There are shots and scenes in films that are designed to take your breath away. Sometimes it’s the gorgeous cinematography, dazzling special effects, or a character’s sweeping romantic gesture that does the trick. The filmmakers’ choices, when properly executed, generally advance the narrative and enhance the overall movie-going experience. Think: any scene from Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), with Clint Mansell’s score pushing the spectator through the heavens, or the moment Drs. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler first glimpse the Brachiosaurus on their way into Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993). These scenes are memorable because they are beautiful, intense, imaginative, and poignant.
But what about those scenes that, seemingly out of the blue, disrupt a film’s serious tone? Whether driven by camp, satire, or irony, these scenes are usually shocking and hilarious. I bet each of us has our own collection of these filmic moments. I know that my dad, for one, enjoys it whenever a character is surprisingly killed in the middle of a scene, such as when a shark jumps out of the water and eats Samuel L. Jackson after he gives a rousing, survivalist speech to the members of his team in Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999). However, my collection of favorite “what the fuck?” movie moments revolves around, well, men dancing.
Before I share with you my top five, I need to clarify the criteria by which these dances make the cut. None is from a musical (that’s why his dancing is so jarring for the viewer), but a song–sung live or reproduced through the character’s sound system or radio–does play a part in each case. In all but two instances, the actor spontaneously dances by himself, and his body–clothed or unclothed–is on display. What I like most about these moments is how they individually and collectively represent a direct address to the female gaze. Some are more sexualized than others, and still a few are downright horrific and disgusting. Since these dance scenes are generally the bright spots in a dark (or even frivolous) film, there is no Tobey Maguire strutting down the street in Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007). And as much as I enjoyed the whitewashing effect of the cast singing and dancing to the O’Jays at the end of The Voices (Marjane Satrapi, 2014), their “Sing A Happy Song” routine is actually too big a choreographed set-piece to make the moment seem spontaneous overall.
Without much further ado, I give you my five favorite scenes of men using the power of dance to lighten a deeply disturbing mood:
Number one, with a bullet, comes from Alex Garland’s much celebrated directorial debut Ex Machina (2015), which opened in wide release last Friday. This scene may receive pride of place on this list because of my crush on the actor Oscar Isaac, whose sinister artificial intelligence mastermind Nathan dances with a female android. However, the real reason it lands here is because Nathan turns something as joyful as disco-dancing into a physical threat directed at houseguest Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who disapproves of Nathan’s methods. Trust me, the commitment of the actors in this scene elevates it to high comedy, even when the scene is taken out of context from the whole picture.
Another classic. Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman, the Resident Doofus of Mergers & Acquisitions, takes rival Paul Allen (the beautiful Jared Leto) back to his place in Mary Harron’s brilliant 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, American Psycho. Before chopping his colleague to pieces, Bateman waxes philosophical about the misunderstood meaning behind Huey Lewis and the News’s “Hip to be Square.” Apparently, it’s about the pleasures of conformity, something he knows a lot about. While Bateman doesn’t dance dance, per se, he does emphasize his point with a quick nerd-accented shake of the hips. You stop laughing as soon as he strikes an ax into Allen’s head.
This is not actually my choice! I couldn’t, for the life of me, find the clip from Charlie’s Angels (McG, 2000) wherein client-turned-villain Sam Rockwell dances to “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye. A relative unknown at this time, Rockwell burned his name into my memory with his sexy shimmying to the song, a way for him to announce to Drew Barrymore’s Dylan, whom he just bedded, that he is in fact the bad guy from whom she’s been assigned to protect him. Yep, long before “Blurred Lines,” the Marvin Gaye classic had been associated with shameful sexual acts.
But it turns out that Sam Rockwell is a regular old Christopher Walken: he dances every chance he gets. Among the video treasures that YouTube has of his moves, is the above scene from Charlie’s Angels. The film never truly adopts a serious tone, and Rockwell’s Eric Knox lampoons earlier James Bond-type villains. He has a secret, coastal hideaway, and technology that goes BOOM! “Revenge is fun,” he says, because he likes to dance it out. Shame the above clip doesn’t run long enough to include his doing the splits.
Reluctant but hungry vampire Louis (Brad Pitt) has just swept young Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) in his arms and fed on her blood. At this turning point in Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 1994), Louis is disgusted with himself, whereas Lestat (Tom Cruise, electrifying) is elated that his protege has finally taken the plunge. How does he celebrate what Louis would rather forget? Why, by dancing with the corpse of Claudia’s mother, of course! The jubilant dancing and operetta singing sharply contrasts with the dark, spartan interior of Claudia’s home. It’d been a while since there was much evidence of any life there. Which is why Lestat’s bemused exclamation, “There’s still life in the old lady yet!” is so hilarious. An immortal, death is a joke to him, and for once, he has made the audience laugh with him. But poor Louis and Claudia: forever doomed.
Finally, how about some levity? Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003) isn’t a serious movie, except for maybe some of its apologists. Hands down, the best scene from this syrupy concoction is when Prime Minister Hugh Grant dances around 10 Downing Street to the tune of “Jump (For My Love)” by the Pointer Sisters, celebrating a personal and professional victory. In Curtis’s rewrite of the concurrent War in Iraq, the PM refuses to toe the line set by the lecherous American President (Billy Bob Thornton, never better). All because the Prez hit on the Prime Minister’s assistant/crush (Martine McCutcheon). A moment the country world can be proud of: Hugh Grant shaking his hips.
That’s it. What are some of your most cherished “what the fuck?” moments? Sound it out in the comments section.
Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014) came and went late last summer in limited release, but I don’t recall it ever coming to a theater near me. Which is just as well, because it is horrible. Ostensibly a comedy, the biggest laugh that the film story elicits occurs when a French woman struggles to pronounce the word “happiness.” The titular character, though embodied by Simon Pegg (one of my favorites), and all those who surround him are so criminally underdeveloped that it is difficult to care much about anyone in the film except in a more theoretical way that the filmmakers don’t support. What’s worse, the representation of the bored British psychiatrist’s journey around the world to find out what makes people happy paints multiple far-flung cultures in broad, caricatured brushstrokes. There is virtually no cultural specificity in any of the places that he visits, and when director and co-writer Peter Chelsom and crew attempt to add critical dissections of serious impediments to people’s general health and well-being in these places, these issues are wiped under the rug, never to be disturbed again. In case you are new to Hector and the Search for Happiness, be warned that I am going to spoil it now. And while you’re at it, take a peek at the film’s trailer to see how much potential the filmmakers wasted.
I have not read the original source novel by French psychiatrist François Lelord, but apparently its raison d’être is to educate a general readership about the psychology of happiness and to offer tips on finding it in everyday life. This explains why, after almost every interaction with someone throughout his international adventure, Hector jots down in his journal maxims such as “Happiness is knowing you’re alive” and “Happiness is not always knowing the full story.” These words are scrawled across the screen in order to keep a running tally of all the lessons learned, as if the film is a PowerPoint lecture. Hector also fills the pages of his notebook, which sexy and domineering girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) gifted him upon his departure, with cutesy doodles of what his childish imagination encounters abroad. The main lesson he must learn is that losing Clara, even though she smothers him with a routine (always the same breakfast; she clips his toenails and packs his bag), would make him really unhappy. That’s right: he goes on this purportedly life-changing adventure only to realize that he likes his life just as it is. Although the couple’s Skype conversations widen the chasm between them more and more throughout, as the film drags on, there is never any doubt as to the fate of their relationship.
And this is why Hector’s first stop in “China” is so perplexing. He never gives any reason as to why he starts there (and isn’t it the tiny kingdom of Bhutan that is regularly cited as the happiest place on earth?) or what he is going to do once he arrives. But Hector doesn’t need a plan when he has filthy rich businessman Stellan Skarsgård to act as his guide in an unnamed Shanghai. It truly boggles the mind as to why Skarsgård’s Edward, so annoyed by Hector on the plane ride over from London, would take the ridiculous man under his wing and show him a good time. For, unbeknownst to Hector, Edward has secured the services of a prostitute named Ying Li (Ming Zhao) to keep Hector company in the nightclub and beyond. Although Clara gave Hector permission to fool around while on his trip, he winds up falling asleep before Ying Li can even get into the bed. At lunch the next day, believing he’s falling in love, Hector discovers the truth when her pimp whisks her away. Hector tries to do the honorable thing and stand up to him, but, despite calling her john “nice,” Ying Li hits Hector on the head and rides away. She doesn’t want his help. So in one fell swoop, Hector goes from ruminating that perhaps happiness is being in love with two women at the same time to realizing that he’s happier not knowing Ying Li’s full story. I never expected the film to engage the topics of prostitution and sexual tourism in Shanghai, but since the filmmakers did, I find it morally reprehensible that Hector, a psychiatrist, would find it so easy to disengage. It’s not as if Ying Li was happy to see her pimp, to return to her life as a sexually exploited woman. She seemed confused as to how she felt about Hector, as if wondering whether or not he could provide an escape. I wouldn’t have wanted to see a film about a white male tourist “saving” a Chinese prostitute. Nevertheless, I didn’t like how the experience of falling for a woman, no matter her profession, had exactly no consequences on Hector’s outlook other than admitting he rather just be ignorant of the circumstances of her life.
But it only gets worse. From Shanghai, Hector treks through the Himalayas to a remote Buddhist monastery. No one mentions the place by name, but it is easy to assume that he has entered Tibet, to seek the advice of Togo Igawa’s Old Monk (the filmmakers couldn’t even give him a name), who mainly just speaks in rhetorical loop-de-loops to help Hector arrive at the lesson that always avoiding things that make you unhappy is no surefire way to attain long-lasting happiness. He spends all of five minutes there, without ever contemplating how the Chinese government’s suppression of Tibetan statehood might affect the happiness of the people living and working there.
Then he moves on to “Africa.” I found this section the most offensive, beginning with the filmmakers’ failure to name a more specific region or country. Perhaps they left the place intentionally unidentified so as to not incur the wrath of people and governments of a particular place or area. But this lack of cultural specificity effectually purports that Hector’s “Africa” stands in for a whole continent, dominated by warlords foreign-born and native alike, backward villagers who travel with their chickens on prop planes, and “Western” organizations that provide humanitarian aid. In fact, Hector spends two weeks helping his medical school friend Michael (Barry Atsma) at the clinic he runs with his African boyfriend. Embarrassingly, it takes him a full two weeks to recognize that Michael and Marcel (Anthony Oseyemi) are romantically involved, coming to the delightful conclusion that “Happiness is when you are loved for who you are.” Unfortunately, just as Michael’s work is merely the conduit through which Hector can explore “Africa,” the former’s sexual relationship with Marcel exists purely as a way for Hector to learn this widely shared belief. Hector doesn’t seem to care about the challenges that the mixed-race, homosexual couple—his friends—must face in this setting. And nor do the filmmakers.
Hector continuously acts the fool, and he even comes to the aid of a local warlord named Diego Baresco (Jean Reno). Despite warnings from Michael and Marcel about warlords in the area, Hector proves his goodness to Baresco, who suspects him of working for an international peace-keeping outfit that swoops in only to leave before seeing their work through. Hector reviews the prescriptions that Baresco’s beloved wife takes and makes revisions to her regime, thereby instilling some peace of mind in Baresco. They get drunk together, and on his ride back to the clinic, Hector fails to recognize that his taxi cab has been hijacked by two armed rebels, because all black men look the same to him. He’s soon taken hostage, destined to rot in a cell with one rat as his friend. It’s unclear as to how long he is held captive, and of course we have no idea what the rebels seek to accomplish with their violent acts. We’re just supposed to accept this, because isn’t that what happens in Africa? According to this film, white European and American tourists go missing all the time and are swept into guerrilla warfare. Hector uses Baresco’s pen to negotiate his release, for his captors fear retribution from Hector’s powerful “friend.” They abandon Hector on a country road, and “Happiness is knowing you’re alive” is emblazoned on the screen. Yes, absolutely, but did we need such an extreme scenario to demonstrate this? Especially since nothing becomes of it? Hector doesn’t suffer any post-traumatic stress, and we never witness Michael’s or Marcel’s worry over Hector’s abduction. Before moving on to Los Angeles to meet his former med school flame Agnes (Toni Collette), Hector experiences the gloriousness of sweet potato stew, which a baby-swaddling woman on the prop plane promised to prepare for him once they landed safely in “Africa.” It’s supposed to be physically and emotionally fulfilling, but we viewers never see it. The filmmakers can’t even commit to showing us a traditional “African” dish.
