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November 11, 2003

"Love Actually"

Dear Friedrich --

How do you respond to chickflicks? The way I react seems to parallel the way I react to musical comedies; there are about a dozen I enjoy a whole lot while almost all the rest make me squirmy and sullen. Watching them, I feel like I've reverted; once again I'm a small boy dragged against his will to see a movie when he'd much rather be out playing ball. I wonder why this should be so: is there something in the chickflick form that's akin to the musical comedy form? Or is it simply that neither form's really meant for hetero boys?

I admit that, chickflickwise, there's a bit of a gray zone. Cary Grant movies, for instance. I'm almost always happy watching a Cary Grant movie; I think "Cary Grant" is one of the primo high-low creations of the 20th century, right up there with the Chrysler Building, swing music and the Cord automobile -- swanky but slangy, godlike yet approachable, sleek but goofy. But when I enjoy a Cary Grant romantic comedy, can I really be said to be enjoying a "chickflick"? There's a difference between a romantic comedy from the '30s and the contempo chickflick, even though I'm not sure I can put my finger on it. I do have a hunch: it's that contempo chickflicks and chicklit are like extensions of contempo magazine articles. They're meant to be about you, and your concerns, and the predicaments you might have. Women go to a chickflick, as they read chicklit and as they buy Allure or Cosmo, in order to see themselves reflected -- glamorized, exalted, and satirized, but definitely reflected.

Even so, this is a a rather small gray zone. Most of the time, at a chickflick I'm in filmgoing agony. Yesterday, for instance. I went with The Wife to see the new "Love Actually" -- not my choice, the showtimes were convenient -- and I'm considering nominating it as the Biggest Cringefest Iíve ever sat all the way through. I haven't riffled through enough of my experiences to feel completely confident about conferring such an award quite yet. But my off-the-cuff feeling is that "Love Actually" is certainly well in the running. Sitting through it reminded me of what it was like to sit through such '60s misery-makers as "The Sound of Music."

Have you noticed the ads for the movie? Itís the new Hugh Grant thing, written by Richard Curtis -- he wrote "4 Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill" -- and it was directed by Curtis as well. I ran out of good will towards the film amazingly fast, maybe 10 minutes in, and from then on I got perversely fascinated by the challenge of sitting all the way through it. For some reason, I had to see it all; I wasn't going to let the film outlast me. For one thing, I could sense in my bones that the film wouldn't just be worse than most romantic trifles, it would also be longer -- and I was right, it finally clocked in at over two hours long.

The good news boils down to a bright and charming cast, though most of the men wind up looking even more like eunuchs and idiots than they usually do in chickflicks. But the movie features a bunch of actresses I enjoy as well as a couple who were new to me. I was especially happy to spend some time with Joanna Page, who plays a porn actress who's also a sweet innocent, and Laura Linney, as an office-worker in love with a studly Latino co-worker yet who's held back by her obligations to a mentally-retarded brother. Linney is scrubbed and applecheeked, ennobled yet exhausted by her emotions, too quick to veer between hopefulness and feeling hopeless, between being furious with herself and being overwhelmed with wistfulness. I love watching Laura Linney, who I find touching and sexy; too bad her story never reaches any kind of conclusion. I usually find Emma Thomspon a treat too, but here she's playing a dreary role -- the stolid wife (she has trouble with her emotions) of a rakish executive who's being tempted by his minx secretary, played by a wickedly decadent-looking German actress named Heike Makatsch. It's a good but overfamiliar turn; Emma seems to be reprising her performance as Hillary from "Primary Colors."

After that the news is all bad. The film, for one thing, isn't just a romantic comedy; it's a romantic-comedy epic, a multiprotagonist, multistory, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink buffet -- something like a cross between "Short Cuts" and one of those Meg Ryan movies I always avoid. Doesn't Curtis know that candy-and-dessert movies should leave us wanting more? "Love Actually" is the romantic comedy that never stops giving. It's like a bottomless box of chocolates; watching it is like being forcefed endless slices of wedding cake. I've never seen such a huge collection of over-cutesy ideas. Nearly every scene is 'way too cleverly-conceived and perkily realized, and manages to give itself a big round of applause upon coming to its inevitably heartwarming (or wrenching) end. Hugh Grant, who plays a bachelor Prime Minister intrigued by one of his staff gals, gives the worst performance Iíve seen him give. His shy, hesitant, and abashed thing this time around seems to have nothing to do with his characterís romantic predicament and everything to to do with a suspicion on Hugh Grantís part that there may be no way to make his role and his scenes work.

