Bridesmaids and The Ghost of Rom-Coms Past

Dear CF,

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo are (to quote what one says of the other in their real-life womance) “amazingly funny and so f*cking talented.” Let’s just get that on the table and marvel at what they created: a screenplay built around a wedding that manages to be neither a twee redemption nor a savage parody of a genre the comedy world has decided to despise. It’s unembarrassed by chick flicks (oh the opprobrium!) even as it systematically outperforms them.

Wiig is, as many have noted, a hell of an actress, with impeccable timing and just the right kind of understatement (that scene on the airplane! Calling Steve Stove! The unhinged, quiet, aggressive-but-flirty “Are you an appliance?” “I am Mrs. Iglesias!”).

When you wrote about Apatow’s sneaky marketing and how the reviewers you heard used him as the reference-point for a conversation about Bridesmaids, I realized I’d cropped Apatow out of the movie’s creation. That’s wrong; he was obviously involved in some capacity–mainly editorial and, I suspect, marketing, which explains much of what you’ve noticed; for example, how this unrepresentative atrocity of a movie poster inexplicably puts Apatow front and center:

This has his fingerprints all over it (and nobody else’s, tellingly–the writers/actors/directors are nowhere named). Which explains, to my mind, why precious little about that poster is true to the movie’s content: not the wedding dress, not the bridesmaid’s dresses, not the attitude, not the shoes. The women here match temperamentally and sartorially. They’re all weirdly sassy in the exact same way. This is a movie about mismatches—between the economy and a great bakery, between friends, between roommates, between a wedding dress and the woman wearing it. For a plot that speaks (largely) in the language of dresses and shoes, the fact that the poster reaches outside the movie’s universe into a totally different wardrobe shows how Apatow misunderstands what the movie gets so, so right.

(I just—seriously: that wedding dress shows up NOWHERE in the film! Those bridesmaids’ dresses are sartorial deafmutes–they couldn’t do less to signal the lifestyles that are at war in the bridal shop–a war waged in aggressively-styled dresses and gifts.)

[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]

Before talking about the language of dresses, here’s what Kristin Wiig has to say in March, two months before Bridesmaids was released:

We f*cking wrote this script… No. We started writing it almost five years ago for Judd [Apatow], which, on its own, to me, was just an amazing opportunity to go through that whole process with him and rewrite the notes and learning how to write a movie. Neither one of us had any experience at all. And then to have it actually happen and have Paul Feig direct it — who is one of the best people I’ve ever known. I still pinch myself, I can’t even believe it’s going to be in theaters. And it’s real. I’m so excited.

How was that, writing with Judd? Obviously he has experience on how to make a successful movie. Would he read the script and say, “No, that part won’t work in a movie.”


It was never, “No.” It was more like, “Maybe we could punch this up. Do you guys have any other ideas? Why don’t you think of 10 more things.” Sometimes it would be one of those 10, sometimes it would be the original thing and maybe we would shoot some of the other 10. It was very collaborative, there are scenes in the movie that are his idea.

A movie’s authorship is impossible to meaningfully discuss because it’s such a collaboration, but if I were to attempt a textual history of Bridesmaids, my working hypothesis would provisionally attribute the final product to Wiig first, Mumolo second, Feig third, and Apatow fourth, lurking in the foreground but having the good sense not to interfere overmuch. Like the American Revolution, Bridesmaids the movie (as opposed to that conventional, manhandled hot-pink poster that perfectly encapsulates what the movie isn’t) is what can happen with salutary neglect.

On the subject of dresses, I wanted to revisit the moment you mentioned: Helen’s appearance at the engagement party in a full-length formal gown. You’re right: this says SO MUCH. It demonstrates her need for attention, her insecurity, her territoriality, and, importantly, her actual inelegance–bad form to upstage the bride, and her attire was just inappropriate for the venue. Helen The Perfect Woman’s lapses in taste are crucial for our understanding of the movie. She’s trying too hard, not just for Lillian, but in general.

For awhile I thought the font on the bridal shower invite-box (that emblem of wedding-industrial magic) was hopelessly wrong for what she was supposed to be. It was an elaborate Print Shoppy cursive. I realized later that this was right; Helen’s choices should be a little saccharine, something other than perfect taste. As much as Helen gets right in delight and luxury (like the lemonade–“Shit, that’s fresh!”), she gets a LOT of the practical stuff wrong. You can’t drive and drink lemonade. Throw all the money you want at a party, but the movie admits that it’s deeply wrong for women to wear mini-dresses on horseback. The puppies as party favors are conceptually lovely and actually the worst idea in the world. The wedding Helen planned is a tacky horror, but it doesn’t matter. It does matter that she keeps buying living things—butterflies, horses, puppies, Wilson Phillips—as offerings for the stereotype of the ultimate female event.