In Los Angeles, Hector takes part in Professor Coreman’s (Christopher Plummer) neuroscience study to map emotions such as happiness, sadness, and fear across different parts of the brain. After breaking up with Clara over the phone because his traveling to Los Angeles has finally signaled for the couple that Hector still longs for Agnes, Hector exhibits all three emotions in the scanner, lighting up Coreman’s screen with a rainbow of colors that the professor has assigned to each emotional state. Is this the payoff we’re supposed to receive from Hector and the Search for Happiness? What makes Hector special is his ability to feel happiness, sadness, and fear at the same time when recalling a wide range of events in his life? Having been rebuffed by Agnes, a happily married psychologist with a third child on the way, Hector determines that he must get back to London to be with Clara. As I said before, they live happily ever after. He’s more emotionally available and compassionate towards his patients, and Clara finally realizes that, yes, she wants to have a baby with Hector.
The one bright spot in this mess is the chemistry between Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike. Although their relationship isn’t exactly desirable (she takes great pride in clipping his toe nails!), they have an appealing, silly rapport in scenes where they interact in person. In fact, most of their exchanges occur over video conferencing calls. Notably, Hector and the Search for Happiness may be implying that staying connected through this kind of technology is no substitute for human contact (when Hector tries to tell her that he’d been kidnapped, she fails to register the gravity of the situation). Even phone conversations do not go well between them. There is simply a lack of communication between the lovers, and isn’t that a definite sign of their incompatibility? Clara cannot make up her mind regarding Hector’s up and leaving her for an indeterminate period of time. Hector needs to leave the person he loves in order to realize that happiness lies in a life made with her. This is not an earth-shattering revelation, especially since we watch him come to this conclusion under the most ridiculous of circumstances. As I said before, I am a huge fan of Pegg’s, and it was disappointing to see him attached to such bone-headed and culturally insensitive material. I wonder what attracted him to it in the first place: Hector’s childhood love of The Adventures of Tin Tin, maybe? Then again, shooting a film about happiness around the world does sound really exciting. If only the film wasn’t so concerned with checking off the lessons in the original source novel and instead let the characters interact with each other in more plausible, organic ways.
Last night, I finished reading Missing Reels, the debut novel of Farran Smith Nehme, who writes about herself in the third person over at her classic film blog Self-Styled Siren. Spoiler Rich [my former blog where this essay was first posted] may be devoted to dissecting film and TV shows, but considering that the story of Missing Reels concerns a young vintage clothing salesgirl in 1980s New York obsessed with classic films, I feel obligated to share some thoughts on the novel.
Missing Reels is 339 pages long and filled mostly with rat-a-tat dialogue, primarily between Mississippi-born protagonist Ceinwein (pronounced “KINE-wen,” apparently) and her snobby English mathematician boyfriend Matthew. He doesn’t share her love of old movies, but he does become an assistant to her film preservation detective work. Ceinwein is convinced that the old woman Miriam who lives in her building had to have been a Hollywood starlet once-upon-a-time, given Miriam’s snarky comments about Jean Harlow being a slut, bemusement at Ceinwen’s preference for vintage glamour, and living room-displayed headshot of a young woman with more than a passing resemblance to Miriam. It turns out that the headshot is actually a production still from the silent film The Mysteries of Udolpho (yes, Miriam’s name was momentarily flashed on a movie theater marquee, emphasis on “momentarily”), and the autographed inscription dedicated to “Emil” refers to none other than the fictitious film’s German expatriate director Emil Arnheim, with whom Miriam had a red-hot love affair during the film shoot in the late 1920s. The usually taciturn Miriam confesses to as much upon receipt of an unexpected Christmas gift from Ceinwen. Miriam’s gift to Ceinwen is a quest: unbeknownst to the curmudgeon-y lady, Ceinwen sets out to track down the long-lost film to reunite Miriam with her long-gone lover (he wrecked his car in a drunken stupor following the film’s poor test audience reception and the studio head’s butchering of Emil’s artfully composed edit). Ceinwein wants to assure Miriam that she was right: The Mysteries of Udolpho may have gone over most people’s heads at the time of its initial release, but it was in fact a bold and interesting work, just as the one-time actress’s memory has preserved it all these years.
Unfortunately, Ceinwen’s efforts to track down the lost film only pick up halfway through the novel. The first half establishes her relationship with Matthew, a postdoc at NYU, who is in a long-term, long-distance relationship with an arrogant Italian economist. Although he is honest upfront about his romantic entanglement, Ceinwen is jealous when he spends Christmas in Europe with Anna. Right off the bat, I felt annoyed by this situation. If she had a problem being with a guy who’s attached to someone else, why pursue him? Why let him pursue her? I know, I know, the heart doesn’t know what’s good for it. That would be one thing, but Matthew is downright mean. He patronizes her for never eating, somehow forgetting that her chain-smoking is an appetite suppressant and that she’s skint more often than not (and that she seems to prefer spending her income on vintage clothes and tickets to repertory movie theaters). Ceinwen’s inability to feed herself may be the manifestation of an underexplored eating disorder but it more likely signals her poverty. Matthew doesn’t take her seriously. Virtually everything he says puts her down; he clearly has a superiority complex, because she’s eight years his junior and didn’t finish college. Reading MissingReels, I couldn’t help but imagine that Matthew would have found an instant rapport with Hugh Grant and his chums in Four Weddings and a Funeral: he’s pompous, snarky, and elitist, too.
The one truly good thing Matthew does (at least in terms of the narrative mise-en-scene) is introduce Ceinwen to a cadre of classic film enthusiasts–no, fanatics–from his department. The book lights up at the crazy professors’ introduction; like Ceinwen, I recognized who I wanted to be while making their acquaintance. Well, minus the condescension that Harry, Matthew’s mentor, points toward Ceinwen. I would never ask someone which they prefer, Love Affair or An Affair to Remember, and then judge them harshly if they didn’t choose the former. I’d probably chalk it up to the probability that he or she saw the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr version first. (Shot almost twenty years apart by the same director, the films are practically identical, and watching them back-to-back can be a tedious experience.)
In any case, I loved Missing Reels‘ intelligent engagement with cinephilia and classic films, mixing in the likes of Make Way for Tomorrow, Angel Heart, and The Crowd. Nehme concocts a thrilling and plausible story about what it may be like to track down an orphan film. She manages to do the seemingly impossible: make film preservation sexy. There are vivid comic scenes, whether charming or awkward, in the respective living rooms of an eccentric film collector and a gossipy former assistant film director. The scenes at Ceinwen’s place of employment, Vintage Visions, never spark with as much creative energy; they mainly exist just to serve as stock portraits of Ceinwen’s over-the-top, intractable boss. I am not a Mack Sennett aficionado, but I would love to attend an event like what the Bangville Police Society puts on. I also wish there were more scenes in the lab at the uptown Brody Institute for Cinephilia and Film Preservation. In fact, I enjoyed the friendship Ceinwen struck up with the schlubby curator Fred far more than I enjoyed Ceinwen and Matthew’s whirlwind romance.
And why couldn’t she have ended up with Fred? They’re more compatible, with the same interest in watching and preserving films. I never for one second believed that he was secretly in love with his domineering boss, Isabel. That was just Ceinwen projecting, and even Matthew was jealous of the time she spent with Fred. Matthew’s dumping Ceinwen toward the end of the book and announcing his engagement to Anna threw me for a loop, too. But worse still, the closing scenes, in which they reunite after Anna throws a plate of food onto his chest, struck a farcical tone out of step with the rest of the novel. I’m glad that Ceinwen gets a job at NYU and therefore can take advantage of tuition remission benefits, but why did she have to fall for a jerk like Matthew?
I’m purposefully leaving out the good narrative bits concerning Miriam’s reaction to Ceinwen’s investigative career and whether or not she manages to find the titular reels. I hope that the book will inspire readers to explore older films and recognize that they are pieces of history we must preserve and interpret in order to come to a fuller understanding of the evolution of popular entertainments.
Scotland is having a moment; even David Bowie noticed. In eight hours or so, residents of the northern European country will begin voting on whether they should stay in the United Kingdom of Great Britain (which, as writ down in 1707, encompasses England and Scotland) and Northern Ireland. At the same time, Scotland has had a banner year in the world of film and TV. In April, the introspective story of an alien’s self-discovery amongst the urban and rural men of Scotland, Under the Skin, debuted to wide critical acclaim. (I still can’t shake it.) Although set in Dorset, the BBC murder investigation series Broadchurch, starring David Tennant as a Scottish melancholic police detective, made such a splash when it aired here that it’s getting an American remake, also starring Tennant, that’s set to premiere early next month. Peter Capaldi, who will never lose his Scottish accent, no matter what role he’s playing (even if he’s Cardinal Richelieu on The Musketeers), is now Doctor Who. Stuart Murdoch, leader of indie band Belle & Sebastian, directed a winsome Glasgow-set musical released this summer: God Help the Girl.
But for me, nothing in film or TV right now can be any more about Scotland (or better yet, “Scotland”) than Starz’s lavish costume drama Outlander, which is based on the series of books by Diana Gabaldon. In it, Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire Randall, a former WWII combat nurse on a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands with her sensitive and intellectual husband Frank (Tobias Menzies). Somehow, touching the standing stones at Craigh na Dun near Inverness transports Claire to 1743, right before the thick of the second Jacobite rebellion. She becomes the imprisoned guest (yes, you read that correctly) of the Laird of the local Clan MacKenzie, Colum (Scottish character actor/everyman Gary Lewis). Everyone at his estate, Castle Leoch, suspects that their visitor, who appeared on their lands rather mysteriously and with a near incredulous backstory, is an English spy. Claire immerses herself in highland culture, but as an identifiably modern woman from the 20th century, she’s not afraid to confront its barbarism, misogyny, and plain backwardness. While a guest of Colum MacKenzie, she strikes up a tentative friendship with the young, noble outlaw Jamie MacTavish (Sam Heughan), who ostensibly represents everything that we love about Scotland: its wild, untameable spirit, cheeky sense of humor, romantic sense of independence, and high percentage of gingers. Although Claire wants nothing more than to return to the standing stones of Craigh na Dun in an effort to reunite with Frank in 1945, obstacles lay in her way everywhere. Chief among them is the mutual attraction between she and Jamie. Trust me, it’s pretty damn sexy.
Anyway, I couldn’t help but notice on this past week’s episode, the sixth of the season, that Claire’s confrontation with the sadistic English Army Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall (expertly played by Tobias Menzies) and Frank’s direct ancestor (hence Menzies’s doing double duty on the show), sort of puts this whole Scottish independence vote in a nutshell. In episode five, Claire discovered that the members of Clan MacKenzie with whom she is forced to travel while they collect taxes from the villagers and farmers who live on MacKenzie lands are actually raising funds to bankroll a Jacobite rebellion that Claire knows, thanks to the hindsight of history, will end in their crushing defeat at Culloden in 1746. Having contracted a strain of Stockholm syndrome, Claire ruins any chance of securing the assistance of the English army in traveling back to Inverness when, after an officer “rescues” her from her Scottish “captors”/”friends” while on the road, she loses her cool over dinner with Brigadier General Lord Oliver Thomas (John Heffernan), casting doubts as to where her political (and by implication, cultural) allegiances lie.
Episode six, “The Garrison Commander,” is a two-hander featuring nothing much more than a psychological game between Black Jack Randall and Claire, a chamber piece set in a dark room where neither is willing to give in to the other’s desire for transparency. Once Lord Thomas’s men roll out at the word Scottish rebels have attacked nearby, he leaves Claire with Black Jack Randall, who, in an effort to expose her heresy, regales us with a tale about how he created a bloody masterpiece out of Jamie’s back, flogging him over one hundred times. I recommend this piece from Vulture about how the writer, producer, and actors staged the flashback scenes of Jamie’s torture and mutilation. The scene is visceral, realistic insofar as I know what it looks like for a back to peel off when repeatedly whipped, and most importantly, the loudest and most striking on-screen appeal for Scottish independence in the 18th century. But how curious this scene should air just days before the Scottish vote on 21st century independence?
Please don’t get me wrong: as much as I love the idea of Scottish independence, I think it is more Romantic than ideal or feasible. There are too many uncertainties: the fate of the Scottish currency (to join the disastrous euro zone or lose the hefty British pound? that is the question), whether England will accept an independent Scotland’s disavowal of the UK’s nuclear weapons, the real wealth that the rapidly depleting Scottish oil would bring to the new country, etc. As Steven Erlanger points out in his New York Times profile of the small, northernmost English town Berwick-upon-Tweed, independence would be catastrophic for those who live so close to the border. If you live in one country but work in another, how will you do your taxes? Small businesses are likely to go under. On top of it all, the Labour Party would lose its strongest voting bloc in Parliament if the left-leaning Scotland cuts ties for good. People are worried about what the UK’s flag will look like come 2016 if the Scots vote yes tomorrow. It seems silly, and though the polls suggest this will be a close call, I don’t think Scotland will declare its independence tomorrow.
