $100 card for Macaroni Garden, she’ll say you had sex.  Why gift cards?  Because it somehow keeps it outside of the formal definition of “sex work”?  The movie doesn’t know what to do with this, and neither do we — it’s a bad, weird mistake.  If the movie is so eager to tell us that Olive is a virgin, why does it turn her into a prostitute by having her demand gift cards from eager johns?

Most of all I wished I knew more about Olive’s motives.  We’re vaguely aware that she sort of likes Todd (Penn Badgley), the improbably hunky guy who humiliates himself publicly and frequently as the school’s woodchuck mascot.  Despite being characterized as sort of a lovable dweeb, Todd shows off his ridiculously beefy torso and huge biceps way too frequently (he hardly ever seems to have his shirt on) to pass as a high school student.  (I walked out of the theater spluttering that he looks like he’s 32 years old, but in fact the actor is not quite 24.  Still.  Remember “Grease,” in which all the actors look like the parents of high-school age kids?)  But Olive’s interest in Todd doesn’t really emerge clearly till the end.  Nor is it clear why all the adult characters (and what actors! Patricia Clarkson, Lisa Kudrow, Stanley Tucci…) in the film are living such happy sex lives, but their kids are so puritanical.  All of this strains credulity.

So yeah, it has its problems, but it makes you look back fondly on a lot of those earlier films.  If I were the “Filmspotting” guys, I’d host a marathon of great high school sex comedies to think more broadly and theoretically about what works — and with that in mind, let me tell you some of my favorites that lie just a little bit outside the genre but ultimately make it better:

  • Flirting (Australia, 1991, with Noah Taylor and Thandie Newton as the luminous leads)
  • Gregory’s Girl (Scotland, 1981, with John Gordon Sinclair as our bony, awkward hero)
  • Dazed and Confused (Austin, TX, 1993:  ensemble cast of a generation)
  • American Graffiti (Calif., 1973, a beautiful film)
  • Rushmore (Houston, 1998, in which Max Fischer stole my heart)
  • Saved! (middle America, 2004, in which the Christians learn to ease up on the dogma)

But maybe for the short term I’ll watch “Say Anything” again and relive my high school fantasies about John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler.  And then give myself a dose of “Clueless.”  As if!