It’d be nice to think that we’re in a day and age where women headlining a film doesn’t matter. But it does. Unless the film is geared specifically toward a female audience, you won’t often see a Thelma & Louise-type story driven by and centered on women in your multiplex. Your local arthouse theater, maybe. (If you’re lucky enough to even have one.) Usually, any movie with a female protagonist tends to be all about her romantic strife, pining after a guy when she’s not pratfalling. (Or, more likely, pining and pratfalling simultaneously.) The Devil Wears Prada, Mean Girls, Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion… the list of female-centric comedies that don’t revolve around the womens’ love lives (and are actually funny) is pretty slim.
Cartoonist Alison Bechdel came up with a genius criteria for movies known as the “Bechdel Test.” A movie can only pass if A) it has multiple female characters, B) those female characters actually speak to each other, and C) the subject of their conversation is not a man. You might be surprised how few films pass this test. (Only five out of the ten Best Picture nominees from last year do.)
Oh, and since you’re wondering, I’ll tell you: yes, Bechdel is a lesbian.
Thanks mostly to Bridesmaids (with a little help from The Help), 2011 might be a banner year for women in the movies. Ladies proved they could do raunchy comedy as well as the guys. (Actually, better than — I’d suggest you compare The Hangover Part II to Bridesmaids, but even I won’t touch that thing. And I quite enjoyed the first Hangover.) Perhaps even more notably, a very lady-centric drama is one of the highest-grossing films of the year, and also looks to garner a slew of Oscar nominations. Three cheers for girl power, right? (And then a “boo” for using the term “girl power”?)
Maybe. Imperfect characters tend to make for the most interesting screen subjects, but is 2011 really a year that makes women look good?
Certainly not in Young Adult. At least, not using its subject, Mavis Gary, as a specimen. There are plenty of normal women living perfectly sane, healthy lives in the movie — but Mavis is not one of them.The film begins with a day in the life of Mavis Gary, ghostwriter for a fading series of YA novels. (The awkwardly music-less opening is an intentionally off-putting sound design — perhaps intentionally forcing us to drown out everything else and focus on Mavis, as Mavis herself undoubtedly does.) In one of the film’s best conceits, we eavesdrop as Mavis writes in the voice of a pretty, popular teenage girl (which she actually was, back in high school). Mavis’ teen protagonist is vapid and self-absorbed, and her inner monologues are the sorts of things we know Mavis is thinking, but even she wouldn’t dare say aloud. (Though she says a number of choice other tidbits that make her look mighty cunty.) The film’s title is a joke in itself — Mavis hasn’t grown up one single bit since high school.
As we meet her, we observe Mavis guzzling Diet Coke from a 2-liter bottle, engaging in Wii fit to “stay active,” and guzzling booze just to keep her game face on during a bad first date. We cringe because it’s so unhealthy, yet we probably recognize something of ourselves in her behavior. Though she may not exactly look the part (Charlize Theron is so beautiful!), Mavis is a writer through-and-through. You can really sense that screenwriter Diablo Cody is airing out some demons here.Where the similarities between Cody and her protagonist (likely) end is when Mavis gets a birth announcement from her ex-flame, Buddy Slade, played by Patrick Wilson (the go-to is-he-or-isn’t-he-happy suburban DILF, who played a not-dissimilar role in Little Children). Mavis abruptly decides to return to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota and break up his happy marriage, possibly to crank out little Slades of her own. This woman’s biological clock is a ticking time bomb.
