Today in Fear the Chick Flick, we have a guest poster, Elliot Campos. Elliot is a writer living in Los Angeles. He’s currently producing two podcasts: the sci-fi audio play BEYOND SCHOOL and the TV-focused SUPERHERO SAMPLER. Find them both on iTunes!
In my elementary school years, I saw a clear divide between boy entertainment and girl entertainment, and I made damn sure I stayed on my side. I watched every animated series on Fox Kids, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network except Sailor Moon. When I was forced to accompany my father and sisters to a screening of Spice World, I kept my eyes closed for the entire movie. I scowled my way through The Princess Diaries and its accompanying bonus features (I had a weird obsession with completely watching every DVD my family owned).
As far as I was concerned, boys ruled and girls drooled. They could have their Barbies and Disney Princesses while I enjoyed masculine, intellectually-stimulating cinema like Lost in Space and Wild Wild West.
Eventually, I realized that Lost in Space and Wild Wild West were not heartbreaking works of staggering genius. And after reading 50+ issues of the Spider-Girl comic (featuring the alternate-universe teenage daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, natch), I learned that narratives based around women are not inherently devoid of value.
Over the years, I’ve watched a lot of chick flicks. There have been many bad ones – just like there are bad superhero movies, bad zombie movies and bad L. Ron Hubbard movies – but the good ones tend to stick out in my mind. It’s one thing to be wowed by special effects; it’s something else entirely to care so much about a character that when she achieves her goals, you grin from ear to ear and get that tingly sensation all over.
Inspired by this website’s Chick Flick Appreciation Month, I decided to take a look at two offbeat examples and see how they held up. The results… were mixed.
THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE
Director: Robert Schwentke
Writer: Bruce Joel Rubin (based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger)
Cast: Rachel McAdams, Eric Bana, Ron Livingston, Stephen Tobolowsky, Hailey & Tatum McCann
Henry DeTamble (Bana) is a lonely librarian with a mysterious condition: he spontaneously travels in time to random locations. It’s not as fun as it sounds. He generally sticks to his own personal timeline, but he’s powerless to stop tragedies like his mother’s death. He also reappears without his clothes, so wherever he winds up, his first priority is always to dress himself. Henry is resigned to his fate until he meets Clare Abshire (McAdams). Upon seeing him, she has a total joygasm. Clare has known Henry for decades – he popped into her life throughout her childhood and adolescence. Of course, these encounters haven’t happened in Henry’s personal timeline yet, but he still falls in love with Clare and marries her. As the years pass, Clare struggles to live with a husband who’s always disappearing for random intervals. Things become more complicated when Henry and Clare get a momentary visit from a slightly older Henry who’s dying from a gunshot wound. Clare is determined to bear Henry’s child before he departs, and after some ups and downs, she gives birth to a girl named Alba (McCann). After his daughter turns five, Henry knows that his days are numbered. When the fateful night arrives, he enjoys the company of his friends and family before he’s pulled into a patch of woods and is accidentally shot by his father-in-law. He returns to his home and dies in Clare’s arms. Years later, a younger Henry visits Clare and Alba to give them a final goodbye.
Audrey Niffenegger’s book is heavily episodic and alternates between Clare and Henry’s first-person perspectives. Across 550 pages, the author creates two sympathetic, engaging characters. Over the course of 108 minutes, the filmmakers aren’t quite able to deliver the same impact. In order to focus on the adult stars, the rich details from the protagonists’ formative years are largely excised. Some of this is arguably necessary – onscreen, the Henry & Young Clare scenes have an unavoidable creep factor – but the massive cuts leave the main characters too blank. Henry has no real goals or interests, and Clare is saddled with one of those nebulous art-related jobs that has no impact on the plot. As the film dutifully follows the book’s plot points, the chief pleasure is McAdams. She eventually drowns in melodrama, but her irrepressible charisma is such a treat that both Woody Allen and Richard Curtis cast her in a similar role.
This is a movie where a shy dude walks into a room and meets a beautiful woman who is already in love with him. It is the ultimate wish-fulfillment for nerds, and that’s before we get into the chrono-displacement. But instead of indulging in high-concept rom-sci-fi like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this film is more like McAdams’s The Vow: a sluggish sob-story featuring an inconvenient medical condition.
The film adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife is for the Nicholas Sparks fans out there. Everyone else should read Niffenegger’s book. I mean, there’s a scene where two sexually-curious teenage Henrys experiment with their bodies. You didn’t see that inBack to the Future.