The media everywhere are using the analogy of a divorce to describe this monumental decision. Is the married couple really that unhappy? England will throw Scotland some concessions, offering to do the washing up after dinner, even though it totally forgot how hard Scotland works during the day. Although I haven’t seen Outlander‘s seventh episode, “The Wedding,” I know that Jamie’s uncle Dougal (a gruff but charismatic Graham McTavish) has already figured out a way to save Claire from Black Jack’s clutches: making her a Scot by marrying her to a very game Jamie. This way, Black Jack cannot lawfully detain her while on MacKenzie lands. A fine political loophole that should make her transformation from Sassenach (the Gaelic word for “outlander” or, really, “Englander”) to Highlander. Lemme tell you, Saturday’s episode will be interesting no matter how the Scots decide.
Edinburgh. Edinburgh. Edinburgh. Say that three times fast, pronouncing the Scottish capital’s name just as the natives do (nowhere near “burg” and slightly clipped away from the longer “burra”). If only the incantation were like the one in Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988), except it would transport me. When my sister and I came to Edinburgh, after a few days in Glasgow and before making our way to London in December 2006, my expectations were as high as the Castle, which sits above the city as if it were a crown or the cherry atop a hot fudge sundae. In the city center, it’s virtually impossible to look up without seeing Edinburgh Castle. This undoubtedly leaves a rather picturesque impression on the mind, long after you have gone.
Running tangential to my rampant Anglophilia (and the equivalent for Ireland, whatever its name may be), is my even more ravenous hunger for all things Scottish. I cannot pinpoint exactly where and when it began. I’m sure members of my family would tell you that it started consuming me when I first rented on VHS the new, much buzzed-about indie hit Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) at the tender age of ten. (What can I say? I have two of the most permissible parents on the planet when it comes to thematic content in film.) However, I don’t think that is entirely true, for I must have already had an intense interest in Scotland to have even heard of such a film about a cadre of heroin addicts and to seek it out for screening. But truth be told, it lay the groundwork for my passionate exploration of Scotland, through movies, music, history, literature, politics, comedy, etc., which continues unabated to this day. Trainspotting represents for me one of my most formative experiences of cinephilia, and thus warrants its own future post. But suffice it to say that when I arrived in Edinburgh, I wanted to see how it matched up with the hundreds of Trainspotting viewings I had enjoyed already.
I wasn’t expecting much overlap in scenery, actually. Trainspotting had been shot mostly in Glasgow. I remember a Glaswegian telling me in an anonymous online chatroom (remember those? how quaint!) that the Taxi Driver-themed nightclub where Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) meets Diane(Kelly Macdonald) is—or at least, was—located in his city. I’m not sure that the filmmakers even used Irvine Welsh’s inspired setting, Leith, when they shot the picture. And in retrospect, I regret not riding the bus out there, especially after having read much of the Trainspotting author’s oeuvre set in the (once-)depressed municipal port north of the city.
Not being big shoppers, my sister and I knew that we still had to see Princes Street, the main thoroughfare in Edinburgh, which divides New Town from the Old (and vice versa). In the opening scene of Trainspotting, Renton and his best bud Spud (Ewen Bremner) run down this avenue, cops in hot pursuit. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” provides the propulsive score to the action. Eventually, Renton’s voice-over intones why people “choose life” and why he explicitly hasn’t. These audio and visual ingredients are iconic on their own, but when mixed together, they ensure the film’s cult status right out of the gate. Which is exactly why I had to make a pilgrimage to Princes Street (it’s not hard to do, the train station’s right there). This scene is practically the only one shot in Edinburgh; they couldn’t easily double Glasgow when introducing the city with this kind of iconic shorthand.
There aren’t many films set—let alone shot—in Edinburgh, as film industries favor the more populous Glasgow for its urban Scottish stories (don’t get me started on Highland film settings). Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994) and One Day (Lone Scherfig, 2011) are notable exceptions, and they both capture Edinburgh as the beautiful, historic, lived-in city that I dreamily wandered around for days. But 16 Years of Alcohol (Richard Jobson, 2003) and Driving Lessons (Jeremy Brock, 2006) provide more specialized glimpses of the capital city that I recognize from personal experience.
The first, billed on a poster as “Trainspotting Meets A Clockwork Orange” (it’s like neither of those two), has a memorable scene set on Calton Hill, where the reformed skinhead protagonist (played by Kevin McKidd, of Trainspotting fame) seeks redemption. Standing on a hillside walkway, where I snapped the above picture, I remember feeling overjoyed at the sight of Calton Hill in the faraway distance, its unfinished early 19th century Parthenon and Nelson Monument (the tower that looks like an upside down telescope) presiding over the city. I recalled both landmark structures from my viewing of the little-seen 16 Years of Alcohol, which underscores their deeply symbolic position to quiet but melodramatic effect. The film also has many scenes set in closes, or steep streets that connect the Royal Mile to streets down below. Although I remember giddily exploring one or two of these dark passageways, I regret not taking a haunted tour of Edinburgh that used them as occasions to tell macabre stories about the city’s past.
Driving Lessons takes place mostly in England, but the wacky actress Julie Walters dupes her assistant Rupert Grint into chauffeuring her all the way to Edinburgh for a speaking engagement. Much of the Edinburgh action hews closely to the area around Princes Street, but the characters stop in at a pawn shop on the Royal Mile, not far from the chintzy souvenir shop where I purchased a Royal Standard of Scotland (you know, the golden flag with a red lion). I later found out it wasn’t the real thing (the lion on my flag didn’t have a blue tongue, probably because the unauthorized production and display of the royal family’s rampart is punishable by law). Whenever I see Driving Lessons, I’m reminded of this… fact. And until fairly recently, the flag’s inauthenticity always made me feel dejected whenever I looked up at it, hanging on the wall above my bed. So I finally replaced it with the Scottish national flag, the Saltire (or St. Andrew’s Cross), which my sister gifted me for my birthday a few weeks ago. Her message? “Let your Scottish freak flag fly!”
No film could prepare me for Edinburgh. When we first arrived, the air smelled delicious, of smoked hot dogs. Later, when my sister and I sampled different varieties of Scotch whisky at Edinburgh Castle, we realized the city’s aroma was the byproduct of numerous nearby distilleries. To this day, when I think of Edinburgh and inevitably yearn to return there (specifically to live), I can’t help but smell it. Even if the whisky burned my throat.
I woke up one morning in Edinburgh with a sore throat, but it wasn’t because of the whisky. I had stupidly gone to sleep with damp hair the night before. At the time, it spoiled my memory of the previous night, which came to me as an utter surprise. Not knowing how to spend the evening after dinner (my sister and I aren’t big on bars or nightclubs), I allowed her to drag me to see The Holiday (Nancy Meyers, 2006). As you might recall, she’s really into romantic comedies, and I am not. In any case, I rather enjoyed the film and its romantic sense of adventure. It made me wish I could meet a sensitive and sexy Scot while on my travels, just as Cameron Diaz’s unemotional-to-a-fault workaholic falls into bed with the mysterious cad-turned-superdad played by Jude Law. Oh well. Such romantic fantasies are just made for the screen (pun intended). After all, my real love affair was with Edinburgh, who made such a euphoric impact on all of my senses, including, most of all, my sense of self. This is going to sound really cheesy, but it’s true. Since I had romanticized the city for years, I hoped against hope that I would fall in love with the place and never want to leave. This dream did indeed come true, but I also had to make the painful realization that the days I spent in Edinburgh were not nearly sufficient enough for me to really get to know the city. Instead, Edinburgh is like a soul mate you meet all-too-briefly before you go your separate ways. No matter where I am or what I do, I can’t shake the memory of Edinburgh’s cheeky smile, traumatic and triumphant life experiences, and a self-confidence that set me at ease. I can’t wait for us to meet again.
Up next: another entry of Movie Travel Diary. But until then, tell me about your movie-related experiences in Edinburgh. Which film(s) best represents the Edinburgh you know from your own travels?
This past Saturday was my birthday, and in my family—as in many families, I would suspect—we go to the movies to celebrate before dining out. We’re just not that creative. Unfortunately, there were slim pickings to choose from this year. I had no desire to get confused during The Bourne Legacy (Tony Gilroy, 2012) or to catch up by seeing last month’s The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012). So I opted for Hope Springs (David Frankel, 2012), the sweet little comedy about a couple in their sixties rekindling the romance and spicing up their sex lives after thirty-one years of marriage. When I told my film critic friend Gabe of my plans to see this movie, he joked, “I had no idea you were a sixty-something sex-starved housewife with zero interests.” My response? “Now you do!”
It’s not that I regret my choice, but Hope Springs did very little to impress me. I wasn’t expecting much, as I had somewhat foolishly read reviews beforehand, positive and negative alike. In particular, I knew not to expect a zany battle-of-the-sexes-type romantic comedy that the trailers and TV spots implied. In fact, while Hope Springs is not without its funny moments, it should be more accurately classified as a drama, for it treats Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold’s (Tommy Lee Jones) lack of physical and emotional intimacy in their marriage as a deathly serious problem. And that’s fine by me. When a couple that has been together for over thirty years and raised two children (who are now out of the house), sleep in separate rooms and barely talk to each other, getting them to reconnect is serious business. Washington Post chief film critic Ann Hornaday claims, “Hope Springs is a minor miracle of a movie,” as it tackles its subject “with a degree of integrity and candor rarely seen in American movies.” I agree, but to an extent. Here’s why. Fair warning: spoilers follow!
Omaha, Nebraska. We meet Kay and Arnold right around their thirty-first wedding anniversary. And that’s the first of many implausibilities. Given their socially conservative backgrounds, having met and married when Kay was in college or just graduated, they should be married for longer and with older kids, too. Anyway, stuck in a deep rut wherein they sleep in separate rooms (owing to Arnold’s years-old back injury) and gift each other a new cable subscription, Kay intends to break free, taking Arnold with her. A retail clerk at a Coldwater Creek fashion outlet for conservatively inclined middle-aged women shoppers, she takes what little money she’s saved over the years and splashes out on a week of intensive couple’s counseling sessions with Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell as subdued as ever) in Great Hope Springs, Maine. (I imagine that screenwriter Vanessa Taylor grants Kay this job so as to distance her from earlier iterations of this sad-sack character. In other words, Kay isn’t simply a fed-up homemaker, she’s a fed-up former housewife who in recent years as reentered the workforce, albeit only the service industry.) From the beginning, and throughout most of their sojourn, Arnold is hostile to Kay’s expensive, faraway effort to save their marriage, but of course he gradually becomes more game, more willing to open up to Kay, at Dr. Feld’s insistence.
Hope Springs is highly uncinematic and not at all like the promotional image seen directly above. It mainly cuts between long scenes set in Dr. Feld’s office, where he prods each with questions about his or her sexual history and fantasies, and short scenes that take place around the small, idyllic town, whether at the staid motel room, kitschy diner, bar, or lighthouse museum. Director David Frankel, who previously worked with Streep on her Oscar-nominated role in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), adds no flourishes. What he’s produced is an awfully boring film whose scenes—let alone frames—hardly look different from each other. It doesn’t help matters that cliched pop songs dominate the soundtrack, everything from Annie Lennox’s “Why” to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” (the latter of which sounds during a failed attempt to have sex). The instrumental score is almost non-existent; I noticed it in only one scene. Bad form.
But what of these therapy sessions? Although I have never seen either program, I suspect that the HBO series The Sopranos (1999-2007) and In Treatment (2008-2011) more innovatively shoot conversations between a therapist and his or her patient, appropriately heightening the tension between them. To the contrary, everything in Hope Springs is straight-forward. I can only recall one interesting editing technique in all of the scenes at Dr. Feld’s: we hear him ask Arnold questions he doesn’t want to answer, and the camera focuses on Arnold’s anguished face in close-up as he listens to Dr. Feld. Then again, I also appreciated those zoomings in on Kay’s face as she listens to Arnold’s confessions. Whereas my dad liked that Steve Carell managed to reel in his trademark goofy mania, I endlessly tried to come up with names that could play the part with more… oomph. This is not to say that Carell turned in a weak or bad performance, as it probably has more to do with the way Taylor wrote Dr. Feld and how Frankel interpreted the character from her script. What if Dr. Feld had been less calm? Hell, what if he had a sense of humor?
Speaking of casting, let’s address Streep’s and Jones’s performances and their characters. A living legend, Streep predictably embodies her character to the fullest (at least as fully as she can, given the limited script), complete with timid mannerisms and speech and an incredibly dowdy hairstyle. But like Hornaday, I couldn’t help wishing that “her sweet, naive character had just one more layer to make her sharper and more complex,” like her character in It’s Complicated (Nancy Meyers, 2009). As the instigator of the project to rebuild their marriage, Kay begins as the more sympathetic of the pair. We root for her to get what she wants; after all, her desires are more than reasonable. But when Dr. Feld coaxes her sexual fantasies out of her, and she comes up short, not only did I feel sorry for Kay (who claims that she has only ever wanted Arnold, in vanilla-flavored sexual positions and scenarios), I wondered, what is the point? Why should I care about this woman if she doesn’t want something, for lack of a better word, interesting? It’s not enough that, after Dr. Feld’s encouraging her to experiment and act on her fantasies, she attempts to give Arnold a blow job in a movie theater. “Attempts,” being the operative word there. She’s too embarrassed, uncomfortable, and ill-experienced to finish, and she crawls away in shame. What’s worse is that she only ever wants to please Arnold. Other than wanting him to kiss and touch her in innocent ways, she never asks for him to pleasure her in any way. Presented entirely for laughs, Kay doesn’t realize that oral sex isn’t just performed on the man; I wanted to pull my eyes out. Ugh. Compounding all of this is the final scene during the end credits: at the pair’s vow renewal ceremony on the Maine beach a year later, with Dr. Feld and family gathered, Kay pledges to keep her hair long because she knows that Arnold likes it that way. So much for wishing that the original trip had given her a backbone and an independent spirit, which was in evidence when she first boarded the plane in Omaha without Arnold (who showed up, hemming and hawing, at the last possible moment).
Admittedly, one of the reasons why I had not wanted to see Hope Springs was because I found Tommy Lee Jones unappealing as Meryl Streep’s romantic lead. I didn’t think his on- and off-screen persona meshed well with the demands of what I thought at the time was a romantic comedy. But now I am happy to say that his casting and performance are spot-on. He’s less the grizzled lawman in No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007) or The Fugitive (Andrew Davis, 1993) and more the grizzled businessman in The Company Men (John Wells, 2010). Whereas the chameleon-like Streep alters her voice and appearance when playing Kay (looking older and mousy), Jones looks the same as he always does, except his principal prop is a suitcase rather than a shotgun. As an avatar of a chiseled and mythically strong American masculinity—aging but active, a maverick for the greater good—it’s interesting to see how easily Jones transfers this to his portrayal of Arnold, who’s emotionally stunted, uncommunicative, non-confrontational, and angry. New York‘s film critic, David Edelstein, proposes that Kay’s withholding sexual favors for years frustrated Arnold to the point where he never returned to the bedroom, even after his back got better. As if to say, you did it to yourself, Kay. Ouch. Having said this, though, Jones easily earns the most laughs since he’s the only one, say, really uncomfortable discussing his sex life with a complete stranger. He comes up with many wisecracks, memorably about Dr. Feld’s monotone approach to sexuality (if you’ve seen the trailer, you know what I mean), and Jones is a gifted physical comedian. Who knew?!
According to the movie’s trivia page on the Internet Movie Database, Jeff Bridges was originally offered Jones’s role. When my sister brought this little factoid to my attention, I contemplated how different the movie would be. It definitely would have been more pleasant to sit through the sex scenes (more on those in a moment), since Bridges is a considerably more attractive man. We can’t know why Bridges turned it down unless he ever publicly addresses the question, but we can take comfort that he co-starred in a much more sophisticated romantic drama (with comedic elements) in 1996: The Mirror Has Two Faces, with director-star Barbra Streisand. While Columbia University professors Gregory Larkin (Bridges) and Rose Morgan (Streisand) may be unmarried when the film begins, The Mirror Has Two Faces similarly tracks their platonic relationship as it morphs first into a platonic marriage and later, once she’s had enough of a shared life without passion and romance, a fully-fledged sexual marriage. Granted, I don’t approve of how Rose’s third-act makeover from ugly duckling to stunning swan fixes the sexual intimacy problem of their marriage (in fact, Gregory and Rose marry late in life because they’ve finally found their intellectual equals), but The Mirror Has Two Faces doesn’t shy away from addressing a middle-aged couple’s sexual desires and fantasies. Rose is a fiercely intelligent, neurotic, cosmopolitan, and desirous woman. So much easier to relate to than the bland Midwestern housewife Kay. (By the way, shouldn’t Nebraskans be offended that the Coasts, both East and West, continue to culturally belittle them?)
Actually, now’s a good time to look at those Hope Springs sex scenes. I bet that the filmmakers and the studio behind it think they pushed the envelope simply by making a movie about a husband and wife in their sixties trying to rediscover each other and themselves sexually. Oh, whatever. They don’t go very far. Yes, they push the PG-13 rating, but only in terms of language. For example, Dr. Feld asks if Kay ever wishes they assumed more than just the missionary position during sex. Would she, he asks, prefer to try out anal sex? Blushes and hand-waving ensue. Out of the question. But when sex between Kay and Arnold is represented on-screen, after a romantic dinner at a high-class restaurant in town (for a change!), we see no sexagenarian flesh. Just a lot of fully-clothed groping. Even when Arnold gets on top of her, their clothes stay on completely. I hate it in movies when characters have sex fully dressed. Unless you’re in public and having sex standing up, there is no excuse. How confrontational and realistic do the filmmakers—and I’m talking about those of Hope Springs specifically now—think they are when these sex scenes leave so much to be desired? Maybe I’m being too harsh. It is, after all, a big studio picture that clearly wants to appeal most to Middle American viewers of a certain age, who should find Kay and Arnold hopelessly familiar.
Still, after years of watching films from around the world about people—young and old alike—desperately trying to make a (sexual) connection with someone else, Hope Springs simply comes up short. Ann Hornaday mentions in her Washington Post review that the film is “like the more cheerful, reassuring and commercially palatable version” of a story similar to Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour (2012), about an elderly man faced with losing his terminally ill wife. I haven’t seen Amour yet, but somehow I just can’t imagine this to be the case. A more appropriate “world cinema”/”art-house”/auteurist comparison is Andreas Dresen’s Cloud 9 (2008), a small, German character study in which a sixty-something-year-old woman, after thirty-odd years of a happy if routine marriage, embarks on a torrid affair with a man in his seventies! With disastrous consequences, of course. As if that were not enough, the director shows the adulterous couple, who, I might add, are nowhere near as glamorous or fit as Streep or Jones, fornicating in graphic detail, their flabby flesh rolling all over each other. It may not be a pretty sight, but it’s certainly more frank, and in its frankness, a beautiful thing. And when you turn to more commercial (read: simply American) output, even It’s Complicated provides a more nuanced view of people approaching 60 who let go of their inhibitions and assert their sexuality in aggressive ways. It’s not for nothing that Alec Baldwin says to his ex-wife Meryl Streep that their affair is like something out of a French film.
For the past week or so, one image has stuck with me. It’s of a woman riding alone in a tiny space capsule, hurtling ever closer to the outer reaches of the earth’s orbit. It’s unclear where she’s going and what she will do there upon arrival. I imagine she has a purpose; I just don’t know what it is. No matter how many times she returns to me as a vision, during the day and at night, I can’t see what’s ahead of her or what she’s left behind. I want to know her story. I think it might be potentially interesting.
Despite being unable to develop the lone astronaut’s narrative, I can easily trace the different threads of information that likely led to her appearance in my mind’s eye. First and foremost, the first American woman in space, Dr. Sally Ride, died on July 23 at the age of 61, after quietly suffering from pancreatic cancer for more than a year. After her groundbreaking trips on the shuttle Challenger in 1983 and 1984 and their attendant media circuses, she lived out of the limelight, retiring from NASA in 1987 and then pouring all her energy into teaching and running the company she founded in 2001, Sally Ride Science. Ride’s high school classmate and sometime book collaborator Dr. Susan Okie recounts in The Washington Post her driven friend’s company mission to promote science and technology as “cool” for middle school students and their teachers, to inspire young girls especially to pursue careers in these fields. I don’t have a scientific or mathematical mind (I really wish I did!), but I so deeply respect Sally Ride and all of her accomplishments.
It is a peculiar distinction in the world of playwrights: Works written by men are often called plays. But works written by women are often categorized as “women’s plays.”
“There is a notion in the canon, when men write plays, they speak to the entire human condition, and plays written by women speak to women,” said actress Kathleen Chalfant, a 1993 Tony Award nominee for best actress in a play for her role in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.
Even plays written by men that are “particularly masculine and talk about issues particular to men, are never called ‘men’s plays,’ ” she added.
Now, I don’t envision the lone astronaut’s narrative trajectory taking place on the stage (I don’t think in terms of the theater). But Brown’s and Chalfant’s observations made an impression on my psyche. Specifically, Chalfant’s choice of words really struck a chord with me, when she argues that there is a perception that plays written by men “speak to the entire human condition” whereas ones by and/or about women can only hope to speak to women, as if the woman’s experience is less than or at least incapable of elucidating the human experience for everyone. Certainly, this isn’t a new controversy or even one confined to the theater. There is a persistent gender bias across all art forms, manifest in libraries and bookstores, museums and galleries, and—most precious to me—cinemas. I think the image of the female space cruiser appeared to me unconsciously as a direct response to the bone-headed notion that women playwrights can’t, in Chalfant’s words, “speak to the entire human condition.” The drive to explore the worlds beyond our own and the desire to comprehend our purpose and beginnings are characteristically human. I know the lone astronaut’s journey of self-discovery is something of a hyperbole, but what if her story could capture for men and women alike a uniquely feminine take on the human experience?
Admittedly, I can’t wave any sci-fi geek flag, having never read Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, or even Ray Bradbury. (But tell me, does Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World grant me at least a few colors? ‘cuz I loved that as a teen.) I’ve only ever seen two episodes of Star Trek, and that number indexes all iterations of the series. I’ve never cracked open a comic book, let alone picked one up. However, I can and do appreciate smart, sophisticated, hard-core sci-fi movies, particularly the kinds that tackle what it means to be human. This is why I love Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and will never tire of it. I also like Duncan Jones’s directorial debut Moon (2009), starring the criminally underrated Sam Rockwell as the lone astronaut on a three-year-mission stationed on the massive titular rock. While I don’t suspect the female space explorer of my imagination is ultimately on a quest to discover her true identity in the same way that Rockwell’s Sam Bell does (see, I’m trying not to spoiling anything!), I see her journey as equally alienating, mundane, but also extraordinary.
Most importantly, I envision her story as one that doesn’t hinge on her relationships with men or children. She isn’t escaping a tumultuous love affair, or searching for her true love on another planet, for that matter. She isn’t trying to put her life back together because she lost a child or because she can’t have one. Don’t get me wrong: she’s not without her problems, but her problems don’t define her. And I’ll be damned if I ever base her entire identity on whether or not she has a significant other and/or whether or not she is a mother. After all, wife and mother are historically the only culturally acceptable roles prescribed to women. And in the cyclical culture wars about women’s place in society, debates about the constitutionality of accessible birth control measures and the (im)possibility of a woman “having it all” (meaning: balancing a rewarding career with a family) abound today. Just look at the uproar new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer caused when she announced that she plans to return to work soon after the birth of her first child. The first hot-button issue affects me directly, whereas the conversation about rich white women’s struggles to negotiate their seemingly opposed desires for a career and family addresses me in no way at all. I have no career to speak of and, as of right now, I would be happy never to have children.
Imagine the successes if there were more female characters onscreen than the 33 percent that appeared in the 100 top-grossing films in 2011. And imagine if more than 11 percent of those movies had female protagonists.
I find it alarming that the films she uses as evidence that female-driven movies can be resounding box-office successes include Sex and the City (Michael Patrick King, 2008), Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008), and Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008) as well as its first sequel. Especially since this is coming a little more than two months after she published a short editorial about how purging “chick flicks” from our culture is absolutely necessary. I know, I know, she’s merely pointing out that there is a “hungry, underserved female audience” for movies about women, but all of these examples represent just what she wants to see banished:
You know the kind of movies I mean. They inevitably star Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl. Most involve a wedding, a boyfriend or, usually, both. And they’re often just bad movies.
Arguing that even Oscar-winning films like Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks, 1983) and Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) are tainted with the label “chick flick,” Silverstein opines, “I want Hollywood to stop making these formulaic films and branding all movies starring women, good and bad, as chick flicks.” I definitely agree with this sentiment, and if we return to Silverstein’s first op-ed piece I mentioned, I also concur that having more women directing, producing, writing, photographing, and editing films would help alleviate the problem. Though, when you look at her three examples for women-focused blockbusters, Mamma Mia! and Twilight are both written and directed by women. Yikes.