Some of the reviewers have cracked that the movie can be thought of as Richard Curtis' Greatest Hits. I can see their point; it's like everything anyone enjoyed from "4 Weddings" and "Notting Hill" stood up in front of a set of endlessly reflecting mirrors. There's the couple who don't speak each other's language yet who understand each other instantly. There's the wry and modest British charm, the sunny view of "diversity," the crappy-but-touching pop music, the larkiness about the absurdity and unlikeliness of love, the blithe lack of concern about earning a living, the occasional scene of harsh pain and pathos, the shy but moonstruck men, the unconventional-looking yet charming women, the insouciance about sex and profanity, and a certain amount of cheeky yet acceptable-to-women nudity. Oh, and a couple of new ickiness-tropes this time around: about a dozen too many precocious children, and a hundred too many hugs. So what the movie made me think wasn't that it was Richard Curtis' Greatest Hits. It made me think that Curtis had put this movie together by taking all the bad scripts he'd ever been unable to sell and mashing them up into one giant (and highly-implausible) screenplay.

Reality check: the women in the audience we saw the movie with seemed very happy. They gave every sign of enjoying themselves, rustling around in their purses, playing with kleenex and candy wrappers, saying "Aww" on a regular basis, whispering to each other, tittering about the profanity and sex, and applauding at the end. Leaving the theater, they clustered in groups and babbled breathlessly and gigglingly over this scene and that, comparing notes about their feelings and about the romantic predicaments the movie had presented. A couple of teenaged boys in the lobby watched one of these groups walk by, and I overheard one of the boys say, "Well, that certainly proves Darwin right" -- a sociobiological teen! I took him to mean that if you feed women tons and tons of what theyíve been programmed to want, this is how they'll react. But I also had the impression that the women knew that the film had been too much -- overeagerly overcatering to their every fantasy. My guess is that for most of the women, watching the film had been like eating cookies while taking a bubble bath, getting a massage, and having their nails done all at the same time. The handful of men in the audience, on the other hand, walked out of the film looking like they'd been castrated, and like they were expecting to be cut a damn good amount of slack for having endured the indignity.

I asked The Wife, who sees almost every new romantic comedy, how she reacted. "That was one of the worst things I've ever seen," she said. "It made me ashamed of being a woman." I'd type something here like "That's why I keep her around," but I know if I did I'd get clobbered.

Your reactions to the new chickflicks? Is your wife a fan of the genre?



posted by Michael at November 11, 2003


sometimes it's good to be single.

We need more chick flicks like Top Gun, The Matrix, Spiderman, The Starwars movies, and my favorite chick flick this year "underworld"

Posted by: shipshape on November 12, 2003 02:33 AM

Gosh, I dont have a wife but I am going to comment anyway.

To me "chick flicks" are the female version of superhero/westerns/shootemupandkillem dead movies for guys. Both play to the emotional desires of the appropriate gender. Guys like movies that are about strong, impervious, HEROES and women like movies that are soft and romantic and gooshy.

That's a complete generalization, however. I tend to get bored in chick flicks even faster than I do in Terminator type movies. "Maid in Manhatten" was a major yawn, for instance. I got up and walked out of "An Officer and A Gentleman" years ago.

Posted by: Deb on November 12, 2003 10:37 AM

Ah, and my reaction to watching Hugh Grant act is to wonder why he doesnt stand up straight, get his hands out of his pockets and quit stuttering. Drives me nuts.

Posted by: Deb on November 12, 2003 10:47 AM

A man wrote this? A straight or gay man?

Could this be a man's version of what he thinks a woman wants to see??

Sounds awful. But I thought "Notting Hill" was truly, truly awful, although I thought Grant was better in that than Roberts was (who was truly, truly, truly awful).

Could this make your wife more embarassed about being a woman than "The Bachelor" makes me about being one?? Naw, I don't think that's possible.

