BRIDESMAIDS, Will You Be My BFF?

A few months ago I made some New Year’s resolutions. Not the kind in which I vow to be a better person or promise to call my mother more (sorry Mom). Instead, I made some popular culture New Year’s resolutions. Number 2 on my list was a promise to see more films while they are still in the theaters. I do eventually get around to seeing all of the movies that I’m interested in, once they are released on DVD. But certain films are just better when viewed in the theater: special effects-laden science fiction and action films, horror films, and comedies. The big screen and surround sound provided by the movie theater offer the ideal setting for the  visual and auditory spectacle that is the raison d’être of science fiction and action films. The second two genres — horror and comedy — are all about the affect they produce in the viewer: horror films aim to horrify you and comedies aim to make you laugh. When you see these kinds of films in the theater, with an audience of  excited moviegoers who are very much interested in being horrified or being amused, just like you, then the viewing experience is greatly enhanced. I scream a little bit louder and laugh a little bit harder when I share the movie experience with a group of strangers.

Although I had no one to accompany me to the Greenville Grande on Saturday night (for those keeping track, that is the Greenville movie theater that does not smell like pee), I decided that I really did need to go and see Bridesmaids. I’ll be out of town this weekend and given Greenville’s track record with films that don’t contain talking animals or exploding spaceships, I was worried that Bridesmaids might be gone before I had a chance to see it (it is a “chick flick,” after all). It was important for me to see this comedy in the theater, so I went alone. Before you start feeling bad for me, going to see a movie on a Saturday night all by myself, let me assure you: I had a great time. I am not yet in crazy cat lady territory — at least not until after the kids go to college.

When I walked into the theater, I saw that it was packed. This is key for a comedy. The more people who are in the room, the better. Also, I quickly discovered that the gentleman sitting behind me was an unapologetic movie talker. I used to really hate movie talkers. I would sit in my seat and fume away, wondering why this jerk was out to ruin my viewing experience. But now that I have two young children, going out ot the movies is a rare treat (hence the New Year’s resolution), and so I have come to appreciate all the fine nuances of the movie-going experience. And this young man was a real pro. He didn’t modulate his voice at all — his comments were as loud and clear as if he were sitting at home, watching the movie on DVD. And his commentary was completely banal. During the scene in which Annie’s (Kristen Wiig) nutty roommate, Brynn (Rebel Wilson), begins pouring frozen peas over her sore tattoo (as opposed to placing the entire bag on the swollen area), he declared “That chick’s so dumb, man!” Later, when Annie’s crappy little car finally breaks down, he informed the theater, “That car’s a beater!” Yes, Movie Talker, that car sure was a beater. Thanks for the head’s up!

With a comedy I think it’s important to set the tone early, so the audience knows what to expect. So it was fitting that Bridesmaids opened with Annie and her rich, emotionally unavailable “fucky buddy,” Ted (Jon Hamm), having very active, very unsexy, sex. I think it’s a testament to both Kristen Wiig’s and Jon Hamm’s comedic abilities that they were able to take something so inherently sexy — naked Jon Hamm having sex — and make it cringe-worthy and awful. The next morning Annie asks Ted if he wants to start dating. He shoots her down (and the tone of the conversation implies that the subject has come up before) and tells her to head home. The scene culminates with Annie leaving Ted’s opulent home and scaling the large gate at the end of his driveway (she is too much of a doormat to go in and ask him to open it for her). Once she reaches the top of the gate, straddling it like a big, white pony, it begins to move — Ted’s cleaning lady has opened it from the other side. So Annie is forced to ride the gate, in what has to be the ultimate “walk/ride of shame.” As this scene built to this wonderful visual gag, the audience was roaring, and I knew I was in for a good night.

What I liked best about Bridesmaids was the way that it mixed together different kinds of humor. Yes, it gives us Annie straddling an electronic gate, shame and humiliation radiating from her small frame. Yes, it gives us Megan (Melissa McCarthy) making fat jokes at her own expense, inviting us to laugh at her body and the possibility of its sexuality (I had some problems with this character). And yes, we see Lillian (Maya Rudolph), the beautiful bride-to-be, decked out in a gorgeous vintage wedding gown, just so that its many layers can hide her uncontrollable diarrhea. Which she makes in the middle of the street.

Beyond this easy humor (for the record, I loved the vomit/shit scene), the movie also offers humor based on the realities of women’s lives. As a mother, I enjoyed hearing bridesmaid Rita (Wendi McClendon-Covey) deflate bridesmaid Becca’s (Ellie Kemper) rosy illusions about motherhood. When Becca, a newlywed, gushes about how s “beautiful” motherhood must be, Rita enlightens her: “The other night I was making a lovely dinner for my family, and my youngest son came in and said he wanted to order a pizza. I said ‘No, we are not ordering a pizza,’ and he said ‘Mom why don’t you go fuck yourself.’ He’s 9.” Later in the film, Rita begs for a bachelorette party in Las Vegas so that she can get away from her children and wear her new “tube top.” I too have a tube top in my closet that never gets worn. Yes, this movie was definitely written by women. By funny women.

I also loved this film because it offered a great protrait of the friendships of women in their thirties — friendships that have endured so many of life’s successes and failures. In particular, the first scene between Annie and Lillian, where they sit eating brunch post-workout, reminded me of so many of my female friendships. These friendships are loud, funny, and often a bit crass. While I was a huge fan of Sex and the City and its brand of “loud/funny/crass” women,  their conversations usually just reminded me that I was way less fabulous than Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda. I could covet their clothes and their apartments, but I was not one of them. But in their brunch scene, Annie and Lillian imitate a penis (brilliant!) and spread black cake on their teeth to make each other laugh. They also confide in each other and offer good, reassurring advice.

I loved this friendship and that’s what made Annie’s increasingly bizarre behavior throughout the film make sense. Annie has lost her business, her boyfriend, and her self esteem — her friendship with Lillian is the only great thing she has left. No wonder she becomes threatened when Helen (Rose Byrne) tries to step in as Lillian’s maid of honor and new best friend. I’m not saying that her freak out at Helen’s Parisian-themed bridal shower wasn’t over the top: but it was a little bit cathartic for anyone in the audience who has looked around at a wedding celebration and thought “Seriously?”

A few more highlights:

* We learn, early in the film, that Annie hasn’t really baked anything since her cake shop closed down. But we get one scene in which she painstakingly creates a cupcake masterpeice. We see her rolling out the marzipan, cutting and fashioning it into delicate petals, and then painting each leaf. The finished product, a single, perfect, flower-topped gem, is gorgeous. Annie stares at her masterpiece, without any sense of triumph or passion … and then shoves it in her mouth.

* While I was a little frustrated with the character of Megan (why must the plus size woman play the most buffoonish role?), I did adore the scene on the plane in which she interrogates a man (Ben Falcone) whom she believes to be a federal marshall. It’s not that their conversation was all that funny — they were discussing the pros and cons of concealing a weapon in one’s butt — but I loved that the man (played by McCarthy’s real life husband) was clearly amused, rather than annoyed, by Megan’s paranoid theories. Rather than angrily dismissing her, he engages her and asks questions about how a gun concealed in the butt could actually be practical. The scene could have been absurd, but it was playful instead. Someone could have actually had that conversation on a plane.

*Finally, Annie’s love interest, Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd), was  just wonderful. I believed that a girl like Annie would fall for a guy like him (and if she didn’t, well, that would be okay too. The movie’s success does not depend on Annie’s heterosexual coupling). When Rhodes and Annie finally get to make out, after lots of sexual tension, he is so delighted that he declares, mid-kiss, “I’m so glad this is happening!” That scene made me feel happy for Annie.

In conclusion, it is very clear not just that women wrote this movie, but that jokes based on the specific experiences of women, are funny. So go fuck yourself, Christopher Hitchens. No really, go fuck yourself Christopher Hitchens. The reason why there aren’t more great, funny, female-focused films out there has nothing to do with the inherent unfunniness of women. It has to do with fears within the industry that a female-centered comedy will die at the box office. So I beg you, people: go see this movie. Show Hollywood that this is the kind of film that everyonenot just women, wants to see.

For more great reasons to see this film, check out Annie Petersen’s post here.

I’m also interested in hearing your thoughts: did you enjoy Bridesmaids and why? Or do you feel its overrated? What are some other female-centered comedies or female comedians who make you laugh?

MAD MEN FINALE Recap

I was not able to watch the Mad Men finale on Sunday night because I was simply too tired to stay awake for it. The problem with writing a Mad Men finale recap late is that you might as well not write it at all. By now all of the die hard Mad Men fans have already gorged themselves on recaps and reviews of “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” And after reading some particularly insightful pieces ( for example James Poniewozik’s review on Time.com), I wonder how much I have to add.

But the thing about Mad Men is that it almost begs you to write about it. So gorged or not my friends, I hope you have some room for dessert:

1. The Divorce

If any TV couple should get a divorce, it’s Don and Betty Draper. In addition to lying to his wife for the last ten years about his family, his past and his real name, Don has systemically cheated on his wife. “Cheat” doesn’t even really encompass Don’s behavior over the last 3 seasons — he has pursued extramarital affairs with a persistency and zeal unmatched by even Three’s Company‘s Larry Dallas.

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And while Betty’s transgressions were less severe, she did have sex with a stranger in a bar bathroom and nurtured an emotional relationship with Henry Francis (who I do not trust AT ALL). As Don chides, “All along you’ve been building a life raft.” Oh Betty.

Don and Betty should break up and yet, watching them go through the various motions of the TV couple divorce — meeting with a lawyer, having “the talk” with their children — I couldn’t help but feel very sad. Indeed, when Don crawled into bed with Sally, who slept in Grandpa Gene’s old pull out cot  to be closer to her exiled Daddy (even though, as she states, “Gene’s room is creepy”), I was overwhelmed with emotion. There was hardly room for the two of them in that creaky little bed, but in he crawled, still wearing his suit. Don’s children seem to be his only link to his emotions — to the real person (is he called “Dick Whitman”?) under the Don Draper veneer — and so I see this divorce primarily as Don’s loss, rather than Betty’s. Though my guess is that Season 4 will reveal the toll that divorce is taking on Betty.

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Don assures his children, "It'll just be temporary"

2.  Joan!

I love Joan. Who doesn’t love Joan? And the moment that Don, Roger Sterling, Bert Cooper and Lane Pryce began to plot how they might abscond from Sterling Cooper with their accounts and files in tact I turned to my husband and said “Joan! They’re going to get Joan!” And when Joan returned she was once again wearing her iconic pen around her neck — a symbol of her power and independence that had been absent from her ample bosom for most of the season. Welcome back pen and welcome back Joan!

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Joan at full capacity

3. Peggy

I imagine that if you tried to hug Peggy Olsen she would be one of those people who stiffen and then pat you uncomfortably on the back. Peggy is not sentimental but, paradoxically, she is a successful copywriter because she understands sentiment all too well. Don even tells Peggy — in an attempt to woo her into joining his new firm — that she alone understands that “something terrible has happened” (which I took to mean “Peggy, you understand that people are fundamentally sad and you know how to exploit that sadness in order to sell them consumer goods”).

In this episode Peggy finally seemed to recognize her own worth as a copywriter and as an asset to Don. She initially tells Don to shove it when he tries to strong-arm her into leaving Sterling Cooper, making it clear that she is not like the other women in Don’s life. If he wants her, he’ll need to spill his guts. And when he shows up at her apartment, hat in hand, Peggy weeps. Sure, they were discussing work, but they were also discussing their complicated relationship. When Peggy asks Don if he will stop speaking to her if she refuses his offer, he counters, “No. I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you.” “Damn that Don Draper’s smooth!” was my husband’s reply to this. But I think Don was being sincere. Peggy is more than just a great copywriter to Don — they are each other’s double and Don finally admits that out loud in this episode. I hope their relationship is explored more in Season 4.

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Peggy joins Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce

4. The Lighting

With its superb cast, nuanced writing and slow burn narratives, it is easy to overlook Mad Men‘s understated formal style. This season — and especially in this finale — I have been captivated by the show’s Rembrandt lighting. For example, after Roger and Don convince Pete Campbell to leave Sterling Cooper they head to a bar to commiserate and plot their next move. The set is soaked in shadows, with pockets of brightness here and there. This lighting style is reminiscent of The Sopranos, which also used chiaroscuro lighting to depict a homosocial milieu. In this mix of light and darkness men discuss the things that (they think) they need to keep from their women: their sexual dalliances, their (dirty) business, their feelings.

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Another great moment in Mad Men lighting

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An all male milieu in The Sopranos

This is also the lighting that is frequently used in the flashback sequences to Don’s childhood. In the finale Don’s father is killed in the darkness of the stables, with father and son alone in the shadows.

5. The Music

Many recaps have already compared this finale to a heist movie (also here and here), with Don, Roger and Bert assembling a team of the Sterling Cooper’s finest in order to steal the dying company’s riches. Roger was firing off zingers like George Clooney and everyone looked like they were having a grand old time. This mood was enhanced by the jaunty music used throughout the episode. Is it my imagination or does this series rarely employ non-diegetic music during an episode (saving it instead for the finale scene/closing credits)? I found myself really noticing the music during these scenes, as if the show was winking at us, letting us know that this heist storyline was all campy fun. This music noticably disappears in the scenes with Betty and in Don’s flashbacks to his childhood, which are highly tragic.

Overall I found the Season 3 finale to be immensely satisfying — the perfect cap to a wonderful, nuanced, slow burn (NOT SLOW!) season. I can’t to see what Season 4 holds in store…

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Until Season 4, Don Draper...

The Sins of the Mother: Some Thoughts on MAD MEN’s Betty Draper

In the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris’ column, “TV’s Great Bad Mommies” was devoted to the “bad mommies” featured on Showtime’s Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara. These women “invite you to be appalled — because, as we all know, few guilty pleasures are as nastily satisfying as secretly ragging on somebody else’s parenting skills.” His column concludes with a nod to Mad Men‘s Betty Draper (January Jones), who “performs motherhood like a scripted role — and experiences parenting less as a fulfillment than as the steep price she agreed to pay for the life of privilege she once wanted.”

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I both agree and disagree with Harris’ assessment of Betty’s approach to motherhood. While it is tempting to see her as an ice queen, as a woman who merely endures her children in order to gain access to club lunches, furs and a maid, I think this view also discounts the richness of Betty’s character. Because Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) childhood is such a compelling mystery, it is easy to forget that Betty also experienced a traumatic childhood. Her story, like Don’s, is only revealed to the viewer in pieces.

We have learned, for example, that the late Mrs. Hofstadt was a beautiful, regal woman, but that she was also a real bitch; Betty discusses her with a mixture of reverence, fear, and resentment. Furthermore, as we discovered in last night’s episode, “The Arrangements,” Ruth Hofstadt took rather Draconian measures to ensure that her “fat” daughter lost weight (and kept it off). While sharing a tub of chocolate ice cream (with salt?) Gene (Ryan Cutrona) tells Sally (Kiernan Shipka) about how her Grandma Ruth would take her mother shopping and then make Betty walk all the way home. This parenting left an indelible mark on the adult Betty, who rarely puts anything other than vodka or cigarettes in her mouth. Oddly, Gene finds the story to be amusing, colorful even, rather than disturbing. He also urges Sally to become something other than a housewife, explaining that her grandmother did drafting work for an engineer in the 1920s. Smart women, it seems, should do things.

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While this exchange exists, in part, to show some of the disdain Gene harbors for his daughter’s shallow existence, it also illustrates that he is surprisingly progressive for a man of his age and time. He sees that Betty is living a life of unrealized potential (I can’t wait for the episode in which Betty receives a copy of The Feminine Mystique [1963]) and worries that Sally, an intelligent and curious child, will grow up to do the same. “You can really do something,” he tells Sally with sudden gravitas, “don’t let your mother tell you otherwise” (I originally had a link to this scene below but it has been removed by AMC. Phooey).

After purchasing a bag of peaches for his beloved granddaughter, Gene collapses in the A & P. Sally is naturally devastated by her grandfather’s death–the only adult to take a genuine interest in her has died. Therefore, when the news is delivered to Betty by a solemn police officer, it is fitting that neither of these two adults acknowledge Sally or her grief. Instead they leave her outside to sob alone in her ballet outfit. Later, when Sally rebukes her parents and aunt and uncle for laughing over a joke (she is too young to understand that laughter is often a part of grief), Betty chastises for her for being “hysterical.” “Go watch TV, Sally,” she commands. During this exchange the mother in me longed to reach my arms through the television screen and embrace Sally. And I wondered how I was supposed to feel about Betty and Don since they did not.

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Indeed, at these moments it is difficult not to hate Betty Draper. But we must remember the lonely childhood Betty must have endured walking home from the grocery store, wiping the tears from her chubby cheeks, wondering all the while how she might gain the approval of the cold woman waiting for her at home. Betty was raised to shut herself away from food and emotion–she can’t even bring herself to discuss her father’s will with him. “Can’t you keep it to yourself?” she pleads, “I’m your little girl.”

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This is not an excuse for Betty’s approach to mothering, but it is an explanation. Meanwhile, Sally is left to mourn her grandfather alone in front of the television, while images of self-immolating monks dance before her eyes.

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So what do you think? Is Betty meant to be a sympathetic character, or do the writers want us to hate her?