I will say this: Silverstein sure does like to invoke Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) and its approximately $170 million domestic overhaul. But she fails to draw attention to the fact that its star, Kristen Wiig, wrote the screenplay with her old friend from their days with the improv group The Groundlings, Annie Mumolo. You’ve read me attest to Bridesmaids‘s assets before, so I won’t indulge in too much praise here now. Suffice it to say that, despite a subplot involving Wiig’s romantic dalliances with two diametrically opposed males, the film is actually about female friendship, as Wiig the maid of honor and Maya Rudolph the bride must adjust their long-term intimacy in expectation of the latter’s nuptials. Moreover, I think remembering that Wiig, the darling of Saturday Night Live from 2005 to 2012 and the scene-stealer from the likes of Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007) and Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009), co-wrote her own breakout role isn’t just necessary, it is also a starting point when examining the trend making the rounds this year in film and on television.
Of course, I’m talking about actresses making their debuts as produced screenwriters in order to address the dearth of quality film roles for women. Within the last two weeks alone, indie starlet Zoe Kazan has released Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2012), her critical dissection of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype that men often write for their male protagonists, and just two days ago Rashida Jones went against type in Lee Toland Krieger’s Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012). A regular from my favorite TV comedy, Parks and Recreation (2009-present), Jones acknowledges in an interview with Melena Ryzik of The New York Times that she usually plays “the dependable, affable, loving, friend-wife-girlfriend,” and that as co-scribe with former boyfriend-turned-best-friend Will McCormack, she was finally able to star as “a character that’s maybe less than likable.”
French-American actress Julie Delpy’s fourth feature, the sequel to 2 Days in Paris (2007), hits theaters next Friday. 2 Days in New York (2012) may not be her first film as writer-director-star, but like Kazan and Jones, she aims to write a “real” woman, not a fantasy that men have of (French) women, she tells Karina Longworth of LA Weekly. In the new film, she co-stars with Chris Rock as a successful, artistic/intellectual couple forging a blended family, and the arrival of her father, sister, and former lover from France threatens to upturn what they’ve built, albeit comically so. Casting Chris Rock as her romantic lead may provide a pointed commentary on race in contemporary America, especially since neither Marion nor Mingus make a big deal of their interracial coupling (it’s presented matter-of-fact, according to Longworth), but you might even say that as much as the role is a welcome leap for Rock, it may also bring fans of his raunchy stand-up into the art-house.
I wish to avoid analyzing a film I have yet to see (for the record, though, I really like 2 Days in Paris), and I want to acknowledge Delpy’s frustration with being categorized as a woman filmmaker: “By making it obvious that it’s rare, you also minimize my work.” In this way, she echoes Nora Ephron, who, of When Harry Met Sally… (Rob Reiner, 1989) and You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998) fame, died June 26 of pneumonia at age 71 (she had suffered from acute myeloid leukemia). As recounted in Charles McGrath’s obituary in The New York Times, Ephron wrote in I Remember Nothing, one of her book of essays, that she won’t miss panels on Women in Film when she dies (sorry, Melissa Silverstein). Although Ephron’s films are dominated by female protagonists and might even have been branded “chick flicks,” her screenplay for When Harry Met Sally… is such a cultural touchstone that men and women often agree that the film is, in the words of Vulture’s editors, “arguably the greatest rom-com of all time.” In conversation with All Things Considered‘s Audie Cornish on NPR, Rashida Jones interpreted the interviewer’s observation that Celeste and Jesse Forever resembles Ephron’s beloved story about friends turning into lovers, although in reverse, as “the biggest compliment.” I haven’t seen Jones’s film yet, so I cannot weigh in on that score.
But are these women of summer, written and actualized in each case by the same woman, really a step in the right direction? According to The Washington Post‘s chief film critic, Ann Hornaday, that answer is “no.” She recently published a critical inventory of the season’s female characters, girls and women alike. While she finds much to celebrate when it comes to young women defying stereotypical roles, she finds the women leave much to be desired. And I quote:
At the box office, the summer of 2012 may be about breaking records with movies about boys and their toys (“Hulk smash,” indeed). But culturally, the season’s been all about the girls. Beginning with Snow White and the Huntsman, continuing through Brave and with a dash of talk-worthy premium cable thrown in, girls seem to have taken over screens both large and small, their inner struggles magnified into mythic battles, their most mundane problems examined with probing, disarmingly frank intimacy.
Hornaday also reminds us that Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland (2010) and this spring’s mega-hit The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) also feature strong-willed female teens who don’t need a Prince Charming to rescue them, as they fight epic duels on their respective quests to right evil social injustices. By comparison, the female leads of Ruby Sparks and Celeste and Jesse Forever, for example, are pathetic. In particular, Hornaday writes,
But as clever as Ruby Sparks is in puncturing the male wish-fulfillment fantasy of unconditional acceptance and worship, Kazan’s Ruby never gets to be her own fully realized character, instead playing a role similar to that of the Magical Negro, who exists chiefly in order to help the white male hero find transcendence, meaning and the happy ending that was somehow never in doubt.
As you might recall, I had similar misgivings about the conclusion of Ruby Sparks; it upholds the convention of other love stories featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls when the narcissistic novelist finally releases his titular creation from his magical spell and later goes on to meet the girl of his dreams who resembles his ideal far too much. When it comes to Celeste and Jesse Forever, Hornaday laments that Jones’s eponymous character, a
put-together and on-track young woman who, as she navigates a complicated relationship with the far less directed man in her life (played by Andy Samberg), is made to look either uptight, witchily judgmental or miserably alone — before she sees the light and realizes that she’s the problem, what with her intelligence and high expectations and all [emphasis in original].
Certainly, I cannot just take this one critic’s word as the gospel truth. I will see these movies, eventually, to make up my own mind, but I can understand what Hornaday is saying. After all, both Ruby and Celeste are characters defined by the relationships that they have with the men in their lives. Marion of 2 Days in New York, which Hornaday doesn’t discuss, also fits the bill, and she’s also a mom.
But there’s one last facet to this trend of actresses writing their own parts: overwhelmingly, their chosen genre is the romantic comedy, which is historically perceived as a woman’s form (even though, of course, it has more male writers than it does female ones). As if men don’t enjoy movies about the pursuit of love and that very special happy ending! (There are enough movies focalized through the heterosexual male point-of-view, such as Annie Hall [Woody Allen, 1977] and Knocked Up, which are both written by men, to warrant a future article about the so-called masculinization of the romantic comedy.) To cut a long story short, I would like to see more female filmmakers work in other idioms and elevate female film characters to be more than just the wife and mother, the Madonna or the Whore. How about a chilling thriller or detective story? or a smart and sophisticated actioner? I would love a provocative sci-fi movie, too. I know what you’re thinking, doesn’t Another Earth (Mike Cahill, 2011) qualify? Well, star Brit Marling may have co-written the script about the possibility of finding redemption as if in a parallel universe, but—spoiler alert!—her character winds up having a sexual affair with the man whose family she killed in the car accident, an irreparable act for which she seeks forgiveness as a means of escape. This plot point is hardly original, as it falls into that same class of tropes I can’t stand.
There is some hope, though, that more complex female characters will continue to spring up. I would venture that at the moment only Girls, the controversial HBO comedy-drama series created by its star Lena Dunham (who also writes and/or directs some episodes), presents a convincing and nuanced vision of (young) women’s relationships—to men, parents, work, culture, and friends. The program follows the runaway success of Dunham’s first full-length motion picture, Tiny Furniture (2010), which she also wrote, directed, and starred in; it’s an acerbic and poignant study of the post-college malaise and the attendant struggles to understand the world and be understood within it. Girls may ostensibly be an urban exploration of recent college grads’ experiences with love and sex, tracking their conflicting desires for independence and dependable partnership, but in actuality it is a brilliant love story about two best friends, Hannah (Dunham) and Marnie (Allison Williams), who live together and grow apart while trying to make it big in the city.
In the fall, Mindy Kaling, a staff writer, producer, and regular cast member of The Office (2005-present), will premiere her own show, entitled The Mindy Project (check out the trailer here). Yeah, I sincerely hope that as the program’s creator, producer, and writer, she changes the name before it first airs; as it stands, the title makes it sound like the comedy series, in which she plays a gynecologist, is a celebrity-hosted reality show or stand-up special. The trailer demonstrates that the self-professed lover of romantic comedies has deployed many generic conventions in creating this universe of characters and situations, including, but not limited to a drunken toast at an ex-boyfriend’s wedding, women’s anxiety over aging, and a female sidekick who tells her, “Your life is not a romantic comedy!” I know, I probably shouldn’t be looking forward to this, but I like Mindy Kaling, and I hope that her show—in the very least—offers an interesting critique of socially acceptable behavior for women. If not that, then maybe I’ll watch it just to dissect it.
Let’s return once more to the image I have of a woman astronaut gliding through space alone. I’m still nowhere closer to developing her back-story or devising her narrative purpose. Right now, she just represents the potential of female characters in fiction, but films in particular, who have interesting, fully realized inner lives that eschew all the narrative tropes that heretofore define women. She’s out there, doing it her own way, and if she comes back, maybe then I can make sense of her. Perhaps she will fulfill my fantasy and teach us something about what it means to be human—and not just a woman.
For months, I’d been looking forward to seeing Ruby Sparks (2012), a quirky romantic comedy by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their first film since 2006’s runaway indie success Little Miss Sunshine. But on the eve of its release, I became slightly less interested after I read a surprisingly spoiler-less interview with the film’s screenwriter and titular star Zoe Kazan. In it, not only does she dismiss the label Manic Pixie Dream Girl from any talk about her character, she also, in my opinion, makes a bone-headed argument about why the term “should die.” I can appreciate that Kazan finds the term misogynistic, that it smacks of men failing to see women (or, in this case, female film characters) as fully fledged people with rich, inner lives who shouldn’t be reduced to their tastes in music and clothes. However, it’s misguided for her to believe that because a random “blogger” (she means the film critic Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club) coined the term, it has no creative clout. Surely she must understand that critics and creatives are in constant dialogue with each other, if not explicitly, then implicitly. (She is, after all, relating her views to an entertainment reporter.) Ultimately, though, Kazan’s argument falls apart because even she acknowledges that “sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life.” Yes, that’s what Rabin lamented, too. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (herein MPDG) persists as an archetype in film production and criticism, especially on the webpages of Vulture, with whom she granted the interview, despite critics’ and audiences’ frustration with repeatedly seeing this kind of female character. (Pop culture website Flavorwire recently posted a supercut montage purporting to capture, with mock enthusiasm, 75 years of cinema’s MPDGs.)
Having now seen Ruby Sparks, I am disappointed that, when asked by Vulture if she sees Ruby as a MPDG, Kazan did not say that, yes, in fact she is one because this film is a deconstruction of this archetype and thus explores why this kind of male fantasy is not only degrading and realistically implausible but also potentially dangerous. But just what is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and how does Ruby Sparks tackle it as a subject? I’ll warn you now: there are spoilers aplenty ahead.
According to The A.V. Club’s Rabin, who first used the term to describe Kirsten Dunst’s flight attendant in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown (2007), the MPDG is a polarizing figure, inducing film spectators to either want to marry them (for real) or murder them because they are so annoying (not for real). These happy-go-lucky, good-looking, kooky young women are never the main protagonists in films and “[exist] solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” As Rabin rightly points out, Natalie Portman’s Sam in Zach Braff’s directorial debut Garden State (2004) neatly conforms to this supposed ideal, bouncing across the screen all carefree, her love bringing Braff’s depressive TV actor out of a personal and professional rut. Because she’s cute. And the love of a cute woman is really all you need to solve your problems.
Well, Kazan takes a different approach in her first produced screenplay, which she admits she only started writing as a vehicle for herself and her boyfriend, the actor Paul Dano, after he suggested, upon reading the first pages she produced, that it would be a good idea for them to collaborate on their own film project. In Ruby Sparks, Dano stars as the novelist Calvin Weir-Fields, a prodigious “genius” who hasn’t been able to follow up his remarkable debut from ten years ago. Spurred on by a writing task that his psychologist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould) assigns him, he finally harnesses some inspiration and begins writing about a twenty-six-year-old high-school drop-out from Dayton, Ohio, who doesn’t drive. He finds all of these tiny details hopelessly romantic; I find them alarmingly sexist, as he fantasizes about a helpless girl. Calvin confesses to Dr. Rosenthal that he has fallen in love with her, which Rosenthal encourages so that his patient might finally finish a novel. Then, one day, after finding women’s intimates strewn all throughout his modern bachelor pad, Ruby (Kazan) suddenly appears in his kitchen, behaving as if they are in a serious, long-term relationship. Is this Pygmalion crazy or just plain lucky?
