Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bridesmaids: A Ladybrain Review

In the feminist blogosphere, Judd Apatow’s name is synonymous with dude-bros, high-maintenance shrews and man-children. The writer and director who brought us some of the biggest sleeper hits of the early 2000s—The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up among them—has made his name with a series of movies about immature, loveable losers and the women who settle for them. After seeing much success with movies he wrote and directed, he produced a series of films that promising actors wrote, often starring themselves—Jason Segal wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Seth Rogen wrote Superbad and Pineapple Express. In films like these, the women who reject our slacker protagonists are demonized and punished accordingly. For sins against Veronica Mars, the feminist blogosphere regards Apatow’s name with almost as much distain as Roman Polanski’s.

So imagine my conflicted feelings when Apatow approached a talented, hilarious actress to write a film for him to produce.

Feminists have largely seemed to get behind Bridesmaids, released three weeks ago, despite Apatow’s presence as a producer under the theory that if this film doesn’t do well at the box office, a woman-centered ensemble comedy will never be made in Hollywood ever again. Feminist icons implored women to show up at the box office in bridesmaids dresses. The biggest women in Hollywood website reports weekly on the film’s profits and box-office performance. Most dutiful feminists made their way to the theaters opening weekend, and the rest of us have filed in in the ensuing weeks.

Despite the fact that I tend to be a mite skeptical about purchasing-power activism and honestly had something better to do opening weekend, I did make it a priority to see Bridesmaids in its second weekend in theaters. And while I won’t tell you it’s politically revolutionary to go see this movie, I will tell you that you will absolutely love Bridesmaids because it’s just as irreverent, hilarious and heartwarming as you’ve heard.

Bridesmaids tells the story of Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph), who are best friends forever until a series of increasingly unfortunate, hilarious and cringe-worthy events that are set off by planning Lillian’s impending nuptials. The pair’s endearing, wacky BFF status is put to the test when the more polished but lonely bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne) tries to copycat her way into Lillian’s graces to dethrone Annie as maid of honor. What ensues is a tornado path of pettiness and absurdity wherein Annie sinks ever lower to hit rock bottom before she sinks a little lower.

As all Hollywood films do, Bridesmaids does leave some feministy things to be desired. This movie is clearly seeped in the logic of heteronormativity and old-maid phobia that has been canonized in romantic comedies, and some of bridesmaid Megan’s (Melissa McCarthy) antics can certainly be read as fat hate. The film is set in a traditionally acceptable feminine theme of wedding-planning (though a wholly irreverent version), features a protagonist whose career ambition is also acceptably womanly (she bakes), pits two conniving women against each other and throws in an accusation of lesbianism as an insult.

But along with these imperfections, Bridesmaids gets a lot of things right. It was written by two women (Wiig and Annie Mumolo), features women who candidly complain about sex and children, and has a villainess who is more pitiable than evil. But what struck a chord most with me was its celebration of women’s friendship.

Although we only see Annie and Lillian alone in a few scenes, I chose to see Bridesmaids as a love story of best friends, even though much screen time is spent on Annie’s relationship with an unassuming, appropriately working-class policeman. The writers and director Paul Feig (that skinny guy from Heavy Weights) make this stretch into resistant spectatorship even easier by showing Lillian’s husband in only two scenes that I remember. But as someone who fiercely loves her best friend and has fiercely reacted when I felt like someone was trying to threaten that relationship, Bridesmaids was cathartic, if not advisable as a guide for how to behave in life or in bridal parties.

So if you are a lady who loves your friends, go see Bridesmaids, preferably with said friends. I won’t tell you it will solve the sexism in film problem, but I will tell you it’s a damn good, lady-friendly time.