I’ve been toying with the theory that Helen is the conventional rom-com heroine in the aftermath of her Hollywood happy ending. Once perfection has been achieved and her “quirks” (which are actually adorable) are no longer working to distance-then-attract her man, she has nothing to do but plan other happy endings. And she isn’t bad at it. It’s a lovely touch that she brings Annie and her officer together. But she isn’t and will never be “classy”, and it’s something of a tragedy that this is the only storyline that remains to her.

Helen’s flaws are important because, aside from showing her lapses in taste, it also establishes her as HUMAN—the antithesis of Jane Fonda’s Monster-In-Law, the vengeful scheming woman who cattily does all the catty work. Helen’s makeup is competent but unprofessional, her skin isn’t flawless, her stepkids don’t like her. Helen isn’t Regina George, this isn’t a high-school movie,  and Annie can’t get away with sacrificing everyone else’s subjectivity in order to hate and self-soothe.

The reason she can’t do that is that Melissa McCarthy’s character descends upon her with nine puppies’ worth of vitality and womanhandles her into fighting for her life. You’re right. She steals every scene she’s in, and establishes the possibility of the successful female freak (without making her a lesbian). I think that’s part of what the pearl necklace was doing. That scene on the couch is what a female fight club would like—and it worked because it wasn’t coded as semi-sexual or male (which is how Hollywood likes to characterize its lesbians, for the most part). Women need to fight. That’s her message. And “you’re an asshole,” which, as you point out, is exactly what Annie needed to hear when she was sitting there saying, to someone who lived much of her life being either invisible or the target of firecrackers to her head, that she had no friends.  McCarthy might need an Oscar for that performance. Luckily, she’s getting her due—Paul Feig is apparently planning to direct a movie she wrote with Mumolo in which she’ll star. (Fun fact: she’s married to Ben Falcone, the air marshal!)

McCarthy’s other triumph is how handily she pops a cap in the Wimmenz Be Crazy meme. I worried. I did. When she was talking to the air-marshal, she was so close to lunatic-friend territory. The fact that she was RIGHT is what makes this movie transcend its old and tired formulas.

Speaking of crazy (I love how many reviews of this movie describe her “unhinged”), Annie does heroines everywhere a service by articulating something that usually remains underground when it comes to female dysfunction and failure. All the behaviors Annie exhibits in this film are ones that have shown up in some form or another in Hollywood, with the important difference that this time they aren’t emblems of crazy, they’re logical consequences of a story that isn’t crazy at all. They make sense. They get as much backstory and explanation as Ben Stiller’s character in Meet the Parents, whose exploits are at least as bizarre.

Still, we should talk about her craziest moment. It’s at the bridal shower, when she loses it and goes to “try” the enormous cookie, the ultimate substitution, the perfect trigger. SHE’S A BAKER! That cookie is a horror! The lettering is crooked and cheesy—it looks like it came from a mall (Helen is consistently bad at fonts–the neon lettering at the wedding is atrocious too). But the horrible wedding shower is indestructible. She can’t overturn the chocolate fountain, she can’t kill the puppies, and when she dives into the cookie she’s only hurting her reputation as a social performer. There might be no greater failure than a baker drowning in bad cookie dough, in public, at an event dripping with decorum, screaming.

Painful as it is, her eruption in that scene also offers huge relief. At LAST! It emotionally fulfills the visual promise the movie made in the bridal shop, with its horizonless white expanse. We’re primed to expect a defiling—all that exhausting, demanding white! All that purity! All the pristine trappings of a wedding, of a marriage! You loved the bride shitting in the gutter. I did too, partly because I remember realizing I had to go to the bathroom in my wedding dress, flinching at the conceptual disconnect and wishing for a picture of the ridiculous spectacle I made holding all that fabric up bunched in the stall, trying to keep everything but my body away from the bathroomy surfaces.  I was actually disappointed that the dress completely covered the shit; the reality was acknowledged to exist, but it stayed veiled, draped in white. As metaphors go, it’s not a bad one for the underside of many a marriage, but it wasn’t the symbol I wanted, not the fabulous broken cookie the movie eventually delivers. The bridal shower remains intact. The friendship and the cookie are broken. That says volumes.

Much has been made of the fact that this is a lady-movie featuring (oh-so-predictably) a wedding. In its defense, I want to offer that the premise matters both because weddings are complicated and because they allow one to believably stage female interactions. The shower, like the bridal shop, is another pristine women-only space. In a movie that wants, at least in part, to prove to the blinkered that women can be funny, that spares us the tiresome dichotomy of women as enforcers of the social order and men as it’s happy-go-lucky violators. Women do all the violating here. Annie flouts social and, later, traffic laws. She’s the transgressor trying to expose the codes for the empty containers they are. She flails and fails, perhaps because she’s not awkward enough. She dresses well. Despite her discomfort, she isn’t actually out of place at most of the events she attends. I was thinking about what you said about Subashini’s (totally fantastic) post, and it occurred to me that Melissa McCarthy is the awkward female who consistently violates social norms and succeeds. Her taillights aren’t out, they aren’t failed or broken; they’re neon purple.

Speaking of cars, which are surprisingly prominent storytelling vehicles (heh) in this movie, Helen’s total surrender in the car was interesting.  At first I thought the idea was for her to name all the small things that drove Annie wild and acknowledge that they were real—a tidy expository review of all that’s gone down between them.

I was wrong—it’s more complicated than that, in ways I’m still not sure I quite get. She says things that seem unlikely (that she liked the simple dress Annie picked out better than the high-fashion one) and things that just aren’t true (it probably wasn’t food poisoning!). That’s so complex, so smart. One explanation might be that she’s ingratiating herself with Annie, but she’s also showing her limited engagement with the truth. She’s not going to change. It’s not all awesome now. They won’t be best buddies, but they might have a lunch.

And finally, the central womance. Oh, my. The scene between Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig shocked me with how easeful it was, how funny, how utterly opposite from the strained high-octane jokes that characterize The Sweetest Thing. This was quieter and more hilarious—it was actually how I picture the girls in Whip It when they grow up.  (It’s not a coincidence, I suspect, that Wiig was in that movie too.)

A good friend of mine objected that the movie was built around cattiness, and that she would have liked to see more of the comedy deriving from women loving each other. In a funny way, I think that’s actually where the “cattiness” in this film comes from—too much love. The rivalry isn’t about status or about any of the things that comprise the “catty” oeuvre; it’s about competing for the truly limited space for friendship that exists in a married woman’s life. Plenty of critics have noted that this film has a heart; I’d add that cattiness is exactly the wrong word for the good intentions that surround the events of the film. It isn’t mean. In an interview, Kristen Wiig says, “Mean comedy is not really something that I personally gravitate towards or something that I do.”

I don’t think the on-screen chemistry between Rudolph and Wiig is really in question—it’s tremendous, and it’s comedy gold. Their off-screen riffing is just as good. When asked what they’ll be doing next, Maya Rudolph says, “I’ll be gestating a human.” Kristen: “I will be too, but in my lab.”

Which brings me to the final scene between these two women in Lillian’s apartment. I cried. Then and afterward. It took me a couple of days to get enough distance from that moment to talk about it.

We’re used to validating masculine marriage-jitters, used to mourning their losses of couch-and-cereal-bowl, their frat-houses of exuberant fun. We’re used to defining female happiness as coextensive with weddings and marriage and losing your name. (Runaway Bride is in some sense the exception that proved the rule—Roberts’ tendency to conform to external preferences means she doesn’t even know how she likes her eggs.)

When Lillian, hiding under her covers, says she’ll never live in her apartment again, that she won’t be down the block from Annie, that she worries about what’ll happen to Annie, to their friendship … those things are unutterable, unanswerable, and true. Every woman who has watched a friend walk down the aisle and realized that things will never be the same can recognize the power of that scene, the exquisite pain of the private loss that goes hand-in-hand with the celebration of a public union. Sometimes you work through it. Many a friendship muddles through on borrowed trips, lunches, phone calls, e-mails. But marriage, with all its virtues and all its beauties, kills many more friendships than it saves. I’ve never had bridesmaids or been one, but as I write this it occurs to me that the structure offers a way for friends to be involved in an event that carries a very real danger of excluding them. In that sense, Bridesmaids is exactly the right name for this movie.

In case it isn’t obvious, I loved it. I left the theater crying in relief and floating on sweaty air.

Fondly,

M

The Leaking Conquest

Dear Millicent,

Hi! Welcome to this new day, one wherein Hollywood and comedians insist they always thought women were funny.  A reviewer on my NPR station said, “I don’t understand what the big deal about  Bridesmaids is. Apatow has always made women the smartest characters in his movies. This time, women are gross. So?” A writer acquaintance who once said “I just don’t write comedy for women,” said with great and serious gusto “Bridesmaids is important for comedy.”

The monsieur I went to see the movie  with was wowed. “It’s so much more than a girl’s comedy,” he said, a huge compliment.  And I hunched over.  I thought of Lindy West. I squinted, trying to think if I would have said the same thing after The Hangover, commending it on being more than a boy’s comedy.  You know the answer.

We are all excited about this movie. I was hoping for this great coming of women in comedy when I saw the trailer, and my fingers are still crossed for the continuation of whatever trend Apatow is building as he also produces Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls.  I will admit, I got cautious when I saw all the emails and tweets about it being a social responsibility to see this movie.  I worried it was a great viral PR scheme…that Apatow had approached women’s comedy as an act of ego, to play all us feminists and prove us wrong about our criticisms of him.  I like the happy idea that he had a great veil-lifting, and realized the flatness of his female characters, and instantly went out to correct the imbalance that he was part of, and a bit of a mascot for.  But I doubt that.  It’s too perfect. Instead, it seems like another time to type out the cliche’ that I use in almost every post about Hollywood: how nice it must be to have cake and eat it too.  It just seems weird that it is a social responsibility to pay money to prove that a female audience exists (already known). Or to show that women would like more from their onscreen representations (already known).  It wasn’t women’s social responsibility to carry this movie, it was dudes’.  Hollywood needs proof that men will show up for a movie where a woman shits her wedding dress.

