Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Men Behaving Badly…And Then There Are the Women

The last post I wrote was about the Sex and the City movie. I did see it, finally, although in a much different environment than the last one. I expected to hate it, I really did. But I found that even though it is many things the critics say it is (long, ridiculous, heavy-handed), it is also very, very enjoyable, and quite funny. And of course, I was captivated by all the articles denouncing the terrible reviews, defending the movie, even as they acknowledged it wasn’t good.

But time passed. I watched two movies I actually had wanted to see for awhile, and planned to write a joint post on: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, both stories based on books about terrible, awful men and their terrible, awful behavior. No apologies were given. Both books were bestsellers.

And then I realized, even though I have seen all three of these movies spaced out over the course of the last month, that all three were touching upon the same issues. Here I try, not very well, to make sense of it all.


I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell
is marketed as the raunchiest, craziest bacchanal, a road trip/buddy movie to rival The Hangover. Based on a true-life account of a womanizing law school grad, the movie tries to give shape and story to the book’s outlandish episodes, including redemption for the movie’s central character, Tucker Max. It’s not funny, though trying to figure out why is tough. It’s not a bad movie; it’s certainly watchable, but no, it’s not even remotely close to The Hangover, save for plot.

Matt Czuchry is the quintessential charming rogue, always with an answer for the ladies, yet back with his friends, he can charmingly degrade ‘em all. He’s always on the lookout for the next lay, the next sexual experience, ready for a new story. His appeal is his outlandishness, as girls are always ready to nail his sexist attitudes to his face. His comeuppance in the film is supposed to be gratifying for the audience—he’s not supposed to get away with calling a girl a “cum dumpster”—but instead it’s trite, predictable. Let the guy roam free; nobody believes he’s real anyway.

Czuchry was Logan on Gilmore Girls, a deceptively similar character to the one he plays here: another charming, rich playboy, who glided through school despite all his professors wanting to strangle him. What’s glaring obvious in the movie is his pedigree, though it’s not mentioned: Tucker is able to toss money at everything. If the stripper, girls or his friends have problems, he throws money at it. A row of 10 special shots is $80? No problem. He doesn’t flinch, and while his buddies, being law students, are conscious of money, he isn’t. Nothing fazes him, and he has the smarts to outwit anyone. He is a lawyer.

What was realistic was the dialogue with his friends. The stories are lifted from the book, and possibly some of the dialogue, but while Czuchry isn’t funny, I did believe that a law student like him, who had a comeback for everything, would talk as intelligently and offensively as he did. The movie sags as the movie reaches its denouement, since we know where this is headed. Of course, things end well—the bitter buddy has found a new love, Tucker learns his lesson. The biggest, and what’s supposed to be the funniest scene, completely falls flat in a way that’s appalling; it’s so much better in the book. It’s kind of sad to see I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell bow down to generic story, missing the no-holds-barred tone of the book, to try to garner an audience that didn’t materialize.

However, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is what the title promises—a depressed, mopey grad student (Julianne Nicholson) conducts brief interviews with men about sex, love, and relationships. It’s all dark and cruel. She says almost nothing throughout the movie, recording these monologues. She is constantly followed by men telling tales of conquest and lust, or they just happen upon her as she’s studying in Starbucks, and her tape recorder is always present. The story is told nonlinearly, and we find out her reasoning for conducting this research—all in the name of feminism, she says.

This movie is largely lifted from the novel, with entire sections of the movie nearly word-for-word. Some of the editing and setups are very postmodern, in fitting with David Foster Wallace’s work, with odd jump-cuts and characters in and out of scenes they’re narrating. It’s very arty and quite pretentious, with a lot of preeny intellectualism that each character affects. Partly because of the setting (and the fact that the book was published in the ‘90s), it doesn’t feel contemporary; there’s talk of rape and love and fantasies and the cruel way that men treat women, but nobody talks like this, in long, artfully constructed sentences.

I’ve read both books, and the wide spaces both stories occupy seem to posit men as these awful creatures. Brief Interviews is not a story that should be seen when in a bad mood, like after a breakup. Nor, really, is Beer in Hell, as both will give ammunition to the phrase “men are cowards”, uttered in the former film. Both stories namecheck feminism, and the men go out of their way to talk about it, how they view it, how they view women—trying to discover what they want, give them what they want. It’s all syntactical gymnastics, and following the logic of most of the monologues gets a little confusing at times. All the men purport to be “honest” in the films, but in Beer in Hell they’re routinely emasculated (especially the groom at the center of the story, but his was the weakest plot), while the men in Brief Interviews are aggressive and gregarious. Sara, the grad student, just takes it all in.