Posted by: annette on November 12, 2003 11:43 AM

I recently had the privilege of seeing The Philadelphia Story on a big screen. George Cukor (Gay guy alert!) is generally known as a "woman's director," and yet this spicy, bubbly film seems about as far from the contemporary "chick flick" as you can get. (I should add that I saw Philadelphia Story with an audience of college students and sexagenerians, and the kids were eager as the codgers to see Hepburn get a loving comeuppance.)

I think the difference can be boiled down to a single word: OPRAH. Curtis has her, Cukor doesn't. Oprah embodies the idea that in disputes between men and women, the woman is Always Right. This is as sexist and destructive as saying that the man is Always Right in such disputes. In contrast, The Philadelphia Story offers its characters something like equal time. On the whole, the men and women in this film are well-intentioned, and the only cardinal sin (consistent with a comic vision) is the unwillingness to acknowledge the "human frailty" that unites us all.

Contemporary chick flicks create a modern myth not dissimilar to the Victorian "angel of the household," and it is the duty of men in these films to submit unconditionally to the women's superior insight. In part, that's why so many men -- Gay and Straight alike -- can't stand these movies; the emasculating discipline that women impose on these guys is uncomfortably reminiscent of the classic Phallic Mother.

The very act of seeing a "chick flick" is, for most guys, a re-enactment of the Phallic Mother syndrome: Your girlfriend drags you to this film on a date, and you have to endure the incessant girl power and male-bashing until it's over. The sexual dynamic onscreen is thus replicated in microcosm within the audience itself. (I should also note that the typical Action Flick imposes a similar condition on women, and that the misandrist "chick flick" might also express ressentiment for misogynistic spectacles like Terminator 3.)

Chick flicks present a one-dimensional view of the "battle of the sexes," and in doing so they pander shamelessly to a presumed audience of women. This may be the reason many women can't stand these films either. Most discerning viewers don't much like pandering, indeed are vaguely ashamed of it. Perhaps they'd rather have a few insights than a clear victory.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on November 12, 2003 12:55 PM

Tim, who much more articulately expresses what I was trying to say, has a good point about the strong woman/dumb man theme. I see it in sit coms on TV too. "Home Improvement" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" are two that come to mind. Poor Tim the Toolman. If he didnt have Jill to take care of him.... There are several others as well going all the way back to the original Cosby show. Smart wife puts up with stupid husband. Boring, IMHO.

I've always wondered why? And why does TV often portray men that way in a comic setting? If the reverse were done, such as back in the days of "I Love Lucy," folks would be having a hissy all over the place.

Posted by: Deb on November 12, 2003 01:21 PM

Helen Hunt would agree with you. She says what captivated her about the first "Mad About You" script is that her character was the one who was frazzled and confused, and he was the one calming her down. She said she felt you never saw that in sitcoms.

Posted by: annette on November 12, 2003 02:24 PM

Geez, I actually feel sorry for you people. Sharing a little bit of cinematic emotional manipulation with my wife is one of the most enjoyable ways to spend an evening.

I mean, it is fun for both of us end a movie sitting there having been completely overwhelmed by special effects (we see Matrix next week), but I'd hate to never share a tear of two. It would feel kind of strange (and a little sad) not to be moved by the same things that move one's partner, be it Lord of the Rings, or Notting Hill.

As for incompetent males, I suspect I'll dislike such depictions when I feel (speaking as a man) that the world isn't basically a man's game. As for now, I see it as harmless fun.

Posted by: Tom West on November 12, 2003 03:35 PM

I saw the commercial for this movie yesterday at the gym.

"You'd have to be scrooge not to [be heartwarmed] by this movie" (or something to that effect).

It made me want to go watch it, because I find this sort of sappy/preachy "this is how you should live your life" emotional manipulation funny. Cue sappy music! Cue cheesy dialogue! So demeaning, so predictable.
But then again, when it comes down to it, I have other things to do with my two hours than laugh at insipidity merely because I can.

Posted by: . on November 12, 2003 04:20 PM

It's past it's heyday now, but "That 70's Show" on Fox is one of the few sitcoms these days that doesn'y buy into the "dumb man led by savvy wife" thing. Both Red and Kitty (the parents) are actual, mutidimensional characters, instead of easy fodder for predictable laugh lines. About the only out-and-out "stupid" character is Kelso (played by It Boy Ashton Kusher), and it works for him because he commits so fully to it...

I don't watch it as much, but Hank Hill on "King of the HIll" is also no one's dummy, even if he can't quite figure out this here "modern world".