Interestingly, the previews at my theater before the show did not promise a continuation of this trend.  Instead, there was an all guy remake of 9 to 5, and a male Freaky Friday about marriage and bachelorhood.

But I sound sour, and Bridesmaids did not leave me sour.  It left me….relevant.  I felt seen.  I felt existed.  Doesn’t that sound crazy? That one dumb movie could do that?  But, watching Wiig work through jealousy and general life-shittiness was wonderful.  The way she talked to herself in her car, the way she had a private world (the cupcake!), the fact that a woman was called an “asshole” and it fit, were all minor revelations of what real people do, including that half of the population, us.  We had a movie soaking in the truth that women are as fucked up as men! Life According to Jim for everyone!

Speaking of that diarrhea scene, I immediately thought of Subashini‘s fantastic take on Awkward Women, which aligns with the pre-Bridesmaids rules for Apatow’s women:

Awkwardness indicates a lack of ordering and policing, but for a woman to relax and slip up means bleeding all over the place, even after the invention of the tampon. To relax and slip up can also mean an unwanted penis inside you, or perhaps a wanted penis, but then again, with undesirable consequences if one is not careful. There is that pesky thing that women have: The Womb. Sex, even when it’s fun, can quickly become unfun with the weight of pregnancy. The potential for a girl or a woman to become a mother is always there, underlying even meaningless sexual intercourse. And mothers are always policing social norms, are they not? The father lays down the rule, but the mother implements the rules. Women just can’t laugh or be awkward. They stand rigid and unbending and unsmiling, like an army of governesses from hell.

Here we have several leaking, unpregnant, unadorable, unrigid,  challenges.  As Subashini goes onto to say, the awkward woman is usually insane, a chaotic threat to world order (hello Nighty Night!).  So, the fact that our women in Bridesmaids shit and puke over every surface they can find in the interestingly pure and patriarchal setting of a bridal shop, is divine.  I said in a recent post that when we see a woman running in a wedding dress, it’s exciting because we see a woman fighting the system.  Here, it changes. When we see a woman shitting in the street in a wedding dress, my fingers are crossed we see a woman shitting on said system.

I will still argue that Bridesmaids is weak sauce compared to the likes of  Pulling and all the other amazing three-dimensional representations of women that have been in no way celebrated the way this Hollywood approved version of things has been.   Nevertheless, Bridesmaids does stand as a great case for more.  The angle of the jokes whispered how much comedy has been lost by not including women’s real perspectives. Examples:

  • The joke of Helen’s full out gown at the engagement party.  I have never seen a visual gown joke in a dude-normative comedy.  It did so much work so fast, and was visually compelling, as well as instantly funny.
  • A mother of 3 boys says “everything is covered in semen. Once, I cracked a blanket in half.” See, it still the same stuff we’re always laughing about, semen, but this time, it’s about the lady’s encounter with it.  It’s a joke that’s hilarious to everybody, and an observation that has been missing because mom’s never get to talk, usually. How have we not heard that before?  It’s a grand, filthy all-inclusive joke. And, it catches men in the self consciousness of their bodily humors in a rare way (I think of it as the male equivalent to the period blood stain in Superbad).   
  • Moms! Wiig’s mother is not a cartoon, but she is unhelpful and wacky like parents are.  I still think the best mother I’ve ever seen is Louie CK’s mom on Louie, but this mom was another beacon of the fact that I was welcome here.  I recognized that woman.  Same with Maya Rudolph’s dad.  It’s always a sign of life when even the minor characters has full plates of dimension, even if it is short work.
Other commendations:
  • Melissa McCarthy stole the show for me.  And while the audience actually squealed “Ewww” when she showed her leg to her love interest, her character was a direct challenge to that “Eww.”  Yes, they have her run first into the restaurant, and she has the hassle of other cheap jokes, but her character is an amazing foil to Wiig’s.  She is successful, and with an unabashed sexual appetite, and an unabashed sense of self.  When she says “I know you couldn’t guess now, but it was hard for me in high school,” she means it.  She in no way considers herself a victim or another person’s joke. She is winning.   She is a model of self-love, and the appropriate agent to point out Wiig’s sadsackery.  And kudos to the costumers for giving her that pearl necklace (and dear lord, why does that feel filthy to type? It really was made of pearls, and a necklace!).  Initially, I thought the necklace was off-base, suggesting a properness that didn’t fit, but as her character gets established, it tidily proves that her success has been there all along.
  • Irish guy from the IT Crowd. Nicely done.
  • Thank you JESUS for a cast of women with bodies.
  • Jealousy, class, money, and the tensions of friendship! Such rich stuff! So immediately connective!
  • That the ultimate “perfect wedding” is still super tacky (lasers! waterfalls! Tim Heidecker!), because weddings are unavoidably so, in one way or another.
My last notes are about nostalgia, which might be our current trend in comedy, and one that I fall for every time.  You bring on Wilson Phillips, and you got me.  And, while I charge Your Highness et al with a great romance for scripts of masculinity from the past, I charge Bridesmaids with enjoying the same, but ladystyle.  Because, when you get right down to it, Bridesmaids is 16 Candles, down to the pink bridesmaids dress, and the love interest (JAKE!), leaning on the car outside of the church.  And, there’s cake.
What did you think, dearest? Is this a moment? A start? An echo that has the power to make a boom?
Yours,
CF