She barely reacts, and her passivity works against her. It’s hard to watch her, especially in some of the more confrontational moments when she is hijacked by monologues by her ex-boyfriend and an interview subject on rape, and not wish her to say something, to scream out in anger. At least in Beer in Hell, the women have their say. They all routinely attack Tucker, spouting off how sexist he is. Tucker will perform his own syntactical gymnastics, but with less snooty intellectualism. And they do have their comeuppance, since the audience is meant to understand that Tucker does really care, that he just wants to have fun, and that (by the end) he’s slowly learning to grow up. That’s not the pat ending in Brief Interviews: Sara is still sad, and her project is merely reinforcing the terribleness of the world, the awfulness of men—even when they care, it’s all wrapped in layers and layers of self-loathing and fear. These men just need to get a grip on themselves. Nothing much really “happens”; the movie is an excuse for a lot of excellent actors to act, though the dialogue often sounds stilted and too actor-y. John Krasinski, the director, is also Sara’s ex, and he is very much the opposite of his nice-guy persona on The Office. Frankly, even he saying the word “bitch” just sounds unnatural.

Both these movies about men behaving badly were supposed to be fun, in a way, just a general romp through awful actions we’d never dare to do ourselves. That’s the selling point. But the Sex and the City movie, also marketed as a fun romp, actually was—though you wouldn’t believe it from the press.

I loved the movie. Yes, I did. I laughed. I had a smile on my face nearly the entire time. It’s ridiculous, sexist, and most definitely offensive. And yet, I enjoyed it mightily.

It is not the Sex and the City of the television show, but I knew that already. The emotional stakes were low, and the Aiden storyline was stupid. Carrie herself was dumb—and most of her storyline could have been avoided had she just told Big outright how she felt. But the nibbles were there—Carrie’s struggle to find a way to make marriage work for her, done her way, felt true. All of the other women were as one-note as possible. I cringed at Miranda being the peppy tour guide, at Samantha loudly being as crass as possible, and at Charlotte because she had nothing better to do. Surprisingly, what none of the reviews mentioned, in between lambasting the movie for every possible offense, was that the movie did try to put the story in context. One of Carrie’s friends gently reminds her of the days when she couldn’t even get Big to stay over, and now she’s mad that he’s always around (“A little perspective is always good”). They do mention the recession, how things have changed since the last movie, and refer to events in both that film and in the canon of the television show. That meant a lot. I also appreciated how the movie tried to bring home the message that life is always hard, no matter the stage. This, unfortunately, was largely lost through the ostentatious outfits and accessories, and the silliness of the plot.

I found the movie beautiful. All the actresses looked fantastic. The colors! The clothes! They looked like what they were—women in their 40s and 50s, well-dressed, with money. Comparing them to younger versions of themselves is unfair. Yes, the movie went over-the-top, but that was part of the show; it was just more of it in the movie, just like the screwball sensibilities that have always underlined the humor of the series.

I completely understand the anger. If I was a mother, the scene between Charlotte and Miranda discussing parenting (“How do they do it without help?”) would be ridiculously condescending and offensive, even more so than it is. Yet I felt that that line was supposed to be a sendup, as sometimes the over-the-top hysterics of nearly every character was portrayed. Maybe it was on us because we took it so seriously.

Maybe that’s another failure of this genre. The backlash to the backlash repeatedly pointed out that some of the vituperative criticisms were unfair, that men’s movies do this all the time…not just The Hangover and Hot-Tub Time Machine, but James Bond. Frankly, The Hangover is an apt comparison to both I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Sex and the City 2. It too was filled with a stupid plot, slapstick humor, and a helpful heap of sexism, in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Yet because Sex and the City 2 had the balls to showcase a completely different side—and do it on their terms—it raised a lot more ire than the usual entries in the genre.

All three of these movies—Sex and the City 2, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are variations on a theme. Yes, two are supposed to be popcorn, but all three purport to have Statements. All three movies were written and directed by men, a not-insignificant fact. It’s a tossup whether Brief Interviews is supposed to be revelatory about men, or just another dark comedy on the subject, or even trying to make a statement about women. It’s clear, though, from watching these movies, even as they claim to be about (and for) one sex, it’s impossible not to include the other in some form. Sometimes it’s trite, or boring, or pretentious, or so ridiculous that it’s impossible to believe anything. But all know there is humor in the subject.

Further reading:
What Went So Horribly Wrong with Sex and the City 2? A Critic and Fan Debate the Demerits
Now, In Defense of SATC 2
Un-Innocents Abroad: The Drubbing
Why the SATC 2 Reviews Were Misogynist
All of the reviews I read of Brief Interviews (three, after I watched) were very accurate, but this one's perhaps the best.

1 comment:

John said...

Criminy. When it comes to movies based on true events about remorseless skirt-chasers who learn their lesson in the end, I'll take Swingers over I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell any day. But maybe that's because Jon Favreau & Co. weren't as downright reprehensible (nor as successful. Perhaps that is the connection.)