The voice of reason comes from Matt Freehauf, who was known back in high school as “the hate crime guy.” Mavis barely remembers him, and Matt is still crippled from his run-in with the jocks that Mavis probably dated back in the day. Now Mavis and Matt make an unlikely pair, mainly because they have few friends and both enjoy drinking away their pain (Mavis, much moreso). As Matt, Patton Oswalt becomes a necessary component of the film, giving the film its heart (since there’s very little heart to be found where Mavis is concerned). In one sly moment, Mavis mocks her new handicapped pal behind his back, likening him to a serial killer, and Buddy responds jokingly. It gives us a little hint of what these two were like back in high school and proves, though Buddy may be a picture-perfect small-town dad no, people don’t really change.Is Young Adult a comedy? In theory. A lot of it is funny. But in a bitter way. It’s an uncomfortable brand of humor, because Mavis is both destructive and self-destructive — tearing down everyone who stands in her way, but in the process, really only obliterating herself. “I think I might be an alcoholic,” she tells her mom in one scene, and it is laughed off. But Mavis is definitely an alcoholic. You kind of feel sorry for her, and you kind of don’t, because so often, she really does seem like a terrible person. There’s a twist of sorts at the end, as Cody and director Jason Reitman eschew a traditional happy ending. It mostly works, though we’re left unsure how to feel about Mavis and her “arc.” Love her? Hate her? Pity her? Probably all that and more. Young Adult has a grown-up sensibility that Cody and Reitman’s Juno only possessed in fits and starts (and, thankfully, less obnoxious dialogue). But it’s not entirely cohesive. Sometimes, it’s snarky and bratty, other times, sweeter and more sentimental. Like Mavis, Young Adult seems ambivalent about whether it wants to be loved or not. It leaves us feeling the same way.
There is some mild Oscar buzz surrounding the film — Theron was nominated for a Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award, but she’ll have to contend with Elizabeth Olsen and Glenn Close for the final slot (since Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Michelle Williams, and Tilda Swinton are all but givens). She’s flat-out brilliant in the part, playing every note to perfection and never compromising, even when she’s asked to portray a heinous bitch. Oswalt, too, got a Critics’ Choice nomination, so he can’t be counted out of the Oscar race, either. And Diablo Cody’s screenplay has a shot, since she’s won before. Ultimately, Young Adult probably goes for the jugular too fiercely for mainstream audiences to embrace it. But as a study of a woman with some major issues, you gotta give it some points for its unflinching portrayal of a selfish, boozing bitch. That takes some balls, Diablo.But Mavis Gary is not the only hot blonde boozing bad girl played by a major movie star this year. Young Adult is like the thinking person’s version of Bad Teacher; it takes itself at least half-seriously, which is more than you can say for this Cameron Diaz vehicle. Her Elizabeth Halsey is a thoroughly unlikeable character, rotten to the core — even Mavis Gary would find her shallow, materialistic, and self-absorbed (though they share the same fondness for bourbon and promiscuity, so maybe they’d get along). She’s a lazy, pot-smoking gold-digger who loses her rich fiance and, yes, is a very bad teacher. (She snoozes off her hangovers while the kids watch movies.) Like Mavis, Elizabeth also misguidedly fixates on a clueless “nice guy” — in this case, substitute teacher Scott Delacorte, played by Justin Timberlake.
Oh, and she’s fixated on buying herself a new pair of tits. Raunchy, right? She thinks this will help her lure a man, and continues to believe this even when she’s got her eye on sensitive Scott, who shows no interest in busty women, and even says Elizabeth is fine with her God-given rack. It makes for a minor flaw in the movie — it’s unclear why the Scott Delacorte character is portrayed as such a sweet oddball, since that seems entirely unlike what Elizabeth is after (a sugar daddy, basically). You may think that Justin Timberlake, rather than Jason Segel, would end up being the love interest in the movie, but it’s obvious enough from the beginning that Elizabeth and Scott won’t end up together. He’s too much of a dorky caricature, and they have no chemistry. (Though to its credit, I will say Bad Teacher at least goes for originality in a totally bizarre dry humping scene. I give it an A for effort, at least.)
Though he’s been very good in movies like The Social Network and Alpha Dog, Timberlake gives a disappointingly weak performance here, one that seems more appropriate for a Saturday Night Live sketch than a feature comedy. He’s too self-consciously playing for laughs — as is the movie. Bad Teacher would have gotten more mileage out of someone more suave and cool — like the actual Justin Timberlake — because then we’d buy Elizabeth’s bra-filling motivations. (There’s a little bit about his family being rich, but it’s a lazy, haphazard explanation.)
