You know the plot: a heartless love 'em and leave 'em player toys with the affections of the opposite sex until WHAM! along comes the one who may turn out to be THE ONE. Undaunted, the player and player's best friend hop in the car to pick up THE ONE at a wedding...only to discover THE ONE is marrying someone else! The wedding derails at the last minute and then...our main characters reconnect, finally falling in love.
What you don't expect: the player is Cameron Diaz. THE ONE is Thomas Jane.
The Sweetest Thing turns tired romantic comedy tropes on their head by changing up the genders and letting women run the show. Diaz's Christina has left a sea of shattered men in her wake, all of whom suffer from anger management issues, impotence, insanity, or some combination thereof. Her best friend Courtney, of a similar mold, supports her friends "manizing" and does a bit of her own, all for--GASP!--HER OWN ENJOYMENT! Third friend (and frequent third wheel) Jane (Selma Blair), recently dumped by her man, sets off on a calorie-free sexcapade with a cute (but insanely stupid) man whose "features" have her reaching for the Advil the next day.
If these characters had penises, I'd hazard to say they'd be the staple of any ridonkulous male sex comedy. But because they are women doin' it for themselves, the film tanked. Diaz's love interest, Peter (it's slang for penis!), is a fussy, wallowy dude who becomes incensed when Christina rips him a new one for blowing off hot friend Jane at the club. He knocks her down a peg. Christina shrugs it off...but is she attracted to him? Yes. Probably because he's the only guy in the club who isn't dripping off her at any given moment. The story of our lives: we want who doesn't want us.
While The Sweetest Thing is bold in premise, it doesn't quite nail the dismount. If non-narrativity is your thing, this film is for you. Diaz and the girls interrupt the film with a costume change-filled "movie montage" while shopping for wedding outfits (and lamenting the sagging of her breasts with marked candor in the process), a spontaneous music/dance number called "You're Too Big to Fit in Here" that summarizes the three's perspective on consoling men about the size of their Johnsons, and a sex fantasy that features Christina receiving constant oral sex while eating giant ice cream sundaes with the calories removed. Add to this a road trip, a wedding brawl, a piercing-related fellatio emergency, an encounter with nervous bride Parker Posey, the most embarrassing visit to the dry cleaners EVER, and a glory hole, and you've got The Sweetest Thing.
While for most moviegoers, the disconnectedness (or what negative reviewers smarmily call its "bits," also slang for penis, btw) for me is its strength. Diaz, Applegate, and Blair are fearless in the film, often taking gags to the point of danger, disgust, or both--but never losing their wicked lack of apology for doing so (unlike most other female-driven comedies like Bridesmaids, which got gross, but allowed you to hate/pity the characters while watching so you didn't have to imagine spending a life with them).
While the film does ultimately return our women to "ladylike" status by the end (all our happily coupled and on a sex-free diet until "the time is right"), it pulls no punches along the way. One of the greatest moments is when Applegate lambasts Diaz for "naming the puppy" (Peter) after he chastizes her. Another woman in the restroom can't stop staring at Applegate's boobs. "They're fake," she says flatly, then offers, "Go ahead, touch them." The woman, then three other women, all begin evaluating the realness of Applegate's implants. As the bathroom door swings open, two men fall over themselves when they see this, their fantasy in real life. "That's why chicks always go to the bathroom together!" one says as they camp out for a better view. Of course, the reality is a lot less sexy.
Or the bit where Applegate and Diaz, clad only in their "laundry day panties" after a urinal soaks them both with water and Diaz gets poked in the eye at the aforementioned glory hole, drive to the wedding. Diaz drops something on the floor of the car and, as she reaches over to grab it from under Applegate's feet (who is driving), a hyper-masculine biker passes by and looks in, almost falling off his bike. Applegate plays up the appearance, flicking her tongue through her spread fingers, egging him on, while Diaz pats around on the floor none the wiser. All is fun and games until the biker, so caught up in their tryst, doesn't see his lane end...and dumps the bike on the ground. In the background, you see him stand up and shake his fist at them angrily as they drive off. Again--masculine misinterpretation of female sexuality is the punchline. Oddly, (straight) men seemed not to find this funny!
2002's The Sweetest Thing didn't get a lot of notice when it was released. In fact, I don't even really remember it coming out in theaters. A quick sweep of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes brings up these ringing endorsements:
"Female characters should be allowed to engage in raunchy humor on the big screen; they already do on the small one with Sex and the City. But unlike that HBO series, The Sweetest Thing has no guts." Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune
"If a date suggests the two of you should go and see this film dump them." Harry Guerin, RTE Interactive
"A movie in which laughter and self-exploitation merge into jolly soft-porn 'empowerment.'" Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
"If you laugh at this badly made recycled trash dump...it may be because you are amused at seeing women doing the same revolting stuff men do, and being forced to suffer the very same consequences." Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press
You'll note all these reviewers are, sadly, men. And possibly humorless pricks.
Even as it wickedly deconstructs heterosexual gender norms and sex roles, The Sweetest Thing never loses its sense of whimsy and fantasy, as evidence by my parting gift: "You're Too Big to Fit in Here." If not obvious, this clip is rated R.
The Legend of Billie Jean was a flop in the summer of 1985. It was critically savaged and only earned around $3 million (peanuts!) at the box office before being sent to cable purgatory. Even the soundtrack, designed to draw in the MTV generation, tanked. Pat Benatar, who sang the killer theme song, “Invincible,” has disowned the movie.
The movie wasn’t in theaters long enough for me to see it on the big screen, but in the summer of 1986 I saw it for the first time in a hotel room in Savannah. And, oddly, every time I went on vacation with my family, the movie was playing. We would turn on the TV in our cheap hotel room and there was Helen Slater as the eponymous heroine fighting for white trash truth, justice, and the American way.
My father – who never paid attention to such things – remarked that it was “weird” that The Legend of Billie Jean seemed to be following us. From Mississippi to Virginia and beyond, Billie Jean Davy was working her “fair is fair” mojo into our very souls.
Watching TLoBJ today, it’s easy to see how this flop became a cult favorite on cable. With its impoverished Corpus Christi trailer park denizens, bullying, misogyny, attempted rape, child abuse, subversion of authority, and thematic link to Joan of Arc, TLoBJ wasn’t a happy ‘80s teen lark. It was anti-Brat Pack; darker than anything John Hughes would ever attempt although it’s cut from the same misunderstood youth cloth.
The story is pretty simple: Binx (played by Christian Slater in his first major role) has his beloved motor scooter stolen and trashed by the town bullies, lead by Hubie Pyatt. Binx and Billie Jean go to the police, but Detective Ringwald (a classy Peter Coyote) dismisses their story as just kids being kids.
Billie Jean decides to confront Hubie’s sleazy father, who runs a souvenir shop on the beach, and demands $608 to pay to fix the scooter. Instead, Mr. Pyatt says he’ll pay for the scooter in $50 increments every time Billie Jean has sex with him (“pay as you go, earn as you learn”) and when she refuses, he tries to rape her. Binx winds up shooting Mr. Pyatt in the arm, and the “Billie Jean Gang” (friends Putter and Ophelia are along for the ride to spice up their lives) are soon outlaws. They become instant celebrities and top the most wanted list as the media spins their exploits wildly.
A film geek, Lloyd, hides the gang at his house and shows Billie Jean the classic Otto Preminger film Saint Joan starring Jean Seberg. Billie Jean is mesmerized by the story and watches wide-eyed as Joan is burned at the stake for heresy.
When Billie Jean shears off her long flowing hair and dons the skin-tight jumpsuit, she transforms herself into a modern day Joan. Lloyd films her demands for the $608 and sends the videotape to every news channel in Texas, thus making Billie Jean a legend.
When Billie Jean & Co. arrive for a fateful meeting on the beach, where Detective Ringwald has promised that a restored Scooter will be waiting along with an apology from Mr. Pyatt, they find a phalanx of media, a whipped up crowd of supporters, and sharpshooters.