Barbara Novak (Zellweger) arrives in 1960s New York with a mission: to create a sexual revolution with her new book Down with Love. Although her editor Vikki Hiller (Paulson) is a believer, the sharp-suited men at the publishing house roll their eyes at Barbara’s silly feminism. The book is released without fanfare… until Vikki cajoles Judy Garland into promoting it on The Ed Sullivan Show. Down with Love fever sweeps the globe, and Barbara Novak becomes a household name. Everyone wants a piece of her – especially suave journalist Catcher Block (McGregor). The ladies’-man-man’s-man-man-about-town previously had the opportunity to interview Barbara, but he repeatedly blew her off so he could entertain a series of flight attendants (including Ryan and George). As more and more women fall in line with the Down with Love philosophy, Catcher discovers that they stop being targets for cheap thrills and casual sex. Unhappy with this change, Catcher decides to write an expose on Barbara that will show that she wants romance as much as anyone else. Donning glasses and a fake Southern accent, Catcher becomes astronaut Zip Martin and enraptures Barbara with disarming sweetness. After a whirlwind courtship, Barbara tells Zip that she loves him. Triumphant, Catch drops his charade, only for Barbara to drop her charade as well. It turns out she was one of Catch’s past secretaries, and she concocted the entire Down with Love scheme to prove herself as Catch’s equal. Dumbstruck, Catch immediately proposes to his perfect match, but Barbara rejects him after realizing that she can’t abandon her new principles so easily. Some time later, Catch applies for a job at Barbara’s new magazine. At the interview, Catch connects with Barbara on a human level, and before long, they’re romantically dangling from a helicopter ladder as it flies into the distance.
If you had to apply filmmaking terms to a romantic comedy, the phrase “inspired directing and cinematography” wouldn’t exactly spring to mind. After all, aren’t the chief visual pleasures in a chick flick typically the leading man’s muscles and the leading lady’s smile? Not in this case. Director Peyton Reed and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth pull out all the stops to create precisely-performed comedic set pieces and joyfully inventive split-screen shenanigans. Costume designer Daniel Orlandi also deserves a shout-out for draping his stars in an absolutely fabulous wardrobe. But all of this production design would be a waste if the cast didn’t measure up. Supporting players Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce fire off their dialogue with zany machine-gun accuracy. Paulson’s a determined working woman who’s much more savvy than her male contemporaries, and Pierce is the son of a self-made man who’s brimming with insecurities. These two charming, funny actors cultivate one of the most agreeable B-plots in cinema history. And what about the leads? Ewan McGregor gets to stretch his acting ability, playing a stud and a dork. He’s so smooth that he would slip out of your hand like a wet bar of soap. As for Zellweger, she’s saddled with the least interesting character, but she’s perfectly able to keep pace with her showboating costars. And it could be said that her powerfully-delivered one-take monologue in the third act recontextualizes her entire performance. Still, her high point is probably the closing musical number she shares with McGregor. Their song and dance not only shows off their Chicago and Moulin Rouge chops but also ends the film on a cheer-worthy high note.
Down with Love is a feature-length homage to a series of romantic comedies that were released forty years earlier. Executives were probably hoping to tap into the Austin Powers well of ‘60s spoof magic, but those films openly broadcast their dick-and-fart jokes and only trot out old tropes to ruthlessly mock them. Down with Love, on the other hand, is rooted in (groan) love. Reed and his collaborators clearly have deep affection for the time period and the genre, and they created a film that wasn’t a parody as much as a faithful recreation. You don’t feel bad when Mike Myers and Elizabeth Hurley’s relationship blows up, but Zellweger and McGregor’s relationship troubles are meant to elicit genuine reactions. The film demands viewer involvement, and in an age when sincerity is greeted with eye-rolls and snickers, Down with Love didn’t stand a chance.
When I was in high school, I had a tradition of watching Down with Love every Valentine’s Day. I responded to the witty repartee and bubbly music, but on a deeper level, I appreciated that this was a labor of love that was essentially rejected by society. Nobody cared, and the film was carelessly tossed in the $5 DVD bin. In the twelve years since its release, Down with Love hasn’t developed a noteworthy cult – not even with the rise of the ’60s-set Mad Men, Reed’s success with Ant-Man or Paulsen’s role inAmerican Horror Story. The film is an overlooked curio, but sometimes, those diamonds-in-the-rough can offer more than the highest grossing movies out there.
Down with Love is the puppy that no one wanted to adopt. You know, the puppy with a keen insight into gender dynamics and a flair for comedic banter.