(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2004)
An odd pre-Christmas line-up of movies this year. For sure, we had the traditional blockbuster, with The Lord of the Rings opening on December 17th and steam-rolling all in its path. I left that manly enterprise aside until the crowds died down, with the odd consequence that I ended up seeing four successive pictures falling within the broad parameters of “chick flick.” Of course, I go to this kind of film all the time – the only way I know what’s a chick flick is via the feedback I get from the guys in the office. And as I use the term here, it’s a wide category. But as you read on, I think you’ll see where I’m coming from.
I know release schedules are partly accidents of circumstance, and partly the result of decisions taken months or even years ago. But just being fanciful, it’s tempting to think of all this box-office sensitivity as the counterpoint to Iraq and Israel and the December 22 “orange”-level terror alert and to Time magazine choosing the American soldier as person of the year (OK – I know Time’s credibility ran out years ago) and to Tom DeLay on the December 21 Meet the Press (OK - that last one’s especially subjective). However much the world might make your blood churn in the closing days of 2003, you could count on Hollywood this year to apply something soothing.
Something’s Gotta Give
A glossy middle-aged soap opera, directed by What Women Want’s Nancy Meyers, in which Jack Nicholson plays a Jack Nicholson-type who’s never dated a woman over 30, and Diane Keaton plays a Diane Keaton-type who finally gets him to change his ways. The movie has a few easy laughs and situations early on, including a brief nude scene by Keaton that – from this usually demure actress – strikes me as one of the movie season’s most radical acts. Later on it dawdles endlessly as it pointlessly postpones the inevitable, and it outlived its welcome for me by at least half an hour. The writing is mostly shallow and glib, and it has none of the visual mastery or sheer depth of feeling that made Blake Edwards’ 10, a film with a somewhat similar premise and ambiance, into a near-masterpiece.
Even so, I find the film lingering in my mind more than I thought it would, mainly as an exercise in star images. Keaton comes close to deconstructing her own persona, to illustrating how her neurotic mannerisms, artful evasiveness and understated intelligence have generally shielded her from real onscreen intimacy (with the interesting, problematic exception of Looking for Mr. Goodbar). And although Nicholson seems for much of the way to be phoning it in, ultimately he allows the film the film to suggest that his laconic coolness might long have been a cover for looming despair (I doubt it’s true in Nicholson’s case, but it’s an interesting possibility).
A British comedy, in the vein of The Full Monty and Saving Grace (which had the same director, Nigel Cole) about a group of 50-plus Yorkshire women who posed nude for a charity calendar to raise money for leukemia. The calendar became a smash hit, raising over a million dollars to date, and the women briefly became transatlantic celebrities, including an appearance on Jay Leno. The original inspiration was the death from cancer of one of the husbands, and that’s depicted here with surprisingly honest sentiment. From there, the movie turns for a while into another plucky story about a group of outsiders fighting against the odds, before dwindling off with the coming-to-America stuff. The spectacle of respectable British actresses taking off their clothes is the most interesting thing about the movie, although it’s still very restrained, and in the overall scheme of things has been rendered entirely obsolete by the Diane Keaton scene described above. Still, it mostly refrains from condescending to the women, managing to celebrate the affirmative and liberating quality of the enterprise without being too strident about it.
Mona Lisa Smile
Julia Roberts plays a young teacher who turns up from California at New England’s women-only Wellesley College, teaching art history. This is 1953, and the syllabus is so rigid it might as well be chiseled into stone, but she shakes things up by introducing her enthusiasm for modern art. At the same time, she challenges the prevailing assumption that there can be nothing better to follow this than marriage, motherhood, and a life spent in support of one’s husband. Of course, she makes some progress on shaking up the group, but not as much as you might think. The film seems to have reasonable respect for historicity in a number of ways, sketching a surprisingly varied selection of portraits from the axis of oppression. But it often feels like an odd piece of science fiction, like a 50’s variation on The Stepford Wives, in which Roberts turns up as an emissary from the future to teach enlightenment. Maybe we should be glad she doesn’t destroy the school walls with a ray gun and lead the girls to freedom through a time portal.
The closing credits roll over a series of 50’s advertising and other images that speak to that age’s confined view of a woman’s place – it’s rather like the stinging blackface montage from Bamboozled, but without anger or real sadness. The premise seems to be that harsh emotion is no longer required – women have come a long way since then, and we can watch now with wistfulness and a warm superiority. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary Hollywood movie fretting in such a strenuous but ineffectual way about the obligations of masculinity. Anyway, Mona Lisa Smile does contain numerous pleasures, such as Maggie Gyllenhaal’s unabashedly promiscuous student, and Kirsten Dunst’s surprisingly hard-edged bitch.
Also opening the weekend before Christmas was Claude Berri’s La femme du menage, about a middle-aged man who employs a nubile young woman to clean his house, has an affair with her, and then sees the relationship develop beyond his control. Maybe this isn’t really a woman’s film in the sense of the other three (if only because of the amount of time spent watching Emilie Dequenne hanging round in skimpy outfits), or maybe it’s that our prototypical notion of a French film is inherently more feminine than masculine, or maybe that’s our prototypical notion of the French themselves. How did I get into this? Anyway, at the risk of propagating a stereotype, The Housekeeper exhibits all the greater complexity, subtlety, unpredictability, finesse and elegance that we associate with a French film. Nothing about it is a huge surprise in the bigger scheme of things, but it’s all in the seasoning of course. If not for Chirac’s questionable strike for secularism, I might have said the holiday season belonged to the French.