There is fun to be had in Bad Teacher, though it’s not a particularly good movie. Cameron Diaz’s gamine performance makes Halsey at least a little more watchable than she might be otherwise, and she has a fun rapport with her awkwardly insecure teacher pal (played by Phyllis Smith). Lucy Punch is a lot of fun as rival teacher Amy Squirrel, though the script eventually pushes her over the edge too far into Psycho-ville. A few individual scenes work well, even if you don’t for a second believe in Elizabeth’s half-assed redemption at movie’s end. It feels like the writers had no idea where to take this movie, and so decided to rely on an old Hollywood formula they themselves didn’t believe in. (Kudos to Young Adult, at least, for not taking the road too often traveled.) Overall, I’d give Bad Teacher a passing grade — but barely.
Which is why Bridesmaids is so refreshing. Yes, I’ll “spoil” it now and say that everything ends up fine and dandy in the end. (But this is the only flat-out comedy that’s a must-see this year — so if you haven’t seen it by now, why do you hate laughing?) Just before the credits roll, our heroine not only reconciles with her BFF and gets her life back on track, but also rides off with sweet and charming Irish cop boyfriend. How’s that for a happy ending?
But rewind a bit, and Bridesmaids actually does push some boundaries, while not exactly breaking any rules. And I’m not just talking about that crude shitting-in-the-sink business, either. (Though that scene does display its own unique brand of feminist edge.) Kristen Wiig’s Annie Walker is given an abnormal amount of obstacles, from a terrible roommate to the loss of her best friend to financial ruin thanks to her failed bakery to an asshole fuck buddy (deliciously portrayed by a very caddish Jon Hamm). One or two of these things might have sufficed in a normal comedy, but Bridesmaids puts Annie’s life in absolute ruin. She wallows in self-pity for much of the movie (understandably) before two characters tell her to pull her head out of her ass — the aforementioned cop, played by Chris O’Dowd, and Melissa McCarthy’s scene-stealing Megan, a role for which she very well may get an Oscar nomination. Yes, Bridesmaids allows its protagonist to be miserable. Not just movie miserable, but truly miserable, in a way rarely seen in mainstream comedies. Annie’s destitution is not a mere plot point, as in most comedies — the audience actually feels sorry for her. (The 40-Year-Old Virgin may have been the last film of this kind to actually pull off this trick.) Yes, Annie Walker is a real, three-dimensional character (though sometimes, a very silly one), which is why the absurd things that happen to her (and because of her) are all the more hilarious.
And that’s what makes Bridesmaids so much more than the sum of its outrageous, gross-out parts. Much has been made of Melissa McCarthy’s “lava-like” explosion in the sink, and Maya Rudolph popping a squat in the middle of the street wearing a bridal gown. Yes, that’s funny, and yes, it’s disgusting. But Bridesmaids offers a lot more, too — the rapport between Wiig and Rudolph as the bride-to-be Lillian. Wiig’s impression of Jon Hamm’s penis. Rose Byrne as Lillian’s new bestie, Helen — Byrne is sublime, the kind of character you’d love to hate in any other movie, but Bridesmaids doesn’t let you off quite that easily. (The scene in which Helen finally breaks down crying in Annie’s car, while denying that she could look ugly even when sobbing, is gold.) But the movie’s best showpiece is that airplane scene, with Annie flying high both literally and figuratively after knocking back some pills with alcohol. Wiig is one of few actresses who can make everything she utters funny — especially when she’s strung out. It’s pure comedic brilliance.Alas, Bridesmaids is not a perfect movie. A few portions are a bit draggy, Annie’s confrontation with Lillian (and Helen) at the bridal shower goes a little desperately over-the-top (with Annie wrestling a giant cookie), and maybe a few character changes come a little out of the blue. (Megan suddenly proclaiming to be Annie’s true friend feels like a bit of a stretch from such a nutso character.) But overall, it’s fucking funny. So who’s complaining?