At first, Calvin is convinced he’s going insane. But once he realizes that other people can see her, too, he’s less concerned about his sanity, and he begins to question the ethics of the situation. Can he date his creation, a woman who has inhabited his dreams, sprung from his spilled ink? Calvin’s older brother and only friend, Harry (Chris Messina), had originally admonished him for writing a one-dimensional character, asserting that real women aren’t like Ruby Sparks because they have problems and ambitions, changing moods and opinions. They don’t exist to stroke your ego, to love you unconditionally. Harry, as a stand-in for the audience, speaks from his own experience with his wife, which has its ups and downs. He hasn’t so much settled as he has learned to compromise. This is not to say that Harry doesn’t embrace fantasy as a natural, healthy expression of desire; he wants to live vicariously through whatever sexual encounters—real or imaginary—that Calvin has to speak of. However, when he meets Ruby and helps Calvin innocuously manipulate her to comic effect, inserting Ruby’s French fluency into his little brother’s manuscript, Harry thinks Calvin is the luckiest man alive because, as her author, he can make her do anything… especially in bed. This scene is in the trailer, which, when I first saw it, rubbed me the wrong way. Harry’s sexist sense of wonder offended me to no end, but once I saw it in context, I understood that screenwriter Kazan includes his juvenile reaction to Calvin’s magical realist luck simply to subvert it. In other words, that Ruby Sparks is a film written about a man by a woman shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Like (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009), Ruby Sparks is a heterosexual romance focalized through the man’s point-of-view. In both movies, the woman is a MPDG and exists as something of an enigma to the man in her life. In the earlier film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt reflects on his now-defunct relationship with a spunky co-worker played by Zooey Deschanel, an actress most associated with the controversial archetype, having appeared as a MPDG in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Garth Jennings, 2005), The Go-Getter (Martin Hynes, 2007), and Gigantic (Matt Aselton, 2008) to name but a few. (It should be noted that she stars opposite Paul Dano in Gigantic as an eccentric, mystery woman named Happy Lolly. I kid you not.) As Gordon-Levitt’s Tom Hansen goes through his sunny memories of their time together, he sees things he never noticed before, such as early signs of Summer’s emotional withdrawal from him. Due to the fragmented, non-chronological storytelling structure ofthe film, the viewer really only knows Summer through what Tom remembers and shows us. Summer‘s scribes are two men, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and they purposely keep her at a distance, but characterizing her so that she conforms to all of the MPDG’s contours is arguably lazy writing. In an interview with Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club, screenwriter Kazan mentions that Neustadter and Weber’s keeping Summer’s interior life outside of the margins of their narrow focus partly inspired her to examine the process by which men imagine and write idealized women, making “it textual, rather than subtextual” in Ruby Sparks. Thus, in her script, there are shades of Summer in Ruby: as part of a montage, Ruby rides around on her bicycle much like Summer does, and she’s sexually adventurous, tempting Calvin into public sex with her confession on the dance floor that she took off her underwear (Summer persuades Tom to try a difficult sexual position in the shower).
Ruby is the girl of Calvin’s dreams. But why does he fantasize about someone like her? He’s looking for someone to draw him out of his shell, now that his new terrier Scotty has disappointed him so. (He had pinned all his hopes on using Scotty to meet people in the park, but he’s embarrassed that his male pooch squats to pee and wonders aloud who could like such a dog. In his dream, Ruby, of course, does, as would any mature human being.) Calvin’s an old fuddy-duddy, resistant to change. For a man of twenty-nine years, he has some strange affectations. For instance, he shuns working on a computer, opting for a typewriter instead. He appears to have rummaged through Woody Allen’s closet. And just look how at odds he is with his own environment: he lives in a sleek, modern open-plan house in the hills of Los Angeles, surrounded by white walls and wooden floors. The indoor staircase railings mimic the one leading down to the outdoor swimming pool, and vice versa. He is so socially inept that it’s as if he could never take advantage of turning his house inside out before Ruby’s magical appearance.
I am always drawn to a film’s set design, interested in how a character’s living quarters reflect his or her personality (or not) and how other personages respond to it, too, and the filmmakers behind Ruby Sparks didn’t disappoint here. Nor when Calvin begrudgingly takes Ruby to meet his mother (Annette Bening) and her lover (Antonio Banderas) in Big Sur. Gertrude and Mort live in a kind of Eden, a sprawling estate overtaken by all types of vegetation and built with recycled materials. Mort, a sculptor who works with wood, has designed the house himself, much to Gertrude’s delight. Ruby gets along with everyone attendant for the weekend, but Calvin retreats to the tree-house and seems withdrawn during dinner. He treats the hosts’ shared lifestyle with contempt because he sees his mother’s radical change from preppy subservient housewife to outspoken hippie artist as a betrayal against his deceased father. He refuses to see how happy his mother is. As a man literally in control of his girlfriend’s actions and emotions, it’s safe to assume he just doesn’t care.
Ruby Sparks takes a dark turn after the improbable lovers’ Big Sur getaway. Ruby asks for more space between them, to which he reluctantly agrees. Missing her on nights that she spends at an art class or with friends, Calvin breaks his own rule and begins rewriting her. First, he casts her as “miserable without him,” but when her clinginess proves too depressing, too suffocating, he adds another line that puts her in a constant state of ecstatic joy, which is unbearable, too. Eventually, he writes for her to be herself, to act and feel as she would on her own. Later, at a book party, the lecherous author Langdon Tharp (Steve Coogan, typecast again!), who is also Calvin’s mentor, hits on Ruby and talks her into stripping down to her underwear and getting in the pool. Catching her before she dipped her toe in the water, Calvin blows up. At home, he reveals that he can control her with his printed words. The fight that ensues is truly upsetting, as Calvin maniacally sits at his desk, pounding away humiliating scenarios that Ruby has no choice but to act out. The ominous score, as if plucked from a super-serious sci-fi picture and thus so out of place in a romantic comedy, melodramatically highlights the torture of this scene. It’s in this moment that, if you have not already begun to dislike Calvin’s manipulative mean-streak, then you might totally turn against him. Ruby is no longer his creation or a MPDG; by the time this scene rolls around, you sympathize with her and what she is going through. When the bombast finally settles, she locks herself in his room, and he rewrites the ending, releasing her from his influence and his life. I was so worried that something magical would happen overnight and she would instead choose to stay with him because she loves him. I was relieved that in the morning, Calvin awoke to find her gone.
The film inches toward its conclusion as Calvin buys a computer and begins work on a novel based on his magical realist romance with Ruby, published to great success as The Girlfriend. He returns to Dr. Rosenthal and pleads with the doctor to understand that he doesn’t need to believe his nutty story and that he, Calvin, doesn’t need to comprehend how it happened in order to move on with his life. At first, what happens next, in the last scene, ruined the film for me. Like Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, I argue that “Kazan winds up indulging in the very wish-fulfillment she initially sets out to deconstruct” when, walking in the park with Scotty, Calvin bumps into a young woman who is Ruby’s spitting image. She’s ditzy like her, wondering aloud how she might know him since he looks strangely familiar; after listening to her wishy washy evaluation of The Girlfriend, which she is reading when Scotty runs over to her, he opens the back of the hardcover book and points to his picture on the flap. Palm-face! They hit it off, and we’re meant to believe that they have a future together.
This is the wrong ending to an otherwise acute examination of fantasy, control, and wish-fulfillment. For starters, Calvin isn’t deserving of a woman’s love. Not yet. He hasn’t fully redeemed himself, in my eyes, after constricting Ruby’s independence. He may have let her go because he loves her, but he may easily have done so because their relationship was no longer tenable. Writing The Girlfriend barely atones for his maltreatment of Ruby; he’s still using her for inspiration and is now actually profiting from it. Plus, this conclusion bears too close a resemblance to the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). In it, the one-time lovers Jim Carrey and MPDG Kate Winslet independently undergo a procedure that erases his or her memories of the other. In the end, however, they meet again as new strangers, and we’re led to believe that they’re both fated to be together and to repeatedly break each other’s heart. I’m sure that Hornaday had Eternal Sunshine in mind when she griped that Kazan isn’t brave enough to follow through with her otherwise biting critique. Funnily enough, though, Calvin’s new romance with a Ruby lookalike also echoes the ending of (500) Days of Summer. At the close of that film, Tom has finally gotten over Summer and meets an attractive, interested brunette at a job interview. Sure, she doesn’t look like Summer, but her name is Autumn, representative of a new cyclical beginning.
In fact, the more I thought about the last scene of Ruby Sparks, the more I became convinced that Kazan is really hinting that a union sprouts between Calvin and the Ruby lookalike along the lines of the one in Summer rather than a reconciliation between Calvin and Ruby, her memory of him swiped clean because of his last words about her. Specifically, there is some ambiguity as to whether Calvin and Ruby’s love story ever happened to begin with. Calvin’s conviction that he doesn’t need his psychologist to understand that it was real to him or necessarily comprehend how it could have ever possibly occurred suggests Calvin is either in denial, crazy, or imaginative. I like to think it’s the last option, for The Girlfriend represents the novelization of the film story we have, until that moment, seen unfold on-screen. In this way, it’s possible that Calvin’s relationship with Ruby as we have seen it is actually confined to the page. The fact that the redhead in the park never introduces herself—and certainly not as Ruby—encourages the interpretation that she is someone new a la Autumn from (500) Days of Summer. Contrary to what we’re initially led to believe, Calvin’s only just met in the flesh the girl of his dreams/book. While this reading of the end is ultimately more satisfying than my first reactions, it’s still problematic because it means that his immature fantasy comes true after all. This mystery woman stuns Calvin when she says that she likes Scotty just as he is, neutered urinating position and all. Really, Calvin? That remains a sticking point with you? Your dream girl must not only look and act like the Ruby of your book, she must also shower affection on the dog you’re so ashamed to own?
David Edelstein of New Yorkrejects Ruby Sparks on the grounds that it’s merely “a thesis film, with one joke and one variation” (he’s referring to Gertrude’s happy co-dependence with Mort here). First of all, Stephen Holden of The New York Timesdefinitely disagrees, cooing as he does about how the film is “a sleek, beautifully written and acted romantic comedy that glides down to earth in a gently satisfying soft landing.” But I have to ask, what’s wrong with a thesis film? Ruby Sparks isn’t perfect, but it is entertaining and emotionally and intellectually involving. It is more than, in Edelstein’s words, “a fairly engaging parable about the crap men project on their wives and girlfriends, the sort of controlling fantasies that wreak havoc on a woman’s sense of self.” It is a necessary deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, a woman-powered corrective to the prevalent on-screen desire for, as Harry puts it in the movie, “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing [and who] are not real.” More than this, Calvin’s experience with Ruby demonstrates how such a dream girl becoming a real-life partner is not only an unsustainable situation but ultimately an undesirable one, too (he may not tire of her completely, but at least he recognizes that her resistance to his power makes him unfit to be with her and that’s why he lets her go). You should want a real person, not an archetype or fantasy. Ruby Sparks is about how, when your wildest dreams come true, your reality and fantasy lives become unfulfilling.
When Nick Pinkerton writes in LA Weekly that Ruby Sparks “aspires to” “the sort of middle-of-the-road, battle-of-the-sexes comic fantasy” that is Nancy Meyers’s What Women Want (2000), in which a sexist pig played by none other than Mel Gibson miraculously gains access to women’s unexpressed thoughts, it’s clear that he, like Edelstein, has failed to grasp Kazan’s message. Is this because these critics, but perhaps men in general, may not like being told that even fantasizing about a one-dimensional woman who represents a panacea to all their problems is wrong, especially when they probably are mature enough to never really want such a woman? I couldn’t help sensing Edelstein’s and Pinkerton’s underlying sexism when they each referred to the four-year relationship screenwriter and star Kazan shares with leading man Paul Dano. Edelstein begins his review describing Ruby Sparks as “Written by actress Zoe Kazan for her and her boyfriend, Paul Dano…,” circumstances which suggest that it was all the more easy for him to brush the movie off as “not a great movie.” (Remember, he called it a “thesis film.”) Pinkerton is worse, coming across as skeptical of Kazan and Dano’s off-screen connection when he writes that they are “apparently ‘romantically linked.'” It should be added, too, that he thinks that, since Kazan wrote the script, which he accuses of having “missed opportunities and withholdings,” it “begs interpretation as a frustrated actress’ commentary on the way that even ostensibly serious writers write women—that is, for maximum convenience.” The first missed opportunity he mentions? Potentially hilarious sex scenes. This reminds me of directors Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones’s grumbling that (older) male critics just couldn’t understand and appreciate their newest film, Lola Versus (2012), about a young woman confronting her messy life.