Wherein I Think Too Hard About Your Highness

Your Highness is dazzling in its array of reviews: they swing from ultimate disgust ( Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir calls it possibly the worst movie ever made) to a gleeful delight, NPR’s David Edelstein refers to it as a pinnacle of low comedy.  I’m not sure it is either of these, but it is a fine example of a wispy trend developing in comedy: the joke of the American male.

I offer it as an offshoot of Apatow’s bromances, burgeoning with the Apatow produced Pineapple Express, and fully embraced by Danny McBride and his usual crew of makers (David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, and Ben Best), we see it living large in most of McBride’s blustery roles.  The closest kin these movies have might be the genre takedowns of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead), or the early work of Kevin Smith, which does the same kind of nostalgia spin and masculinity slam that these movies do.  What I mean by this is that instead of looking at how hard it is to grow up and be a good dude, especially if unequipped in modern times (the Apatow catalogue), this new branch celebrates adolescent nostalgia while reveling in the failed response of masculine ego. Whereas the joke is never on Paul Rudd, the joke is always on Danny McBride (and even Seth Rogen when he shows up in Hill’s Observe and Report).

We see this super clearly in Eastbound and Down, the same happens with McBride’s lead in Foot Fist Way, and most of his roles where he portrays a signature mix of ignorance and enthusiasm (Fireworks dude in Tropic Thunder, Bustass in All the Real Girls, Drug dealer fellow in Pineapple Express).  He is very good at bombast, skewing redneck, and quickly showing the fear and soft bits of an insecure soul.  These guys are fascinated by this trope, and have repeated it in most of their work.  They love portraying the unattractive man who is not winning, who is steeped in laziness and failure, and who tells himself a self-narrative of the gods. They love the comedy of such a known tragedy. And they get away with a lot because of it. The racism, misogyny, and general obscenity is always framed so that they are calling out the same errors that they are gleefully getting to say.  Apatow’s crudeness is an attempt at realism. This new branch uses obscenity as part of the bluster it is unpinning.  At one point in Your Highness, a squire says to Prince Thaddeous (McBride) something like “I know you rely on your vulgarity as a defense for your insecurity.” This is either right before or after both Thaddeous and his page have mimed ejaculating onto the squire’s head.

This look at the narcissist American male (I say American because the accessories are always American, with the joke extending to America, its blind faith in itself, and how comfortable it is letting itself get away with everything), in these movies is also usually partnered with a deep love for markers of boyhood joy, and the genres that sparked this love way back when.  Foot Fist Way is basically a filthy Karate Kid remake filled with props from what meant good living in the eighties according to video games and action movies (red corvettes, big haired blondes, gold necklaces). It is filled with the boy version of what the good life of the future was. If we did the girl version of this from that same time, we would have a movie littered with Kit n’ Kaboodles, fuschia satin camisoles, Virginia Slims, and stretch limos.  The same nostalgia, and it’s failure in an adult life, pops up in Observe and Report, especially with Seth Rogen’s date sweater.  He is wearing on his date what he also probably wore to 7th grade graduation. In 7th grade, it was the flyest.

The same happens in Pineapple Express (and ode to Cheech and Chong movies), and Your Highness (deep homage to Krull and all of its kin).  These are the films that made a generation, and while I do think girls have a different set of cultural texts (Teen Witch, Labyrinth, She’s Out of Control, Crybaby, Troop Beverly Hills, Maid to Order, etc.), both sexes share the imprint of what these movies were, and what they told us the future would be.

