Sense and nonsense

4 April 2010

When Liz Lemon decides to adopt a child in “30 Rock,” she radically cleans up her apartment to impress the adoption people — even to the point of getting “rid of all my Colin Firth movies in case they consider them erotica,” as she tells Jack Donaghy.  (Jack nods knowingly, “That man can wear a sweater.”)

Erotica indeed.  There are few guiltier girlie pleasures than a great kiss in a great love story.  The kiss in the first “Twilight” film has been viewed millions of times on YouTube; even semi-cult favorites like the end of BBC’s “North and South” have hundreds of thousands of hits.  One can find dreamy montage videos of love scenes posted by fans of virtually any show — from “True Blood” to “Queer as Folk,” “Bride and Prejudice,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” and virtually anything with George Clooney.

But to be provocative, I’m willing to argue that 1) George Clooney has a long career of making films in which the attraction between characters doesn’t quite make sense, and 2) fans have a long history of accepting slightly nonsensical love stories because the kisses are so good, the stars are so pretty to look at, and because we want to believe that love and passion are somehow nonsensical.  I think we should pause to fully appreciate those love stories that make sense.

Take, for example, one of the best Clooney films: “Out of Sight,” with the oh-so-perfect Jennifer Lopez (oh Jen, how far you’ve fallen since 1998).  Stuffed together into the trunk of her car as Clooney escapes from prison and J-Lo waits for a chance to arrest him, they have an improbable conversation about movies: “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Network.”  Most of this scene permits Clooney to demonstrate his skills in hamming it up.  But there’s suddenly a moment when she takes the conversation seriously as they talk about Redford and Dunaway in “Three Days of the Condor.”  “I never thought it made sense,” Lopez says, turning to Clooney. “You know, the way they got together so quick. I mean, romantically.”  (Ahem: she’s right.)  It’s brilliant:  that very line is the shortcut that allows “Out of Sight” to get Clooney and Lopez together far more quickly than makes any kind of sense.  It jump-starts their mutual attraction; they’re both so gorgeous that dream sequences must suffice till we see their characters finally undress for real.

The movies are full of love stories that simply pair up our beautiful leading men and women as speedily as possible.  But c’mon, people, we can do better.  Taking a quick look at great kissing scenes in the history of film, we quickly see that it doesn’t make sense that Greta Garbo falls in love with ridiculous Melvyn Douglas in “Ninotchka,” Ingrid Bergman with Cary Grant in “Notorious,” or Helena Bonham Carter with Julian Sands in “Room With a View.”  Pleasurable, yes; but baffling in the light of day.  So here’s my list-in-progress of love stories that are so gratifying because they make sense:

  1. Pride and Prejudice.  Apologies for the obvious, but Colin Firth has a full six hours to cease being horrible, pine gratifyingly for Jennifer Ehle, and prove he’s worthy of her; Ehle learns some humility and that you can’t always tell a book by its cover.  Accept no lame Keira Knightley substitutes.
  2. Before Sunset — and considering my distaste for Ethan Hawke, this love story’s got to be good.  If the talkiness and the awkwardness of “Before Sunrise” somehow managed to work on you ten years earlier, it’s downright magical with the wary older versions of Hawke and Julie Delpy.
  3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Clementine and Joel, perfectly flawed characters whose imperfect brains are bound up with each other despite those last few months (and brainwashing).
  4. LA Confidential.  Russell Crowe’s Bud White wears his heart on his sleeve such that Kim Basinger sets aside her Veronica Lake persona to show him the real Lynn Bracken.
  5. Brokeback Mountain.  Again, apologies for the cliché, but the lovely contrast of Jake Gyllenhaal’s eager personability with Heath Ledger’s tragic, laconic Ennis del Mar has to be one of the only opposites-attract stories that makes sense to me. 

There’s got to be more. Tell me.

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A few posts ago, I lamented a movie/TV world in which (again, to quote The Onion) women can be “sexy and tough. Sexy and smart. Sexy and professional.”  Sexy and enough of a right-on sheila to make a totally guy movie and win the Academy Award for Best Director.

At the risk of contradicting myself, I want to celebrate the return of the funny woman on TV — specifically in the form of Sofia Vergara of “Modern Family.” Let’s face it, folks: we don’t usually let our women be sexy and funny. This makes Vergara ever more of a delight, as she uses her crazy curvaceousness to be even funnier. Contrary to The Rules from way back in the 90s, which instructed women never to be funny lest they fail to snag a man, Vergara is terrific.

I’m not going to say she steals the show, which is a true ensemble cast of funny people (Eric Stonestreet deserves a paean of his own for his portrayal of Cameron); nor am I going to make too much of the show overall, which is distractingly entertaining yet light in the same manner as “30 Rock.” Rather, Vergara is perfect as the hot young trophy wife — who, once she establishes her part, doesn’t let the trophyness take over — of the aging Ed O’Neill character. She’s best when she’s sparring with him. “You’re too funny,” she tells him stone-faced when they’re fighting. “I’m going to share that one with my next husband when we’re spending all your money.” Then she slits her eyes, purses her lips, and looks to the camera for confirmation from the viewer — employing a physical humor that most gorgeous women won’t/can’t muster onscreen. Vergara is naturally funny.

Okay, invariably the writers draw heavily on two stereotypes: the Hot Latina and the Spanish-English disconnect. A lot of her lines are variants of the malapropism. When she sternly instructs her husband to be supportive of their son, she quotes the saying, “‘You be the wind in his back, not the spit in his face.'” She pauses, reconsiders the wording in English, and adds, “It’s gorgeous in Spanish.” If the show didn’t muster a whole array of cultural stereotypes (the prissy gay man, the exasperated housewife, the too-smart and slightly malicious middle child), I might feel the need to be offended. But in general the show takes no prisoners in the same manner that “The Simpsons” or “South Park” allowed stereotypes to set the stage rather than delimit their characters and scenarios.

I’m a big fan of Tina Fey, and I think Vergara follows in her footsteps. But “30 Rock” worked at cross-purposes in its early seasons: it got a lot of its humor from Liz Lemon’s attraction to meatball subs and Cheesy Blasters (which contained so many hormones that she got a false positive from a home pregnancy test), yet it kept putting Liz into gorgeous evening gowns, reminding us that Fey is really sexy despite her funniness, self-deprecation, and dietary weaknesses. What were they doing, trying to reassure us that “30 Rock” wasn’t just a “woman’s show”? (It’s a relief to see that more recently the show has abandoned that tendency, allowing Lemon to play up the physical humor with terrible haircuts, etc.)

In contrast, we take for granted Vergara’s character’s hotness — and then we let it go because she does funny things from there on out.  She’s a pleasure.