It’s true that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s direction isn’t anything to write home about. I can agree with Edelstein and Pinkerton on that front. But are the expectations that the whiz kids behind Little Miss Sunshine will deliver a masterpiece too damn high for some? I prefer Ruby Sparks to that not-so-original comedic family melodrama. I like to think that Calvin’s struggle to pen another book in the same league as his stunning debut imitates Dayton and Faris’s attempt to avoid a sophomore slump. Apparently, they’re really picky when choosing projects and love working with first-time screenwriters. So take that!
On Tuesday, Alison Nastasi of Flavorwire posted ten movie titles she has deemed the quirkiest in the history of cinema. Her list runs the gamut from Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) to Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance art piece Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006). I would venture to add 2011’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lasse Hallström’s latest exercise in milquetoast filmmaking, to this group. Released in March 2012 in the U.S., the film went on to receive generally favorable reviews, or so says Rotten Tomatoes, but it failed to catch lots of fish in the audience pool. Could it have been the off-putting and somewhat confusing title? (When I mentioned to my father and brother that I had rented the movie on DVD, they both seemed puzzled by the title. Who calls Yemen “The Yemen”? With a shrug, I suggested that perhaps Yemen is like Gambia, whose short name is technically The Gambia.)
Based on Paul Torday’s novel of the same name, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen charts the relationship between a British financial consultant, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), and a government fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), whom she contacts to help with a project that one of her clients would like to see implemented. And that’s just what the movie title refers to: the Yemeni Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) wishes to introduce the sport of fly fishing salmon in his arid, river-less homeland. As the film’s romantic leads, McGregor and Blunt have a fair amount of chemistry, but they hardly set the screen on fire. In fact, the film neither works as a romantic comedy nor as an emotional and spiritual uplift movie, the kind of cinema with which director Hallström has made his name. As per usual, I’m going to spoil the plot of the movie below.
The first twenty minutes or so of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen establish the respective personal and professional worlds of Harriet and Fred, cutting between them so that the tension mounts and the spectator knows that as soon as these super-attractive individuals meet, sparks are going to fly. Like many other romantic comedies, Salmon Fishing utilizes the Pride and Prejudice template, at first pitting Harriet and Fred against each other before they fall in love. Obsessed with his own research, Fred resents having to take a meeting with the persistent Harriet at her office, clear on the other side of London town. He rejects her client’s proposal as “fundamentally unfeasible” and laughs in her face; the geography and climate of the Arabian country just don’t allow for this species’s survival. So things between them get off to a rocky start. By the time he returns to his cubicle at the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture, the Prime Minister’s office has gotten involved, forcing Fred’s boss, Bernard (Conleth Hill), to issue an ultimatum: either accept termination of employment or work exclusively on this project—with a raise. If only all career decisions were as easy to make. I should mention that as the head of the PM’s press office, Patricia Maxwell (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) latches onto the sheikh’s aspirational story so as to counterbalance all of the other destructive events taking place across the Middle East and Central Asia, particularly when it comes to Britain’s continued fighting in Afghanistan.
The trouble with Harriet and Fred’s relationship is that the filmmakers have no creative ways to keep them apart, which is a plot contrivance they’re very committed to upholding until the last scene. A reserved and humorless Ph.D. from Scotland, Fred is married to a cold and distant career-minded woman named Mary (Rachael Stirling). Their sex is passionless and perfunctory, and when he desperately suggests that they have a baby together, pledging to raise it while she goes off to work everyday, she doesn’t hear him. He is so emasculated and unfulfilled that he doesn’t have the balls to repeat himself when she requests for him to do so. Much of the film story unfolds while Mary takes an extended business trip to Geneva, freeing Fred to hang out with Harriet outside of their office hours, in London, Yemen, and Scotland. Thus, when Mary returns to surprise Fred, she receives one of her own: during an interrogation, Fred tells his wife that he’s in love with his work colleague Harriet. Seriously? That’s the best you can come up with? It’s completely unoriginal to make the romantic hero unhappily married, to a distant woman, no less, in order to render his attraction to a caring and sensitive woman compelling, even refreshing. How many times have we seen this before? It would have been more interesting if the script merely presented Fred’s being socially awkward as an impediment to their getting together, with his interactions with Harriet and the sheikh eventually loosening him up. At one point, Harriet teases him about having Asperger’s syndrome, and his response is so cryptic that it’s unclear whether or not he truly has it.
But, if you can believe it, the reason why Harriet cannot attach herself to Fred is even more ridiculous. She spends most of the film crying over her boyfriend of three weeks, Army Captain Robert (Tom Mison), who goes missing in action in Afghanistan. Three weeks?! Don’t get me wrong: it’s a devastating loss, and I cannot imagine how unbearable that kind of uncertainty is. However, I can’t help but wonder if her constant grieving, which Fred does his best to soothe her through, isn’t at least a smidge overly dramatic (and how is he able to do that anyway if he has Asperger’s?). When she finally receives notice that Robert was in fact killed in an attack, she blubbers about how she didn’t even get to know him. Mourning what might have been is perfectly understandable, but through most of the film, she acts as if she has known Robert her whole life (even going so far as to quit coming in to work for days on end), perhaps clinging to his proposal that she wait for him until he gets back from the war. And when he miraculously survives, Patricia uses Robert to elevate the Yemeni project in the eyes of the British public, inviting him to the site to fish in the wadi. No surprise: Robert turns out to be a bore whose embraces stifle Harriet and make her long for Fred. Hmm, I wonder whom she will pick.
But Salmon Fishing carries more than just a clunky romantic comedy narrative; it also represents an emotional and spiritual uplift movie because it is about the personal growth that derives from leaving one’s comfort zone and dreaming the impossible. Sheikh Muhammad, funnily enough, ties these two strands together, but not without some clumsy narrative tropes. On the one hand, the sheikh, upon his quirky introduction at his Scottish loch-side estate, is established as Harriet and Fred’s matchmaker. Over drinks after dinner, he quizzes his project’s top team members about their personal lives, remarking that what Harriet and Fred have in common is that they are each away from their loved ones. What is the sheikh suggesting, anyway? “Ooh, you can get up to something while you’re here, in one of my dozens of guestrooms”? No, but it is a hint that the sexual tension between them is noticeable and that Sheikh Muhammad would approve of their eventual union. Later, at the end of the film, just when it appears that Harriet is leaving the wadi with Robert, the sheikh climbs atop a mound of rocks to see if the salmon have survived a flood that local dissidents have caused by opening the sheikh’s dam. When he spots one still unbelievably swimming upstream, Harriet and Fred rejoice, and he renews his vow to stand by the sheikh and continue to build the site. Harriet volunteers to assist (meaning: to stay with him). Thus, in this moment, Sheikh Muhammad’s gaze from on-high allows him to keep alive the twin dreams of introducing salmon fishing in the country and commencing in earnest their heretofore tentative romance, which I must add, is signaled not with a passionate kiss but with their holding each other’s hands.
More problematic, however, is the sheikh’s characterization. He is obviously meant to challenge stereotypes about Middle Eastern men, specifically those with oil-exploitative wealth and thus political power, but in doing so, he perpetuates them. He quickly bonds with Fred over a session of fly fishing, talking candidly and self-consciously about his crazy plans, inserting the odd curse word here and there. But he is also stoic and wise, speaking eloquently about his country, hobby, and dreams of development. That he trusts a young British woman with his £50 million investment, asking her to recruit a fisheries consultant and such, suggests that he not only holds zero grudges against the former occupiers of his country, but that he is also one for gender equality. Eh, not so fast: while hobnobbing with Harriet and Fred during their first stay at his Scottish glen estate, he mentions that he has many wives. Thus, he isn’t quite as progressive or “visionary” as Harriet believes; he still leads a rather traditional lifestyle, and the fact that the filmmakers use polygamy to signify his Otherness means that they are treading on popular Western-conceived notions of Middle Eastern cultures. In other words, are there no other ways to say the sheikh is a mixture of worldviews? There isn’t anything even distinctly Yemeni about him, his culture remaining a mystery to the Anglo-American viewer. (Morocco stands in for Yemen, I should I add, too.)
Worse still, it isn’t until the end of the film, I think during a press conference or photo opportunity, that Sheikh Muhammad explains his uncommon project for developing the wadi and surrounding land areas as beneficial to the local communities. Although it is unclear what his title entails (as in, what is his jurisdiction?), the sheikh obviously feels a sense of responsibility toward his people (whoever they are) and thus wants to use his wealth to enrich their lives. However, for most of the film, given Fred’s reluctance to accept the sheikh’s plans, salmon fishing in Yemen comes across as merely one rich, eccentric man’s expensive and incomprehensible (i.e. Western) hobby. The intricacies of his vision are never really elaborated; has he surmised that fly fishing promotes irrigation, provides clean water access, or even relieves stress for resident farmers? This is also why I couldn’t help but wonder, why wouldn’t he just invest £50 million in a much more practical development plan? Added to all of this is the sheikh’s unpopularity with some gun-toting, perhaps tribal, terrorists. His heated argument with one of the militants, who harasses him on the building site, goes un-subtitled, and when he later summarizes what transpired between them for Harriet and Fred, they don’t follow up with questions. At one point, while fishing in Scotland, Fred even saves the sheikh from an assassination attempt with his perfectly angled and cast fishing line. Right… Did no one ever ask Sheikh Muhammad if his money would be better spent on a more popular project? Then again, no one can argue with money and power.
In fact, the premise and beginning of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen seemed to suggest that the film is about a clash of cultures, which is something that director Hallström specializes in. Scanning his filmography, it is easy to spot how he gravitates toward stories that revolve around outsiders, such as Tobey Maguire’s Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules (1999) and Juliette Binoche’s Vianne in Chocolat (2000), characters who bring about sea-changes when they, respectively, step onto an apple orchard or into a small ultra-religious village. You might expect something similar to happen between Fred and Sheikh Muhammad, but because the sheikh is so “Western” he doesn’t present any real culturally ideological challenges. Instead, Fred, a skeptical scientist, merely must learn to believe that they can pull it off, despite all evidence to the contrary, because the sheikh’s unflappable faith is contagiously comforting. After all, when a rich man charms you with a highly appreciative salary, glowing compliments, and lavishly furnished wadi-side tents in addition to granting you free-reign at his Scottish estate, how can you resist agreeing with him?
This brings me to my next point: I cannot ignore Salmon Fishing‘s representation of Scotland and Scottish identity, topics that I have begun to ritually analyze. Sheikh Muhammad is obviously obsessed with Scotland, a somewhat perplexing but ultimately amusing characterization. His fascination with the culture presents something of a chicken-and-the-egg paradox: is his Scottish estate—located in the Highlands, no less—his favorite among all his land holdings because he loves fishing for salmon or is it the other way around? In other words, how did his love affairs with Scotland and salmon even start? Interestingly, Yemeni men dressed in traditional clothing guard his glen manor, but he keeps on a Scottish butler, Malcolm (Hamish Gray), to greet guests and manage the property’s day-to-day operations. Later, when the British Prime Minister’s publicist Patricia visits to discuss the impossibility of swiping 10,000 wild British salmon and transferring them to Yemen, the sheikh’s men are decked out in kilts!
My knee-jerk reaction to this scene was a rolling of the eyes. Kilts, of course. What could be more Scottish? But on second thought, this image is representative of how Salmon Fishing sheds light on how Scottish identity seems much more performative than others. That is, putting a kilt on a man renders a whole history, culture, and nation wearable, transferrable. Just notice how the sheikh’s robe clashes with the tartan of his men’s kilts, thereby divorcing the fashion statement from the cultural significance of the patterns, which historically correspond to Scottish families or clans. One of my favorite commentaries on the flexibility of Scottish identity, or how easy it is for non-Scots to adopt traditional Scottish clothing, dancing, or cooking as a way to express themselves or define who they are, comes from The Big Tease (Kevin Allen, 1999). In it, co-screenwriter and now-late night talk-show host Craig Ferguson stars as a Glasgow-based hairstylist who travels to Los Angeles to compete in a hairdressing competition. When he meets with the manager of his hotel to discuss a discrepancy on his bill, the manager (Larry Miller) professes his love for Scotland, saying that, though he’s never been to the Northern European country, he has seen enough pictures of the place to feel that he is, in fact, Scottish. Why do so many non-Scots identify with Scotland, perhaps even wishing to be Scottish? Do they feel an affinity toward a group of people who they perceive as eccentric (i.e. kilts, bagpipes, thick accents, haggis) or as heroic underdogs (Braveheart certainly made fighting against English colonizers fashionable)?