I think its a matter of writing - if you're just going for cheap laughs at a character's expense, then that character pretty much has to be a straight man these days since that's the only category of person who can be made fun of. But if you have complex, character-based humor, you don't need the the easy stereotypes...

Posted by: jimbo on November 12, 2003 06:31 PM

I actually dont watch too many sitcoms or much else on TV because, as my daughter would say, "like, life is way too short." And I never tuned into "That 70's Show" mostly because I was in high school and college during that 70's decade. Frankly, I dont care to relive it, even on a comic level.

Posted by: Deb on November 12, 2003 07:52 PM


You'd better purge by going to see "Master and Commander" at the 11:30 am showing on Friday!

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 12, 2003 09:42 PM


Yes, my wife likes chick-flicks. My feelings are more ambivalent. Actually "entering" (i.e., empathizing with) the story is usually impossible, so I find myself doing anthropology or ethnology in the movie, trying to see what the filmmakers intended and the audience is responding to. Perhaps an unusual way to see a movie, but it's not a bad start to a Saturday night date, so to speak.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 13, 2003 09:42 AM

I think the problem with modern chickflicks is that the chicks are ... stupid. Simps. Gutless, humorless, hiding dreary limp little souls under a twitching itchy persona. "Women you would in real life cross the street to avoid" as the man said. Also, women who are imbued with much virtue because they are overweight and therefore deserve to "get back" at all the nice, well-meaning people around them who are somehow bad and wrong and undeserving because the have committed the terrible crime of being not fat.

I think this goes back to the seventies, and I'm trying to find a way to blame Godfather movies.

Some of it, I suppose, has to do with stars, rather than studios, making movies.

Shelia Lavine who was dead and living in New York City can take some blame - that was the first book I read in which a woman was obsessive about what a romance could do for her yet short on ideas about what she, her chatty-ass self with boundless energy for complaining about everyone else, might contribute.

Posted by: j.c. on November 13, 2003 12:14 PM


That's not an unusual strategy at all; rather, it's the first line of defense for a thinking mind.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on November 13, 2003 02:44 PM

Hmm, well, y'all have me thinking ... It's not as though there weren't always movies more for the male audience and movies more for the female audience. So what makes the new ones different, if they are different? I think they are, so I'm going to take a swing at the question. I see two things:

1) There used to be more of a middle ground -- movies men and women could enjoy together more easily. As Tim points out, the convention in '30s romantic comedy, for instance, was that both partners had something to learn. There was more of a mainstream. Which leads me to ...

2) These days, everything's aimed at a target market, even if that target market happens to be a big one. Which seems to mean that today, if you don't happen to be part of the intended target market, there's really almost nothing there for you. And almost nothing conceivably there for you -- you're just shut completely out. I find it flat-out weird that I, who grew up reading my sister's fashion magazines and who mainly go to the movies to watch actresses, find it next to impossible to watch chickflicks. I mean, what should be more perfect than a chickflick for a guy who likes to peep at girls when they think they aren't being watched? But in fact I find chickflicks almost intolerable.

Might it have to do with the way that buttons are being aimed at and pounded? I feel my mind taking a big windup on the topic of exploitation films, and how every film these days is what used to be termed an exploitation film ... But I think I'm too hospitaled-out with fatigue to manage that particular argument. Later!

I feel, by the way, like I'm morphing into Terry Teachout, who wrote that good posting about middlebrow culture some time ago. But maybe that's semi-proof that he was really on to something.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 13, 2003 06:01 PM

Oh... I thought anthropology/ethnology was the whole point of going to the movies...

Posted by: Alice Bachini on November 13, 2003 07:54 PM

For some additional thoughts on two "chick-flicks", one bad, one good, you can read a posting I did about a year ago here.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 14, 2003 05:45 PM

Friedrich, the estrogen fumes comment in the old post had me laughing til tears ran. Thanks, I needed a good laugh!

Posted by: Deb on November 14, 2003 11:29 PM

if you go here;f=9;t=002856;p=3

you'll find plenty of chicks who found Love Actually a pile of tosh.

Curtis is married to Emma Freud ( great grand daughter ) but thats no excuse for attempting to ruin the UK film industry single handedly.

Posted by: m on November 24, 2003 12:55 PM

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