That’s a whole lotta lotta for what was billed as a “teen movie.” What makes the film more resonant now is how it pre-figured the media siege and spin long before the age of the Internet, 24 news cycle, and merchandising (Billie Jean’s likeness is emblazoned on everything from t-shirts to Frisbees). TLoBJ was also unafraid to present its good guys as anti-heroes. Billie Jean and Co. were no saints – they wound up having to steal, elude police, and Binx even threatens Detective Ringwald with a realistic toy gun.
The climatic scene at the beach, where the crowd equally wants to see Billie Jean triumph and to be gunned down, is over-the-top but also chilling. Along with the allusions to Saint Joan and Bonnie and Clyde, there’s also a bit of Patty Hearst thrown in for good measure as Billie Jean becomes an “urban guerilla” forced to rebel to survive. Like Hearst, Billie Jean makes the “mistake” of living instead of dying.
In the end, a giant effigy of Billie Jean erected on the beach by Mr. Pyatt is set aflame, harkening back to Joan’s fiery demise. TLoBJ has moments of silliness, Helen Slater has a propensity to under-emote when a scene needs a bit more, but this movie definitely deserved to be a hit.
Sadly, every time I was feeling persecuted by my parents for not being able to stay out late, get out of chores, or borrow money, the “fair is fair” line never worked. My dad said when I got my face on a Frisbee to let him know and we’d negotiate. Bummer.
Collin Kelley is an award-winning poet and novelist. His latest book, the mystery Remain In Light, is out now in eBook format and will be available in print in January. www.collinkelley.com
Bad Films/Andrew Demcak/AMUSING MUSES: XANADU VS. THE LADY IN THE WATER, WITH SPECIAL BONUS PARABLE: GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK
This is going to seem goofy as all hell that I even think about these things, but believe it or not, Olivia Newton John’s frothy roller-disco movie, Xanadu (41% Rotten Tomatoes rating) and the dreadful M. Night Shyamalan’s “Adult Fairytale” The Lady in the Water (24% Rotten Tomatoes rating) are basically the same film, and I love them both, God help me! Both films feature a Muse who returns to earth to inspire a young artist/author to create a great work: In Xanadu, that great work is to build a pleasure palace (read: tacky 80’s roller rink) and in The Lady in the Water, to inspire Vick Ran (played by the ego-bloated M. Night Shyamalan himself) to write The Cookbook, which will inspire a future president to change the world for the better. Both films also feature a group of sisters (The Pleiades, or Muses) who assist the lead character on his journey, a common folktale motif.
Anyone familiar with my writing will know that I incorporate many different mythologies into it. I have always been fascinated by myth and legend and continue to be. I am a sucker for a good fairytale! But one must know how to present one’s story CORRECTLY, m’kay? Tipping one’s hat means doing one’s homework. What I love about Xanadu is the fact that it is based in the Greek myth of the Nine Muses (plus the title is taken from Coleridge’s poem, "Kubla Khan," POETRY BONUS: 25 points to Xanadu). Although Olivia Newton John’s character is called Kira, and not her real name, Terpsichore (Muse of Dance), probably has more to do with the average American’s ability to pronounce words than the mistake of the novice scriptwriter.
Even Shyamalan’s film has all the elements and motifs of world mythology. It was clear to me from the very first minutes of the film that Shyamalan, like me, was enamored by fairytales. The Lady in the Water employs these common folk tale elements: an explanation of world origin (we came from the sea), human strengths are glorified (kindness, generosity, bravery, team work, healing abilities, etc.), the help of guardians/mentors/guides must be sought (The mermaid, aptly named “Story,” after she inspires Vick Ran, can only return to her oceanic world with assistance of The Healer, The Interpreter, The Vessel, The Guardian, and The Guild members) monsters (the wolf-like Skrunt, the ape-like Tarturic, and the great eagle, Eatlon), a quest or impossible task (which is the plot of the film, for “Story” to inspire the writing of The Cookbook and return then to the sea), and a struggle between light and dark, good and evil (ahh, Hollywood, where would you be without that one?)