Your Highness is a deeply affectionate critique of a generation of fantasy movies. It commends the good stuff (the puzzles, the mysticism, the camp), and calls out the weak and ridiculous (the pat formulas, bad special effects, etc.). It especially notes the sexual undertones that were always present (do you remember Jennifer Connelly eating that peach in the Labyrinth?) by grotesquely calling them out.  In Your Highness, all the characters are questing to keep “The Fuckening” from taking place, where a virgin wizard will rape and impregnate a virgin princess. The fuckening will logically produce a dragon. Which is genius, because Natalie Portman gets to say with a straight face “it is my quest to keep people from fucking dragons into the world.”  Your Highness also calls out the way women are usually reduced to crones, princesses or women in leather thongs in all these movies (Krull has an amazing spider crone, and Red Sonja is the icon of leather sex warrior). At one point in the rescue of the princess, Thaddeous tells the baddie wizard “She’s not your virgin, she’s my brother’s virgin,” and earlier asks his brother if he would still marry the princess if the wizard had indeed deflowered her, or even buttfucked her.  Just as the joke is often on the grotesque male and his inadequacies of self-narrative, the joke here is also on the genre itself.

And the smartest part of it all is that we get to see it back through the adolescent lens, and witness the juxtaposition of those hopes and weird feelings against a real adult backdrop (or, realer adult backdrop).  It is like we get to watch Krull and get hear what McBride and Green and Hill were thinking when they were 13 watching it.  They are going back to their youthful expectations of adulthood, manhood, and showing how those scripts, or at least their earlier innocent readings of them, maneuver in the adult problems of failure, lack, and finding oneself to be an unmythic character in an unmythic world. It’s a look at the busted dreams of our kidselves, with a good dose of follow-up on the adults that we have become. For the fellows here, it is one long dick joke, and that makes sense. It’s a boomerang of a dick-joke, one started 20 years ago, initially about expectation and wonder, and now about insecurity and failure.

This batch of movies takes on the headiness of  those movies we watched a thousand times at sleepovers, where we began deciding what the world really is.  Your Highness is one more of the grown boy version, with tons of dicks and dragons, looking at how those old scripts manage to both fail and delight.

I’m not saying it’s a great movie, but it is an interesting one,

So, there’s that,

Yours,

CF

My So-Called Freak: Angela Chase, Lindsay Weir, Voiceover and Voiceunder

Hullo darlin’,

Were the Funny People poster-people fabrics, Leslie Mann would be cotton, Sandler pleats and Rogen polyester: shiny and smooth even where we want and expect wrinkles. (That shot of him is a bit cetaceous, no? Like he’s looking forward to spinning a multi-colored ball on the tip of his nose to make it all better?) I blame Photoshop. It’s an odd photo if only for the lighting contrast: Sandler is all dramatic shadows and hard edges, Mann is properly shaded and then there’s Rogen as cuddly dolphin, Rogen as slippery seal. I like that this disturbs you.

I’ve been meaning to bend your ear with some thoughts on Freaks and Geeks, launcher of James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segal, and My So-Called Life, its big sister. It’s hard to talk about the one show without the other, and I’m generalizing from your annoyance at the assumption that we’ll be delighted by emotional displays from conventionally unemotional characters (the “it’s amazing when guys like us cry” effect) to the all-important question of how these shows deploy smiles—specifically, the power of a smile withheld.

Both protagonists (female, in this case) get a lot of mileage out of the withheld smile, but they work it quite differently, and I think the switch from angst to irony says a lot about how American coming-of-age stories have evolved in the five years separating the Freaks from the So-Calleds.

My So-Called Life (MSCL from here on in) was novel in that it took a fifteen-year old’s life seriously. There was nothing “so-called” about it really; the show paid its characters an unprecedented kind of respect. It didn’t regard them with the comfortable hindsight of The Wonder Years, the format of which pitted every plot against the foregone conclusion of Kevin Arnold’s successful adulthood. MSCL wasn’t a drama the way, say Party of Five (or Dawson’s Creek) was a drama. It didn’t depend on extraordinary or tragic circumstances and insisted on age-specific realism. The characters weren’t wise or precociously sage; they were just high school kids with the flaws and virtues that appertain thereto. It took the messy world that gets produced at that humble scale seriously. (I mean “seriously” seriously; humor is part of this show, but it isn’t the main feature.)

Freaks and Geeks (heretofore known as F&G) is a tighter and funnier show.  That’s its triumph and its limitation. It’s smooth, episodic, and self-contained. It doesn’t go for the emotional jugular the way My So-Called Life does. Instead it insists, crucially, on distance. It doesn’t manipulate us into the protagonist’s point of view—in fact, it persistently abstains from that (pretty typical) narrative effort. It engages with other characters’ emotional universes much more intimately than it ever does with Lindsay’s own, at least until the last episode, the notable exception, when we see Lindsay express a positive desire for the first time and fall into her cortex while listening to the Grateful Dead.

F&G earns the punch (and heightens the awkwardness) of that scene where Lindsay dances around her room, moved for the first time by music and not by the social structures surrounding it, by withholding her consciousness from us during the bulk of the season. It’s weird to see her this unguarded. It’s actually uncomfortable. This character has kept us at arm’s length for so long that there’s voyeurism and discomfort in watching her be goofy, moved, awkward as she dances around her room, army-jacket free.

F&G‘s restricted access to the protagonist feels like a reaction to My So-Called Life, which gives us Angela Chase’s eyes and ears and voice and precious little else. Angela’s smile is withheld just as stubbornly as Lindsay’s, but we’re flooded with the whys and hows of her blankness, sullenness, despondency, and flashes of joy. The voiceovers, after all, are the strongest structuring element of the show. Angela Chase’s inner monologue is bitter and acerbic and funny, but above all, it’s young. Whatever critical distance we get from Angela is external to the show itself, which refuses to acknowledge that it’s smarter and older than its characters. It’s nostalgic only in that it insistently inhabits its mistakes: Angela’s is a wrongheaded and rebellious and evolving perspective with which we can’t help but sympathize. We’ve been there.

Freaks and Geeks might be the Ultimate Anti-Voiceover. It’s a bit like Seth Rogen in the Funny People photo. It’s terrifically smooth, so smooth that we might wonder about the missing wrinkles. In this show, Things Resolve. Even if individual characters have meltdowns the show preserves an equanimity—impassivity, even. It strikes a curious tone, an affect of uninvolved spectatorship that maybe reflects something true about high school, something important about the ethos of eat-or-be-eaten and the value of invisibility. Ultimately, though, the show is a careful choreography of balanced equations. (It’s no coincidence that Lindsay is a mathlete.)

I think the main difference between the two shows comes down to opposite philosophies with respect to language and its role in narrating adolescence. F&G (like Lindsey) is a little too cool, or a little too sophisticated, to say the things Angela thinks out loud. Take Angela’s account of sex:

I couldn’t stop thinking about, the like, fact of it. That people had sex. That they just, had it. That sex was this thing people had. Like a rash, or a—a Rottweiler. Everything started to seem pornographic or something.”

In F&G this same theme is explored when Sam, Neal and Bill are first exposed (heh) to porn. They sit through the movie in an agony of disgust and attraction. When Cindy Sanders comes up to them the next day at school, the boys (Sam especially) are clearly thinking what Angela thought five years before them.

You talk about showing, not telling, and this is maybe what F&G does best: it shows, but it absolutely refuses to tell. This show is never about language; it ignores words and books in a way that few other brainy shows do. Confessions are deeply embarrassing; Nick’s song to Lindsay is a punchline.The show is interested in making the characters’ storylines substantial but the central problems, the real problems, must be left unarticulated. Nothing ever gets explained or exposed—not because introspection is unimportant to the show, but because it must remain internal. Dialogue is dilatory, tangential, revealing only because of what’s left unsaid. Language is almost entirely beside the point. The show’s poignant moments are usually wordless: the moment of Daniel Desario’s (whose name even sounds like Jordan Catalano) appearance at Kim’s doorstep with his hair still in “punker’s” horns, the moment Neal sits down and starts laughing at his ventriloquist’s dummy after finally talking about his dad’s affair. The finale is typical in this regard: the reveal of Lindsay’s new direction is 100% language-free.

Compare this to Angela Chase, whose lesser moments include lines like “School is a battlefield…for your heart,” and who at her best has lines like these:

It had become the focus of everything. It was all I could feel, all I could think of it. It blotted out all the rest of my face, the rest of my life. Like, the zit had become the truth about me.

or this one:

People always say how you should be yourself. Like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster or something. Like you can know what it is even. But every so often I’ll have, like, a moment, when just being myself in my life, right where I am, is like, enough.

Angela’s overarticulated (and sincere, because unwitnessed) angst makes Lindsay Weir’s circumspection possible. Lindsay can be as cool as she is not just because the set of problems she’s working through has been mapped out for us, but also because the show spares us the miserable microscope that forces us to share in the purely biological embarrassments of zits and blushes. Lindsay’s embarrassments—the cheesy unicorn poster she puts up for her party, for example—don’t faze her. Her concerns are (in the main) philosophical, disembodied. She’s Angela Chase without the abject and blurty self-consciousness that characterizes MSCL’s whole aesthetic project; Angela Chase minus biology.

In the show’s opening credits, Lindsay smiles for the school camera. It’s a stunning smile, gorgeous and spontaneous and sincere and startling because we never see it during the show itself, and because it seems strange, out of context. All the other characters (Kim excepted, and it’s an important exception) either smile or don’t smile too, in a way that really cleverly encapsulates—in a nutshell—their social personae. Sam looks around nervously, Neal smiles smarmily, Daniel poses looking confused and dark until the shot is taken, then smiles, satisfied at his performance.Bill does the opposite: his sweet smile for the camera collapses into a morass of self-consciousness and dopey despair.

This, I think, is where the two shows converge: smiles in F&G and MSCL mean exactly the same thing: they’re victories that give huge satisfaction to the viewer because in both cases they manage to interrupt the established pattern. In MSCL, the protagonist’s smile alleviates the angst. In F&G, the protagonist’s smile alleviates the distance. My question to you, then, is this: aren’t Lindsay and Angela the female equivalents of the “it’s amazing when guys like us cry”? Something to the effect of, “It’s amazing when girls like us smile?”