Bechdel Grade: Pass

Feminist Grade: B-

Overall Movie Grade: A

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Romantics: A Catch-Up Review

The Romantics had big shoes to fill. It was released at the tail end of a slew of indie-aesthetic films about miserable people attending the rural, New-York-area weddings of brides and grooms the protagonists resent for one reason or another. In 2007, there was Margot at the Wedding and in 2008, Rachel Getting Married. The wedding theme, ensemble casts, dim lighting, choppy camera work and cringe-worthy antics of our leading ladies link these three films. Unfortunately for the other two, Rachel Getting Married is the golden child in this triumvirate. Given the blazed trail, though, The Romantics promised something different enough that I actively sought it out, and I maintain that its differences in form, lovely casting and open-ended conclusion make it more than a tagalong to better wedding films. In fact, it’s much better than the miserable whine-fest that was Margot at the Wedding.

The Romantics is a surprisingly fun version of a cliché story: two friends fighting over a dude. It’s no surprise that one of the women represents out-of-control passion while the other is a beacon of sensibility—women characters in film rarely break the dichotomous trend of embodying only one trait at a time, usually either pure malice or pure grace.

This film tells the story of a group of friends who meet and fall in love, a la St. Elmo’s Fire, at Yale. Poetry buff Laura (Katie Holmes) takes up with the similarly literary-minded Tom (Josh Duhamel—who knew he did anything worthwhile but marry Fergie?). Somewhat inexplicably, these two break up, and Tom starts dating the comely, rich Lila (Anna Paquin), Laura’s best friend and roommate. This love triangle is emblematic of the larger group of seven friends, who earned the nickname The Romantics for their “incestuous dating history.” Years after Laura and Tom’s breakup, these three reunite—along with their four other college friends—for Tom and Lila’s wedding at her parents’ coastal estate.

The setup is something we’ve all seen before, courtesy of the Brat Pack and countless romantic comedies. But The Romantics redeems itself with a few variations, the most interesting of which is the structure. This film spends a remarkable amount of time with the ample supporting cast, which includes Dianna Agron, Elijah Wood, Candace Bergen and Malin Akerman. The way these characters pop in and out of scenes—hiding in corners, overhearing whispered conversations, switching romantic partners—is delightfully operatic. At times, you almost expect characters to launch into soliloquies or recitatives. Writer and director Galt Niederhoffer takes a Shakespearean approach to storytelling, deftly connecting the disparate vignettes together to add levity and heart to a film that could have easily fallen into romantic-comedy hell in less capable hands.

Unlike your typical big-budget wedding fare, The Romantics is also unapologeticly ambiguous in meaning and somewhat in morals. It gives us awkwardness—thankfully not on level with Rachel Getting Married—but not necessarily the clear answer. Maybe this is just resistant spectatorship talking, but it wasn’t clear which woman was right for Tom in the way that most love-driven films make that choice abundantly clear. In fact, the complicated friendship between the two leading ladies was much more interesting than Tom’s boring and aimless equivocating.

Don’t expect The Romantics to reinvent the genre, but do expect to see Niederhoffer take liberties with plot and form conventions that make this film worthy of your Netflix queue.

Bechdel Grade: F

Feminist Grade: D

Overall Movie Grade: B-

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Nine-Month Hiatus, Not for Gestation

It's hardly a shame to abandon a blog that nobody reads. But all the same, now that summer has arrived, you'll be treated to more feminist film musings from this ladybrain. The good news is that after a nine-month hiatus to start school and a new job, there's plenty still to say about women's representation in the media. The bad news is that it's mostly the same defensive reaction against Hollywood bullshit. Eh, that's OK. Feminists love to complain.

I'm sure you'll find that after two semesters in a liberal-arts program, my film critiques will now be peppered with pompous grad-school neologisms and vocabulary misuse: The invention of "problematize" and the erroneous use of "reify" to mean "strengthen" are among my favorite blowhard usages. Though the first two semesters of my women's studies master's program were rough on my schedule, I did learn a ton about feminist theory, media analysis and film theory. So hopefully my reviews will be beefed with more feminist cred and more nuanced film analysis.

So while I'm on summer break, I hope to bring you more reviews of current films (I was a bad, bad feminist and didn't see Bridesmaids on opening weekend, but that's on the docket for Friday); a series on black-film history (inspired by my class at Howard University last semester); and a few posts on John Hughes films, Battlestar Galactica and feminist psychoanalytic film theory--just to make sure my 200ish pages of final papers weren't a complete waste of time.