I think that it is all these things, to some degree, and in the case of Salmon Fishing, Sheikh Muhammad’s eccentric character (manifest in his hobby, dress, and home) aligns with his perception of Scottishness as a wearable identity. Unfortunately, Fred, as a Scotsman, never remarks on the sheikh’s overly enthusiastic appreciation for Scotland and Scottish culture. If he had, perhaps a more satisfying cultural exchange between the two men would have occurred. Instead, the filmmakers leave it up to Harriet’s boyfriend Robert to comment on the sheikh’s seemingly conflicted cultural identities. Once the war-torn lovers reunite in Yemen, Robert jokes that Sheikh Muhammad’s next venture will be to erect a golf course in the desert. This rubs Harriet the wrong way, as she is by now a full-on convert to the sheikh’s optimistic vision, and signals the lovers’ fundamental incompatibility.
As with its rom-com narrative thread, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen‘s inspirational theme flounders. But at least its dissection of Scottishness proved more rewarding, though not wholly satisfying.
It is not yet apparent—but it soon will be—that I am not one for romantic comedies. While I can enjoy some of them, I much prefer romantic dramas, particularly those set in a bygone era. We tend to think of such narrative dramas as more plausible than their comedic counterparts. And with good reason. Comic writer, essayist, and actress Mindy Kaling put it best in The New Yorker, back in October of last year:
I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies. I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead’s dress doesn’t get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from Alien and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.
I felt a sense of enlightenment upon first reading her observation about the romantic comedy. It is with her outlook on her favorite movie genre that I am able to approach—and even appreciate—examples from it. For this reason, I was able to enjoy Sheree Folkson’s The Decoy Bride (2011), though I admit that the setting and actors were the main draws. Spoilers ahead!
Kelly Macdonald stars as Katie NicAoidh, a thirty-two-year-old who gives up her dreams of making it in the big city (Edinburgh!) and returns home to Hegg, a fictional island located way out there in the Outer Hebrides. She leaves her cheating musician of a fiance behind, along with a soul-sucking job writing for an online men’s trousers catalogue (laying it on thick, eh?), to wallow in self-pity at her mother’s bed & breakfast establishment. Her romantic future looks bleak (she’s turned “vegan” when it comes to men), as she is the youngest of 75 island residents and the only single woman among them. Cue the arrival of her soul-mate! James Arber (a flappable David Tennant) is an up-and-coming “serious author” who is engaged to the superstar American actress Lara Tyler (Alice Eve). When the pestering cameras of paparazzi make it impossible for the couple to get married in private, Lara and her handlers (agent Michael Urie and his assistant Sally Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay) arrange their super-secret nuptials on Hegg. Having glimpsed her arch-enemy, the paparazzo Marco (Federico Castelluccio), trawling the chapel, Lara runs away the morning of her wedding, leaving her agent, Steve (Urie), to devise a dubious plan: he hires Katie to pose as Lara during the ceremony, hoping to pass off the event as the couple’s wedding to the press (he doesn’t even let James in on it). Steve believes that if the press and public already think they’re married, then they will be able to wed privately, for real. Don’t you see why it’s best to think of the romantic comedy as a sub-genre of sci-fi?
Complications arise when Katie accidentally signs the register with her own name, rendering her marriage to James official. (Seriously, she thought Steve’s offer of £5000 was worth the trouble of breaking the law?) It’s worth mentioning here that they had met each other the day before: James, under an assumed name (to keep his wedding secret from the islanders), bumped into her while Katie was researching the definitive guidebook to Hegg that she is writing. After she makes a disastrous pass at him, they both decide that they don’t like each other. Later, when James discovers what Steve has orchestrated, the verbal sparring matches between James and Katie really begin.
Steve locks the fighting newlyweds in the tower of the castle that he has had renovated for the secret, romantic destination wedding. James and Katie’s being locked up in the honeymoon suite and their subsequent determined escape from it subvert the setting’s fairytale ending connotations. But this is just the beginning of their love story. Like in the seminal romantic comedy Pride and Prejudice, the protagonists must offend each other before they fall deeply in love. This process begins shortly after James saves Katie from drowning in the castle’s moat, a heroic gesture that is clearly a reference to legends of chivalry. Astonishingly, his rescue surprises both of them—but not the spectator. Besides, how could anyone let someone else drown, no matter how irritating the person is?!
The Decoy Bride utilizes many tropes of the romantic comedy genre, especially the wedding theme, which is so prevalent that it warrants its own sub-genre. The “wedding film” has proliferated in the 2000s, counting among its ranks such films as The Wedding Planner (Adam Shankman, 2001), The Wedding Date (Clare Kilner, 2005), 27 Dresses (Anne Fletcher, 2008), Bride Wars (Gary Winick, 2009) and even the “manly” antidotes Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin, 2005) and American Wedding (Jesse Dylan, 2003). Last year’s hugely successful Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) injected a feminine-inspired cynicism into all the stages of planning a wedding. Feminist film scholar Diane Negra, in What a Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism, estimates that the American bridal industry is worth about $161 billion today (52). Along with magazines and news stories, these films contribute to pop culture’s fascination with the wedding event and stress the importance of the heteronormative rite-of-passage that getting married supposedly is for young women. As a wedding film, The Decoy Bride both makes fun of marriage and reaffirms its significance. On the one hand, the film upends the notion that marriage is a sacramental testament to everlasting love because James and Katie, who despise each other, accidentally wed. But on the other, since the mismatched couple fall in love while trying to get divorced, the spirit with which they were married turns out not to have been a fluke after all.
Although The Decoy Bride belongs with other wedding films, it has more in common with Pride and Prejudice than it does, say, Bride Wars. An English-language classic, Jane Austen’s 1813 novel is a telling portrait of the life options available to the women of her time: marry for money, for the betterment of your family, or face poor spinsterhood. The strength of Austen’s story lies in its form as a comedy of manners, the whole time poking fun at the institution of marriage and the people who endeavor to strike up the deals. While there is much more at stake pending Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s eventual union as opposed to whether or not Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson will each secure the same overbooked wedding venue, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s early nineteenth century love story is thoroughly modern. Perhaps that is because our Anglo-American culture continues to recycle it. The (im)probable lovers have been immortalized in book and screen adaptations numerous times, often with funny sounding titles like Bridget Jones’s Diary (written by Helen Fielding in 1996 and directed by Sharon Maguire in 2001) or You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998). In fact, Katie resembles Bridget Jones’s version of Lizzie Bennet in that she is often publicly shamed for being over thirty and single. As struggling authors, James, who suffers from writer’s block, and Katie, who is just coming into her own as an author of a Hegg travel guide, lunge their daggers into each other’s literary egos in much the same way that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan of You’ve Got Mail spar over carving out their respective book-selling niches on the Upper West Side. The Decoy Bride goes one step further in its homage to romantic comedies, pretty much all borne of Pride and Prejudice, with a scene in which James and Katie strip out of their wet clothes in her mother’s kitchen, a thin linen separating them—and tempting them to look at each other—as if they are in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934).
My sister, an unabashed aficionado of romantic comedies, insists that the films work so long as the leads have chemistry. Kelly Macdonald and David Tennant do set off some romantic fireworks, but I’m afraid that James is not as appealing or likeable a character as Katie is. Mindy Kaling would be happy to learn that Katie is not so broadly drawn as to fit any of the archetypes for romantic comedies’ leading ladies that Kaling identifies in the piece I quoted from earlier. Katie is not an adorable klutz, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a humorless and ambitious workaholic, or a gluttonous slob with a six-pack of abs. She is self-aware (she knows that James is her type, an emotionally stunted “arty” guy, which means trouble) and has a self-deprecating sense of humor. Casting Macdonald in this role is actually refreshing. An “indie” actress who made her debut in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), one of my all-time favorite films, she is usually cast in dark pictures, namely the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) and HBO’s Prohibition-set gangster epic Boardwalk Empire (2010-present). She brings to her character more nuance than we are used to seeing in other rom-com’s heroines. The look on her face when she decides to turn the ferry traveling away from Hegg back around, to reunite with James at the very end, is a prime example of this.
The problem with James as a male lead, an object of desire that we’re meant to want Katie to want and obtain, is that he never gets over himself or overcomes his charlatan ways. Lara chooses Hegg as the destination for their would-be super-secret wedding because it is the setting of his one and only book, The Ornithologist’sWife, a heavy tome that the locals, including Katie, resent because it misrepresents the place. Using James’s book as a guide for planning their wedding, Steve soon discovers that James had never been to Hegg, because the lavish, bird-decorated castle doesn’t already exist there. Steve must invent it to appease his client. James’s dirty little secret remains buried vis-a-vis his fiancee, who, contrary to her lifestyle, is actually a down-to-earth, if a little naive, woman. Lara loves James because she believes he is a genius, regularly quoting his words back to him. On the occasion she says something stupidly romantic, he says he can’t believe he wrote that. In fact, it was her own original sentiment. Not only is he cruel, James has nothing in common with Lara, and it seems as if he wants to marry her because her desirability to others is a feather in his cap. He thinks that in addition to stroking his ego, she will also prove to be a fruitful muse and ensure his own fledgling fame lasts.
Despite the journey he takes with Katie all over the island, falling in love while trying to get divorced, it is revealed in the end, following the improbable lovers’ separation, that James and Lara never corrected the press and public’s shared impression that they wed. In other words, everyone thinks they’re still married. Thus, the dedication in his second book (“To my wife”), which is based on his experience with Katie, is directed not at Lara but at our heroine. While it may be a comfort that James and Katie share a private romance that is made public through his new novel, the fact that James would wish to deceive everyone, especially Katie, about being married to someone he does not love means he hasn’t learned his lesson. He may have started to write what he knows, at Katie’s insistence, but he hasn’t fully understood how to own up to it. Some romantic prize to be won.
Of course, embedded in all of this is a slight critique of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Lara is sympathetic in her desire for privacy, as is her hiding out in the village once the world’s press descends on Hegg. Since Steve has barred anyone from entering the castle, in trying to maintain the so-called integrity of the sham wedding, Lara applies her own makeup (quaint!) and takes up a disguise as an old village lady so that she may wander around the press camp undetected. In doing so, she chats with Marco, the paparazzo who has made her life a living hell and who redeems himself because he shows off candid photos of Lara that he never sold. In a pre-end credits scene, Lara attends Marco’s gallery opening, their suggestive smiles captured on film by a hovering paparazzo for the glossy tabloid Stars Today.
Back in Hegg, Lara also meets Katie’s mother, Iseabail (Maureen Beattie), who sold the wedding story to the press. Given the fact that Iseabail is terminally ill with an unnamed disease (this constitutes the weakest part of the film story), Lara’s threatening to push Iseabail, in her wheelchair, over a cliff if she doesn’t throw her huge wad of cash into the sea is unbelievably harsh. Lara then mistakes Iseabail as the inspiration for the titular character in James’s novel, a move that Iseabail encourages and in the end influences the actress to fund the dying woman’s trip around the world with Katie. (Having stayed put in Hegg all her life, Iseabail is itching to leave, her bucket list dreams recalling those of Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano [John Patrick Shanley, 1990].)
An opportunist and busybody, Iseabail is but one of the eccentric villagers. Others include elder citizens who hawk cookies and tea as well as expensive pet rocks to the deluge of visitors. Stranger still, there is Angus (Hamish Clark), a former boyfriend of Katie’s who weds someone he does not evidently love on the very day that Katie comes back to town. He later attempts to fight James for Katie’s hand. This is a ridiculous plot contrivance to prove to James and the audience that Katie is desirable. Then again, Katie is uneasy when it comes to the attention that Angus and William (James Fleet), Katie’s boss at the general store, regularly pay her. This probably has more to do with her unwillingness to stay in Hegg and her professional ambitions to travel and write. In the end, while she succeeds as the published author of a definitive if little-read history of Hegg, it is unclear if she and James will stay in Hegg. Or whether they will get married again—for real.
The Decoy Bride, a Scottish and Manx co-production, was shot on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, and while Hegg by no means represents a mythical Scotland a la the villages in Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954) or Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell, 2012), the film does tread on all-too-familiar territory. The script calls for Katie and James to seek out Reverend McDonough (Tony Roper) because, as Katie assures, “he’ll know what to do.” Apparently in tune with island superstitions, he officiates their ceremonial divorce, which he rushes to perform before the first sunset as if he is breaking a spell. In fact, you might say that James and Katie’s determination to reverse their vows is not too dissimilar from Princess Merida and Queen Elinor’s race to lift the bear curse on the latter woman in Brave, which coincidentally stars Kelly Macdonald as the fiercely independent princess.
According to the film’s trivia page on the Internet Movie Database, many scenes and characters were struck from the shooting script because the budget was much lower than the screenplay’s earliest appraisal. This handicap is most noticeable toward the end of the film, leading up to the lovers’ inevitable reunion. I have no idea what changes would have been made if the filmmakers had the full £7 million as intended, but The Decoy Bride is a cute little movie nonetheless. Especially if you suspend your disbelief.