Both films also revolve around Freudian and Jungian mythological archetypes, even perhaps, Feminist archetypes (but I won’t go into that here, dear me, no. That is a doctoral thesis in itself! Try pulling apart L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books if you really want to know about Jungian archetypes.)
BONUS PARABLE: Guillermo Del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (61% Rotten Tomatoes rating). Guillermo Del Toro knows his fairytales – that is clear from the Hellboy films. But what I loved about his remake of the 1973 ABC made-for-TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is he moves the plot into the literary world of mythology by having his young female lead character, Sally, step into a “Fairy Ring,” a ring of mushrooms left behind where fairies dance, in the beginning of the movie.
Anyone who reads a lot of folklore knows what a Fairy Ring is to a mortal: a dangerous place to enter. Humans can be trapped forever in the fairy ring or lose an eye, or suffer another punishment from the fairies for trespassing (SPOILER ALERT: the punishment in the movie involves someone’s teeth being pulled out and eaten by the fairies, and then the hapless human dragged kicking down a grated shoot into an filthy ash pit where he is turned into a fairy himself. Ouch!) In the movie theater, I almost cried out, “Don’t step into that Fairy Ring!” It wouldn’t have been the first time I did something like that, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering partner (17 years we’ve been together), Peter. But I knew that this invasion into the fairy realm would have its consequences for the young girl character, Sally. In fact, it sets up the plot for the rest of the film. Del Toro’s use of this simple folklore element raises his movie from common horror, to universal myth. And, I, for one, am glad he’s such a smarty-pants.
Andrew Demcak is an award-winning author & poet. His new book of poetry, Night Chant, is was published by Lethe Press in 2012. Check out his other work here: http://www.andrewdemcak.com & here: http://www.theandrewdemcak23.com He is listening to Wire's awesome new album Red Barked Tree right now.
In the weeks since her edition went live, Dawn noted, "The Maine edition hasn't been out for very long yet, but already I've received many responses from other Maine readers and writers. Most seem to be excited about the edition, but I've also heard a few of them express reservations about the 'darkness' of my curated poems. This interests me, not only because I feel that the poems are far more ambiguously moody than the word 'darkness' implies but also because the image of an ideal Maine is so powerful, even in the minds of long-time Mainers. For writers, it can be hard, very hard, to balance deep love for a place with a simultaneous need to admit its flaws and travesties. But then again, isn't that struggle exactly what we face with all of our long-time loves?"
She selected this poem by Leonore Hildebrandt, "Field Notes," for this retrospective:
Wind soured with silage: on the hill
north of town, a farmer keeps Black Angus cows.
Wooden barn tilts on the right of the road,
New England farm house sprawls to the left—
and the black calves have a clear view
of green meadows, the hills, and the town’s distant glint
from the small pen
where they live in brown-black morass,
where they feed on limp roughage, patiently,
their ears poised for answers.
Sun! The meadow is dressed in light and moisture.
Old apple trees, three or four below the barn,
still hold on to yellow, shrunken fruit.
A Family Farm, the sign says.
Perhaps it is a matter of scope. Or voracity.
So that the middleman who wages price tags
and contracts can squeeze them
into the bite-sized lot.
The middleman never sleeps nearby.
The grass has been mowed, hauled off,
packed and sealed under plastic.
Now it rains in the hills,
black calves crowding at the rack.
Movement is habitual:
how to lie down on a muddy slope.
Sean selected this poem called "VA Hospital" by Herbert Englehardt for this retrospective:
Patience she says
As she shows fingernails so long
She must punch her computer keys
With a rubber-tipped pen
Patience she says
Wagging her green lacquered fingers
As she continues rapid-fire talk
With her son on her cell phone
She announces patience
No appointments for three weeks
The doctors are very busy
Join the quiet vacant-eyed
Patient veterans of America’s wars
Men run over by our own trucks
Ignored by overworked aides
Men in wheelchairs
Some without arms or legs or eyes
While she chatters