You may not think a movie like Bridesmaids would present some of the best depictions of women in a movie this year, but Annie Walker is arguably an even more well-rounded heroine than those in either Bad Teacher or Young Adult. (Well, okay, no one would argue the Bad Teacher angle in this debate.) All three films pass the Bechdel test, but Bridesmaids is the only one that doesn’t totally hinge on a desperately unhappy woman bending over backwards to get a disinterested guy to like her. (In Bridesmaids, it’s merely a subplot.) Is she a role model? Not really. But she’s human, and what she’s going through is likely to strike a chord in any audience member, regardless of gender. Overall, for a comedy, Bridesmaids‘ representation of women is fairly balanced. Yes, most are zany in one way or another, but this is one film that actually has enough female characters to represent a broad spectrum. And yes, Alison Bechdel, they actually do talk to each other. Not always about men. Has Bridesmaids made its case to Hollywood — that smart, character-oriented, female-driven comedies can resonate with men and women?
Maybe. But it’s probably The Help that speaks even louder. Based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, The Help is that feel-good middlebrow studio drama, usually centered on some sort of “issue,” that comes around once a year or so. (Its 2009 equivalent was The Blind Side.) It’s the kind of movie that leaves critics largely shrugging while average filmgoers heap praise upon it because it’s better than the two other movies they saw in theaters that year, which were probably the latest Pirates Of The Caribbean and Transformers movies. Am I being unfair? It’s possible. The Help is a respectable feature debut from writer/director Tate Taylor (a friend of Stockett’s, which is how he wrestled this away from more established filmmakers), so I don’t mean to dismiss it completely. Its comedic moments work, its dramatic moments don’t suck. Most of its problems can be attributed to the source material, and whether or not it’s progressive to tell yet another story about African-American civil rights as framed through the eyes of a Caucasian goodie-goodie is a whole separate issue. There’s no doubt about it — The Help plays it safe. Is the heroic Skeeter, so savvy and forthright and winning, a bit anachronistic? Would she really be this forward-thinking in this era? Who can say, exactly? The injustices doled out on black maids portrayed by Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, and others are sad, sure. But they’re movie-sad. They don’t really make you feel bad. There’s plenty of big comedy to turn those frowns upside-down in no time flat.
If the film has a major flaw, it’s actually its protagonist. She’s simply not that interesting, and we’d rather see less of her and more of the supporting characters. Skeeter’s emotional climax comes when she demands to learn what happened to the beloved maid who raised her and then mysteriously disappeared from the household while she was away at college. Fine. Skeeter learns this maid recently died — of heartbreak. It’s tragic, but why did Skeeter wait so long to coax this information from her mother (Allison Janney)? Why did her mother suddenly give up this information, after refusing before? Oh, because it’s the end of the movie, of course. There’s no other reason. And it’s that kind of lackadaisical storytelling that makes The Help a so-so effort compared to other dramas this year that actually earn their sorrows. If you haven’t seen Take Shelter, Weekend, or Beginners (to name just a few), you have little right to claim The Help is the year’s most moving picture.
But it’s the performances that are garnering the most acclaim; for the most part, deservedly so. Aside from the potentially miscast Emma Stone (tasked with playing a thanklessly plucky character), Viola Davis brings her A-game as expected, while Octavia Spencer provides some sassy, spicy comic relief with the story’s most colorful character. But if I may be un-PC for a moment, I must select Jessica Chastain as my favorite performer. Her Celia Foote is hilarious, but also the most unique and three-dimensional character in the movie, and Chastain hits every beat perfectly. I know, I know — it’s The Help. The praise is supposed to be showered all over Davis and Spencer. But given the number of awards and nominations she’s already received, it’s clear I’m not the only one taking notice of Jessica Chastain’s work here.
