Wednesday, March 21, 2012

life as we know it and young adult: ballbreaking 101

Life As We Know It: (2010. dir: Greg Berlanti)
I have long been of the opinion that certain movies exert a malign influence on an audience. I suppose every demographic has its insidious examples, but it’s the girls in whom I’m most interested (since boys run the studios, I guess they can take care of their own), and so I notice when Hollywood slips a devil into a film to try and lull my demographic into unhealthy perspectives on life.

Sleepless in Seattle was one of the first offenders I noticed (I'm certain there had been many before which slipped worm-like into my subconscious and are probably still causing all manner of grief). You can’t call it evil, of course, but it’s a dangerous girl-fantasy in that it pushes forward an absurd but absurdly attractive paradigm in which finding your soul-mate is the hard part of a relationship; that once you make it to the top of the Empire State Building, the hard work is done and your relationship will be smooth sailing from there on out. It’s a dangerous message, but not deadly, since every girl in the world is going to find out it’s a crock of shit about four days after she first falls in love.

Now let’s look at Life As We Know It. Not a girl-fantasy so much as a woman-fantasy, it was obviously made for a specific demographic (women whose biological clocks are sounding, relatively new mothers, and with a wider and probably more dangerous reach into the set of women who are raising children and are unhappy in their spousal relationships). I call this kind of movie Ballbreaking 101, but The Stepford Husband Effect might be more to the point. These movies teach us, if we allow it, that as long as we are focused on those noble goals of Marriage and Child-rearing, then we are fully within our rights to ALTER our flawed male companion by any tactics necessary, whether it be through guilt, self-righteous carping, even violence, until he is sufficiently neutered to cause us no further trouble.

The basics are these: Messer (Josh Duhamel from the Transformers series) is the anti-romantic-hero. He is slovenly (symbolized by the baseball cap he wears constantly), sluttish, seducing women and casting them aside in the mornings with "I'll-call-you" lies, determined not to settle down (symbolized by his beloved motorcycle), and completely sexually irresistible to everyone except our heroine (Katherine Heigl as Holly), who is staunchly immune to his charms. Through a series of Hollywood plot-devices, the two of them inherit their best friends' baby and must move into their house and raise the child together.

But these two are archenemies, and, ultimately, either one must fall or one must change. Because this is a romcom, we know nobody will fall, and because it is a woman-fantasy, we know who will do the changing. Slowly and surely, Messer is stripped of everything he calls his own. Holly gets the baseball cap by letting the baby take a crap in it and using that as an excuse to throw it out. (Message to Holly: the bathroom floor is linoleum. Let the baby crap on the floor then clean it up.) She wrecks his motorcycle, tossing it beneath a bus to ensure that the damage is irreparable. When he gets a break in his career, an opportunity to direct a live sportscast, she refuses to take the kid and so his chance is ruined. Yes, OK, this last was his-job-or-her-job, so it's nice that she didn’t place more importance on his job than on her own, but the point is this whole movie is a Take-a-Sexy-Man-and-Change-Him-Into-Your-Lapdog thing. The worst part is that he lets it happen. In the paradigm of the film, he secretly knows, as the women in the audience gloatingly think they know, that her view is the true one, her feminine wisdom will triumph, for her goals are the noble ones.

My question is this: is this really the world-view we want to support? Is it really alright to enter into a relationship with an aim to reshape our partner from the ground up as if he's some sort of accessory to our (more important) lives? And what kind of a kid will this baby grow into, used as it is as a weapon in this ongoing war?

It is well acted, this incubus-film, and well-photographed, with one very effective shot at the end, where the camera snorkels out of the house as they're walking into their little girl's birthday party, backs up, flies over the house then backs away over the trees, a sort of "and they lived happily ever after" shot. Well done, and that's all part of the insidious nature of this devil-film.

Young Adult: (2011. dir: Jason Reitman)
And then there's Young Adult. This is the anti-Life As We Know It:

Matt: Buddy Slade has a life.
Mavis: No, Buddy Slade has a baby, and babies are boring.

Charlize Theron (Mavis) and Patton Oswalt (Matt) share a galvanic chemistry as the bitter-tongued duo who, it turns out, are perfectly matched once you dig beneath their mismatched skins, his body malformed after an ancient beating, her body perfect but her soul malformed by her own seemingly endless series of terrible personal choices.

Mavis is heavily damaged, living an empty life as the author of a vapid Young Adult series of novellas in a slovenly apartment with a neglected dog and a television constantly tuned to the Kardashian sisters. On finding out that her high school sweetheart has a newborn baby, she becomes obsessed with winning him back, thereby revivifying her lost youth, those years when she was seemingly unassailable. Her journey back to her hometown is a journey into hell, but thanks to Cody’s unflinching pen, a very funny journey into hell. These people have flaws and quirks, and, in Mavis' case, an almost pathological gracelessness (to her crippled friend: "Could you walk any slower?") and extremes of self-medication to fend off self-examination. They talk like real people talk, and are upon occasion deadly, seriously funny.

It's official; I'm now a Diablo Cody fan. I appreciated Juno's cleverness but in the end felt a little moist with it preciousness. Then there was Jennifer's Body, which I watched almost secretly, almost apologetically, expecting a sort of cataclysmic debacle, but I was happily surprised with it, its boldness, its strangeness, how it kept twisting my expectations with odd moments of truth.

And now this. This movie is such a relief. Sometimes watching Mavis' trainwreck approach to life is nearly unbearable, but Cody always gives a reprieve just at the last minute: a moment of long-overdue self-awareness or wry humour in the nick of time. And it's got a throwback-to-the-90s hipster soundtrack, crowded with Mats, Dino Jr, Cracker, Teenage Fanclub, a soundtrack Mavis uses to transport herself back into a past in which she remembers herself happy, whether she was or not.

This is a movie for those of us who got broken along the way but manage to go on living, regardless. In the end, although its ostensible message is that, reprehensible as your behaviour is, you don't really have to change as long as you keep running fast enough, that message is delivered with sufficiently ironic humour to twist itself back around into a question.

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