Fondly,

Millicent

I Love You, Three Dimensional Well Written Character

Dear Millicent,

I am trying to find a phrase for the female bromance, and am not having much luck: sismance (sounds like a goiter), ladymance (sounds like a medieval weapon), cronemance (I kind of like this, but it makes me think Dune), girlcrush, or the brit term for falling in love at boarding school — –‘having a pash’?

I ask this because I just saw I Love You, Man, a title bromance, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (a supreme Netflix wonder). I was smitten with ILYM’s lack of difficulty: it is plot-lite, where even the climax is not very threatening or stressful.  I smiled at Paul Rudd throughout, and savored such lines as Jon Favreau offhandedly ordering a drink for wife, “and something with sour mix for her,” and Rudd’s father staidly announcing that his best friend is one of his sons in front of the other son.   But, the movie’s thesis is that women are friendship-a-matics: they instinctively klatch up and and share and support, while men have a hard time letting their hair down.  As Paul Rudd ventures to find friends, he encounters men wanting to date him or steal his clients, or geeks that are even less cool than he is.  His girlfriend enters the movie with a complete girl talk brigade with requisite bitch and ditz as besties.  Ladies have “girl’s nights” and drink wine.  They can sleep at each other’s houses and own boutiques together.  This doesn’t seem untrue, as much as one dimensional.

When he does meet his soul friend, they have quite the pash.  And it’s got all its dimensions.  They tell each other secrets, they support each other’s dreams, they make each other grow. The movie plays easy, so they have tilted the scales to make a more compact and satisfying formulaic tale.  The ladies have to be flat characters to foil the round joy of Rudd’s character arc with his manfriend.

But, isn’t the bromance really the story of all friendships? Doesn’t the post-college adult often flounder in isolation and miss the days where friendship was less homegenous, but very much enforced? In school there is required recess, and then the caste navigation of high school, and then dormmates and so on. Then we are released to the unwild, where people are no longer grouped by age or interest, and the world is lonelier.  Gyms and video stores and bars become the great chances of interaction.  I fuss not because ILYM is an inept representation of the difficulties of finding likeminded people, but because it’s like that way for everybody.  Women might say “I love you” to their pash a little earlier in the game, but otherwise same gauntlet.  And this is my nitpick with the Bromance/Apatow genre: it showcases its men with amazing dimensions of complexity, tenderness and contradiction and that is supposed to be the trick.  The ladies are supposed to have all of this stuff figured out, and as the men grapple and learn, we are all inclined to melt and appreciate the wit and humanity presented.  And, I usually do just that; as a critic, I am a worthless sop in the audience–I enjoy all of it.

Which brings me to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, where I lost the bet that Kris Kristofferson would wear jeans in every scene (he wears white pants, once! The rest, denim all the way).  This move explained a few things to me:

  1. Why, while growing up in Tucson, people often referred to this movie and Jodi Foster’s amazing quote “he’s even weird for Tucson, and Tucson is the capital of weird.”
  2. A parenting trend that might have influenced my parents: in the movie Alice is a single mother that talks to her precocious 12 year old like he is fully grown.  He is very astute (and could walk straight into a Wes Anderson movie), and mom makes cracks about her sex life or trouble paying the bills and then tells him to finish his dinner.  They have a loving relationship.  I wonder if divorced parents at the time, hoping to have an equally savvy and well-bonded relationship with their kids, tried to be the brassy, worldly honest type, not realizing that their own lines (and their kids) were not written in a script where the outcome is ultimately a happy one.
  3. Harvey Keitel was once a very young man.

And, we have Alice, played by Ellen Burstyn, as a successfully three dimensional lady on film.  My shock in watching the movie was how long it had been since I had seen that kind of complexity organically presented.  The movie is astounding in its motivations–every plot point has a very believable and fairly subtle reason for happening.  I have some issues with the ending–if you watch it, we must discuss–but overall, it’s a witty and complete portrait.  And, there is a gal pash, or rather, a tribute to the importance of the pash.  As Alice leaves town after her husband’s death, she and her friend have compelling goodbye scene where they both acknowledge how much they will miss each other (again, amazingly natural and heartfelt), and then later, this same friend is mentioned as Alice and Flo sunbathe in Tucson.  They have just become a united front, and Alice leans back, eyes closed to the sun and says “I forgot how good it is to talk to someone.”  The viewer feels how good these women feel in this moment.  It’s great.  I love the assumption of the movie that nobody has anything figured out, and practically every character is  their own little motor chugging through the world.

If the bromance/Apatow set , or a new think tank of entertainment, could take that kind of formula on, I’d be delighted.  I keep thinking there must be a female version of Peep Show, and all the Apatow gross-out/sentiment fests, and Juno isn’t quite it.

I love you, lady,

CF