Of all 2011 movies, The Help should get a special medal of honor from Alison Bechdel. The entire film is nothing but women talking to each other, and hardly ever about a man. So how does it fit in with the likes of Young Adult, Bad Teacher, and Bridesmaids? Well, better than you’d think. Putting aside those pesky race relations for a moment, the film is rife with broad comedy, mostly at the expense of Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly Holbrook, whose character could best be summed up as “racist bitch.” Octavia Spencer’s Minny Jackson, meanwhile, is the “rebel” challenging the more conventional, uptight women in the movie. Just as Mavis takes on Buddy’s wife, Elizabeth squabbles with Amy Squirrel, and Annie Walker hates the perfectly composed Helen with a fiery passion, so too does Minny serve Hilly her comeuppance — in the form of a shit pie. Yes, even this Oscar-y prestige pic has a scene with a character eating her own feces. How very Bridesmaids of you, The Help! I’m afraid it can’t be escaped — when it comes to women in the movies, audiences tend to like them catty. Let’s just accept that and move on.
Which is how we ended up with the blatant Single White Female knock-off The Roommate, starring Gossip Girl‘s Leighton Meester in the Jennifer Jason Leigh “psycho bitch” role and Minka Kelly as Bridget Fonda. As expected, it’s a ridiculous, forgettable movie, not quite even bad enough to recommend for camp value. (It ranks about on par with the Beyonce-Ali Larter pot-boiler Obsessed. Not as terrible as it should be.) The plot concerns Sara, attending a fictional Southern California college, where she meets roommate Rebecca, who we soon learn has “not been taking her pills.” (Ah, the laziest motive of all!) Rebecca seems normal for about five seconds, then rapidly becomes psychotic long before Sara catches on.
Rebecca begins by ripping out belly-button rings in the girls’ shower (poor Aly Michalka!) and blackmailing professors (poor Billy Zane!), then goes truly batshit and plays the Single White Female lookalike card, having sex with Sara’s ex-boyfriend Jason (Matt Lanter) while pretending to be Sara. (I’m pretty sure a box of hair dye cannot alone convince a man you are his ex, but this seems to work in movies.) Anyway, it doesn’t much matter, since she stabs him with a box-cutter before they’re finished, anyway. After a healthy dose of lesbian undertones, there’s a big, silly showdown with Sara’s new squeeze (Cam Gigandet, beefcake of choice for the unthinking woman’s movie) and lesbian pal (how very now!) before Rebecca dies. This is a movie that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors for all the wrong reasons. But batshit crazy women are a hallmark of the silver screen, and always will be. When it’s done right, who doesn’t love a good catfight?
(Note: The Roommate does not get it right.)And if you think Mavis Gary, Annie Walker, and Elizabeth Halsey go to great lengths to catch the apples of their respective eyes, I have a cliche for you — “truth is stranger than fiction.” Which is why Joyce McKinney, the subject of Errol Morris’ latest documentary, blows the fictional bad girls of 2011 out of the water with her sordid story about kidnapping a Mormon missionary at gunpoint, chaining him to a bed for three days, and raping him. (She’s got a little Roommate in her!) Of course, this depends on which side of the story you believe — the Mormons paint this portrait of McKinney: a crazed and sinful former beauty queen who stole the innocence of one of their own way back in 1977. McKinney, on the other hand, calls it true love.
You’d be hard pressed to watch Tabloid and come away thinking Joyce McKinney knows where each and every one of her marbles is, even if you do believe her side of the story over the Mormon church’s. She’s a fascinating documentary subject, a born storyteller, and you can believe that she believes every single word she says is true, even if we don’t. The juicy tabloid story makes for a good he-said-she-said debate, though it feels a bit slight at feature length — the last third of the movie is padded with a story about Joyce McKinney cloning her puppies. Bizarre, yes. Relevant? Not really. What Tabloid really needed was an interview with McKinney’s “victim” Kirk Anderson, who McKinney claims was brainwashed and threatened by the Mormon church into claiming he was raped to avoid an eternity in Hell, or whatever. (He declined to be interviewed, but still.) You get the sense that seeing both sides of the story would only make them both sound certifiably bonkers.
But at least they’re talking to each other — right, Alison?
Bridesmaids: The funniest movie this year, hands down.
Young Adult: There’s a lot more to it than your average YA novel.
Tabloid: Trashy but juicy.
The Help: A light romp through Civil Rights era Mississippi. Whee!
Bad Teacher: Terrible teacher, not an entirely bad movie.
The Roommate: Put a sock on the door and tell her to come back… never.