Watching Do You Like Hitchcock? reminded me of one of my favorite guilty pleasures. In much the same way as Britnee discovered The Boyfriend School on cable late one night, so did I stumble upon the nearly-forgotten romcom crime thriller Head Over Heels. Two parts standard turn of the century romcom, one part Rear Window, with just a dash of genderbent Zoolander, this second feature from director Mark Waters (following the darkly comical Parker Posey vehicle House of Yes) was despised by critics and the general public alike. Roger Ebert gave the film a scant 1.5 stars, and the film has an abysmal Rotten Tomatoes score of 10%. To put that in perspective, Dario Argento’s Phantom of the Opera, a movie so bad I would recommend screening it as punishment for unrepentant murderers were that not potentially a war crime, has a 13% approval rating. People hate hate hate this movie. And I love it.
Amanda Pierce (Monica Potter) has a talent for choosing terrible men. Born in Iowa, Amanda now works as a restoration artist in the Renaissance wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where her lesbian best friend Lisa (China Chow) warns her that if she devotes too much of her life to her work, she’ll end up like the three elderly spinsters who work in the same department. When she tries to surprise her boyfriend (a cameo by Timothy Olyphant), she catches him in bed with another woman and leaves him. She finds an unrealistically cheap room in an gorgeous apartment, and although she is initially skeptical of her roommates, a quartet of international fashion models, she bonds with and helps ground them as they help her become more outgoing and engaged with the world. They are: Holly (Tomiko Fraser), the one who skipped a free ride to Stanford to model; Jade (Shalom Harlow), the most approachable one; Candi “with an ‘i'” (Sarah O’Hare), an Australian woman who grew up on a farm under the eye of her creepy uncle and receives various facial surgeries throughout the film; and Roxana Milla Slasnakova (Ivana Miličević), a Russian woman with deadpan delivery.
Amanda has a meet cute with their neighbor, Jim Winston (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), that involves a Great Dane named Hamlet whose rambunctiousness is a recurring joke. Although she is immediately weak-in-the-knees attracted to the young fashion entrepreneur, she and her four roommates spend some time watching him through his windows from their living room, Rear Window style, because she assumes he must have a hidden flaw if she is attracted to him. After several potential negatives turn out to be misunderstandings, the models convince Amanda to crash a party that they see Jim preparing for. The two eventually hit it off, and Amanda returns home to share her experience with Candi (unable to attend after her most recent surgery), only to watch in horror as Jim apparently murders one of his guests after the party is over.
Here’s where the movie really kicks into high gear, as Amanda and her entourage of supermodels must take up their own investigation after the police fail to take them seriously. This includes more Hitchcockian hijinx, including Holly’s frantic attempts to alert the other women that Jim is in the hallway while she watches them search his place for clues, culminating in a scene where Jade, Candi, and Roxana must hide in the shower while Jim takes a really gassy bathroom break. It’s not the highest form of humor, but it’s toilet humor that works somehow. Of course, once Amanda is finally convinced that she can trust Jim, it turns out that he really isn’t who he says he is.
It’s no surprise that Waters would go on to direct Mean Girls just a few years after this, as that film has a similar tone, although the differences in sensibilities between the two make it obvious that one film was written by Tina Fey while the other was initially conceived by the chuckleheads behind There’s Something About Mary. Still, this is a movie about unlikely friendships between women who empower each other as much as it is about a woman who finally finds Mr. Perfect, and there’s a lot to be said for that. The supermodel characters could easily be stereotypical airheads who are always the butt of jokes, and although that description isn’t entirely inaccurate, the film never treats them disrespectfully or cruelly, and their specific knowledge ends up being critical in the solution to the crime at the end of the film. Although they are beautiful, vain, and err on the side of ditziness, they are nonetheless good people who care about Amanda and genuinely want the best for her, and it’s refreshing to see a group of attractive women in a movie written and directed by men who don’t conform to being characterized as catty or combative.
This is also a very witty movie, which I suspect is part of the reason it was so poorly received upon release. The filmmakers have said that they conceived the movie as a deliberate throwback to stylized comedies of yore, with urbane and carefully composed dialogue delivered amidst slapstick visuals and ridiculous setpieces. With regards to the dialogue, Miličević is obviously the MVP here, as her background in stand-up comedy makes her perfect as the punchline spouting Russian sexpot. Potter is a surprise comedian, as she generally plays the straight man against whom the jokester acts out (Patch Adams probably being the best and worst demonstration of this); here, she gets in on the action with her rapid-fire witticisms and her willingness to go all the way with her slapstick. Amanda tumbles down stairs, gets tackled by a giant dog multiple times, and takes a dive from a catwalk, and it’s absolutely hilarious.
The verbal jokes are also great, and I found myself laughing out loud all alone while rewatching this movie, which rarely happens. The models grow very tense when Amanda mentions that her boyfriend was cheating on her with a lingerie model, and their palpable relief upon learning none of them was responsible is great (Jade: “I’m so glad we don’t have to deal with that… again.”). Every character gets to be funny, even the villain’s henchman at the end who is present when the gang realizes that the mafia isn’t laundering money but smuggling diamonds (Jim: “If this had been a rhinestone I could have bitten straight through it instead of chipping my tooth!”), who realizes this is the reason why the mafioso never let him take one of the diamond-encrusted dresses “To give to [his] girlfriend! Or [his] wife!” This is also a surprisingly queer movie, especially for a film from 2001. Beyond Amanda’s teen sweetheart (whom she catches kissing another guy at homecoming) and her friendship with Lisa, there’s also Jim’s building super, who lets the women into his apartment in exchange for Roxana’s leopard print dress, which we see him wear with great delight.
Head Over Heels is not a great movie, but it’s also not nearly as terrible as critical contemporary reception would lead you to believe. It’s a delightful bit of romcom fluff with enough self-awareness and love for Hitchcock to carry you past the wayposts that all romcoms seem to have. In only 86 minutes, Freddie Prinze, Jr. will sweep me off my feet–I mean, sweep Monica Potter off her feet, and you’ll get a fair number of chuckles from it. If you catch it on cable late one night, give it a chance; just try not to wake your housemates with your giggles.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond