Unexpected Horror in the Romance Novelist Rom-Coms She-Devil (1989) & The Boyfriend School (1990)

While we were discussing September’s Movie of the Month, the Steve Guttenberg/Jami Gertz will-they-won’t-they comedy from Hell The Boyfriend School, we had a hard time pinning down the film’s exact genre. Ostensibly a traditional rom-com, the film had some painfully awkward stretches of cringe comedy that clouded the issue. Even stranger yet, the romance novelist character played by Shelley Long was a terrifying, overbearing presence that overstepped her bounds as a quirky sister/side-character & ventured into some truly horrific torture-tactics territory. Her meddling was at least somewhat well-intentioned; she wanted to help her brother, played by Guttenberg, recover from a near-fatal battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma (told you it gets rough) by reshaping him into an alpha male biker trope straight out of one of her romance novels. The problem is that the transformation is emotionally painful for The Gutte & it leads to a really nasty line of deception that he finds difficult to escape once the ball gets rolling. Shelley Long’s romance novelist is the source of all the film’s non-Hodgkin’s related conflict & creates an amped up level of dread that’s not typically present in a traditional, lighthearted rom-com, making for one very strange little movie.

While The Boyfriend School isn’t exceptionally unique in its genre play that takes dimestore romance novel tropes into unexpected territory, it is at the very least part of a small crowd. Perhaps the most well-known romance novel-themed comedies are the Robert Zemeckis films Romancing the Stone & its little-loved sequel Jewel of the Nile, but those are more oriented towards action comedy (as is typical with Zemeckis) than the unusual discomfort & horror of The Boyfriend School. I could only find one picture that explores unexpected horror in a romance novel-themed romcom similar to the dread Shelley Long’s meddling creates in The Boyfriend School. 1989’s She-Devil, an underloved gem starring Meryl Streep, Roseanne Barr, and Ed Begley Jr., injects a surreal sense of horror into the romcom format, at the same time making sure to lampoon the very idea of romance novels, as well as the illusion & cruelty of unfair beauty standards and the competitive wedges that are driven between women who would benefit much more from a sense of camaraderie. She-Devil may, in fact, be a far supreior film than The Boyfriend School, because its writing is so pointed & satirical that its horror can only be read as intentional, whereas the terror of The Boyfriend School sometimes seems to exist outside what the film’s creators intended. I assume that we were supposed to leave The Boyfriend School feeling great that The Gutte got the girl, but I was honestly more in a state of shock & disbelief than anything, whereas in She-Devil the horror element is promised right there in the title.

She-Devil stars Roseanne Barr in the titular role as a frumpy housewife who goes on a violent quest for revenge when her husband leaves her for a wealthy romance novelist played by Meryl Streep. Streep reveals herself to be hilariously adept at playing the butt of the joke here & the movie has a field day poking fun at her in a much more obvious way than The Boyfriend School attacks Shelley Long’s very similar antagonist. First introduced as “The Reigning Royal Highness of Romance” by none other than Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous‘ Robin Leach (who also provides voice over work for the film’s trailer), Streep’s bodice-ripping novelist Mary Fisher is a genteel bore with more than thirty novels to her name, a boy toy butler who does more boytoying than butling, and a vast fortune she vainly tries to enjoy despite her crippling loneliness. In a very early plot development, she seduces the husband of Roseanne’s housewife frump (played by Ed Begley, Jr.) under the guise of hiring him as her accountant. Begley’s accountant is hilariously dedicated to seeing the world in terms of his profession, constantly making offhand remarks about electric bills, tax writeoffs, and balanced checkbooks whenever a vague opportunity arises. When he finally breaks things off with his wife (who was knowingly, but patiently suffering through his adultery) he describes himself as having four assets in life (his home, his family, his career, and his freedom) & exactly one liability: her. That alone would be cruel enough, but he punctuates the conversation with this ugly diatribe: “You’re a bad mother, a lousy wife, and a terrible cook. In fact, have you looked in a mirror recently? I don’t even think you’re a woman. Do you know what you are? You’re a she-devil!”

Watching Roseanne’s much-humiliated wife suffer through this indignity is a horrifying moment, something the film is smart to immediately acknowledge. After her husband’s abusive tirade a visible change takes place in her. She turns to her make-up mirrors, which provide an amusing sort of fun house effect, and Mario Bava-esque horror movie lighting takes over the screen. She’s shown with glowing red eyes & accompanied by fire. Her transformation into the titular She-Devil is very much the kind of classic horror movie theatrics you’d expect to accompany the birth of the Frankenstein monster. This is also when the mood of the film shifts. No longer feeling loyal to a man that has taken her for granted, the She-Devil systematically destroys every one of her husband’s assets (his home, his family, his carreer, his freedom) until he’s broken down to a literal prisoner & not even Mary Fisher wants to pick at the crumbs. To her credit, the She-Devil does not attack Mary Fisher directly, although she does have wicked thoughts about her, like “I hope your pink palace crumbles into the sea. I hope your delicate white skin breaks out in hives and your shiny blond hair falls out at the root.” Instead, she attacks the verbally abusive, adulterous man that takes advantage of both Fisher & herself and even goes as far as to start an employment agency that gives all of the other disenfranchised, unglamorous, non-Mary Fishers of the world a chance to stand up for themselves in a society that’s systemically stacked against them.

Despite the horror movie lighting & the “She-Devil” moniker she’s awarded, Roseanne’s protagonist is actually pretty inspiring. Even though she’s presented in the context of becoming a monster, her transformation makes for a subtly feminist revenge-fantasy spin on the romcom genre that feels almost like a spiritual opposite of the deception & violation that’s played for uncomfortable laughs in The Boyfriend School. Unlike The Boyfriend School, She-Devil adopts a woman’s POV and has pointed things to say about sexual politics & the nature of romance novels as an art & a product (at one point calling them “nothing more than softcore porn for bored housewives”) that extend beyond the basic jab that they’re silly. When a woman complains in the film that, “Men get away with murder, you know. It seems like if you’re a woman, there’s just no justice in the world” the evil She-Devil of the title refuses to accept those terms & (gasp!) makes her own justice. The horror! Besides these thematic charms there’s also some great visual playfulness, like direct references to Psycho & What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a scene transition that cuts from a blowjob to a violent cucumber chopping, and a brief appearance from GLOW: The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Both The Boyfriend School & She-Devil subvert the romance novel genre by portraying it as a horror show (it’s surprisingly rare that it’s portrayed in rom-coms at all), but The Boyfriend School‘s subversion feels cruel & unintentional while She-Devil‘s is much more winkingly transgressive. They make for an interesting double feature either way, one with much more terror & discomfort than you’d expect from a pair of late 80s rom-coms.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s The Boyfriend School, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Boyfriend School (1990)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon and (newcomers) Erin & Boomer watch The Boyfriend School (1990).

Britnee: As a fan of uncomfortably terrible films, I was more than excited to select The Boyfriend School (aka Don’t Tell Her It’s Me) for September’s Movie of the Month. This is a film that was washed away with the other thousands of unsuccessful romantic comedies of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, but it’s truly a diamond in the rough. What makes The Boyfriend School stand out from the rest is, well, just about everything. The film’s cast includes the crème de la crème of chintzy actors: Steve Guttenberg, Shelley Long, Jami Gertz, and Kyle MacLachlan. Who can resist a line-up like that? Throw in a crap ton of cringe worthy, knee-slapping moments, and you have one hell of a movie.

The film follows the sad, sad life of Gus Kubicek (Guttenberg), a depressed cartoon artist that just won a battle against Hodgkin’s disease. His overbearing sister, Lizzie (Long), is a romance novelist, and she is disturbingly obsessed with getting him a girlfriend. She decides to prey on a young journalist, Emily (Gertz), and attempts to force Emily and Gus to become a couple. It’s extremely difficult to sit through the first half of this film without doing a couple of facepalms. Every ounce of Gus’s embarrassment and humiliation seeps from the screen and into your soul, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. Lizzie creates a persona for Gus, and he morphs from a chubby, hairless Average Joe into a hunky biker from New Zealand named Lobo Marunga. Guttenberg ends up looking like Mad Max and George Michael’s love child, and it’s absolutely amazing.

Brandon, what are your feelings on the love story between Gus and Emily? Should she have ran after him or away from him?

Brandon: Discomfort is certainly the story at the heart of this film & Emily The Love Interest had so, so many discomforting reasons to run away from Gus that the movie was honestly pretty gutsy to go for the traditional romcom ending at the airport than the much more appropriate option of a murder-suicide. At the risk of spoiling a decades old Steve Guttenberg vehicle for anyone who could possibly care, let’s get this out of the way: Gus violated Emily. He doesn’t come clean about not being Lobo until the morning after they slept together. That’s pretty fucked. The only time Emily met Gus as himself he was in full Uncle Fester cosplay (because of the cancer, God help our souls) and the two of them were force-fed jellyfish salad (a dish Emily humorously describes as “chewy tears”) in a scene that makes Shelley Long’s character out to be less of a romance novelist & more of a torturer whose techniques rival those of Vlad the Impaler or the Holy Inquisition. Even if Emily saw something in Gus through the façade of Lobo Marunga, she should at least have ran far away to escape his sister’s evil clutches.

The strange thing is that even though Gus is a certifiable monster for not coming clean before doing the deed, it’s still difficult not to feel bad for him because he starts the film as a visible monster. In the opening scenes Gus is a Hunchback of Notre Dame type who’s locked himself away in his seaside cabin to draw cartoons & die alone so his Jack Russell terrier can pick at his bones. It very well may have been his sister that motivated him to win his battle with cancer, but she uses his extra time on Earth to remind him of how sad & ugly the disease has made him as a means to try to whip him back into shape & “get himself out there”. No one comes across looking good in this exchange. Gus is is a horrifying shell of a man. His sister is a Type A sociopath who takes great glee in playing God. Emily is an astute journalist who can’t figure out that this dude (that she has met before) who is most definitely not from New Zealand is not from New Zealand. There are very few traces of dignity or humanity to be found in this film & the resulting cringe fest is oddly fascinating.

Erin, am I exaggerating here? Is this kind of absence of dignity or recognizable humanity normal for a romcom or does The Boyfriend School push the pained awkwardness into unusually morbid territory?

Erin: I have got to agree that this movie definitely pushed the boundaries of taste, even for a self-consciously cheesy romcom.  I’d almost categorize it as a cringe comedy, instead.  I can only hope that the actors protested their roles in this wreck of a movie.  It’s set in a strange and unrealistic world, a caricature of a reality populated by caricatures.  Yes.  Undignified and inhuman and inhumane.  The most real character is Annabelle, Gus’s toddler niece, who has a speech delay and has somehow survived Lizzie’s negligent and neurotic parenting.

Maybe we’re missing something with this movie, or there was a disagreement between the editing team and the director.  If the movie as watched is the intended product, then The Boyfriend School might be a comprehensible work if the watcher forgets the romantic comedy genre and watches it as an exploration of the universe of romance novels.  It has all of the hallmarks of a trashy novel: unrealistic universe mechanics, tragic back stories, completely unbelievable plot turns, romantically picturesque settings, unethical sexual encounters . . .

Boomer, what do you think? Were we mislead by marketing?  Is there any redeeming quality to be found at all in this movie?

Boomer: It took me nearly a week to track down a copy of this movie, and the copy that I did find was the kind of bare-bones affair rushed onto the market in the early days of  DVD to fluff up home video collections; in fact, it has one solitary “special” feature: the theatrical trailer, which I watched before the movie, out of habit. I’m not sure if it was the American market trailer, since it features the alternate title, Don’t Tell Her It’s Me, but the narrative outlined in the promo recapitulates the film’s plot fairly well: unlucky man is made over into a precognitive Dog the Bounty Hunter cosplayer by his sister in order to win the heart of the girl of his dreams. The trailer does make Kyle McLachlan’s Trout character out to be more of an innocent in the end of his relationship, rather than the two dimensional cuckolder that he is in the film, and it fails to show that Gus will end up, as Brandon notes, violating Emily; the marketing is pretty straightforward in broad strokes and (mostly) in the details. At the end of the movie, I thought to myself, “Yes, that was certainly a movie.” The 1990s were the decade of the romcom, a short period in which so many films of the genre were made that the concept itself was subject to so much dilution and derivativeness that Meg Ryan went from starring in such straightforward love stories as falling for a rival storeowner in a remake of The Shop Around the Corner to being swept off her feet by angels and handsome timelost scientific pioneers (that was actually 2001, but you get the picture). As a cultural artifact, The Boyfriend School is charming in its simplicity and straightforwardness, if not necessarily in its subject matter.

As Emily says to Lizzie near the end of the film, the former hates the latter in the abstract, but can’t hate her in the flesh. I would wager that this is true of virtually any character played by Shelley Long; she’s just an intensely likable actress with a great sense of comic timing, and it’s hard to be certain that the enjoyment I got out of this movie would have been present without her. Long brings an effervescent effusiveness to a role that would likely play as more malicious had Lizzie been portrayed by another actress. Jami Gertz is also quite charming here, despite the fact that her character is paper-thin. During the time it takes Gus to grow a full head of hair, learn to poorly impersonate a Kiwi, lose those horrible face prosthetics that are supposed to simulate illness, and sweat off all the cotton stuffed around his waistline, what do we see Emily doing? Shaving her legs. We don’t see anything of her relationship with Trout, or her working on a different story (at one point Gus does read an article of hers about snakehandling, the first paragraph of which is actually about that religious practice, while the rest is advertising copy about desktop publishing software–great job there, propmaster), and yet I felt her character was likable in her sweetness, if a bit obtuse, even before the film felt the need to go full Liz Lemon with her mud-sprayed, torn dress airport run. Even Gus, a handsome creep played with discomfiting ease by Guttenberg, comes off as hatable in the abstract but not the flesh, and, to his credit, Gus is only at Emily’s the night of the violation to come clean about his double identity, although he stops putting forth an effort on this front almost immediately, for the sake of plot contrivance.

If anything, it was the tight plotting of this movie that struck me as a pleasant surprise, especially in a film with such low stakes, so to speak. In contrast to a lot of the romcoms that followed in the next ten or so years, there’s not a single wasted line or moment, and there are a lot of subtle touches and ironies that I found to be inspired, or at least novel. The film introduces the “Unkow” clue and the fact that Lizzie’s dog only likes Gus early in the movie, with a kind of deft subtlety that belies the over-the-top facade of a somewhat high concept story. Lizzie is constantly trying to impress upon Anabelle the potential consequences of her adorable but dangerous random childlike actions, but she fails to foresee the consequences of her own meddling in things that she shouldn’t. She even mentions that she has to get Gus to the metaphorical last page of the bodice-ripping romance she’s constructing in her mind; for her, what matters is getting to that final paragraph of sexual conquest, and what happens afterwards is irrelevant because, in her novels, nothing happens next. It’s a formulaic, cookie-cutter movie, but with the kind of foreshadowing and payoff that you wouldn’t expect from a movie sharing shelf space with other forgettable fare like Something to Talk About, Addicted to Love, or Simply Irresistible (why were so many of these movies named after songs, anyway?).

Anyway, I’ve rambled long enough about a movie that’s, by and large, pretty inconsequential, despite featuring a brief scene between Beth Grant and a life-size demonstration doll with questionably accurate anatomy. What about you, Britnee? How do you see this film fitting into the milieu that was the romcom ocean of last millennium’s last years? Is it a precursor, a relic, or a non-starter?


Britnee:
Even though I really enjoy this film (for all the wrong reasons), I would have to say that when compared to the romcom scene of the 90s, it’s nothing more than a dud. The film does try hard to be great by playing on the popular “don’t judge a book by its cover” love story, where the nerd gets the hot girl in the end, but as we all know, it leans more towards being a psycho in disguise horror-type film. What really hurt this film (among other things) and caused it to be a romcom failure was the hard-to-believe romance between Gus and Emily. You can’t have a solid romantic comedy without the romance. When she initially meets Gus as himself, she has no romantic or friendly feelings for him, and Gus merely makes a few compliments on her “playboy model” looks. What causes him to go after Emily is his twisted sister, who pushes him to win Emily’s heart for her own sick pleasure. A couple of heartfelt exchanges after Lizzie’s disastrous dinner would’ve made all the difference. Even when Gus becomes Lobo, there still doesn’t seem to be much going on between the two. None of Gus’s personality shines through in his Lobo character. He does have a couple of vocal slipups, but he doesn’t give Emily a reason to fall for him, which really ruins the creditability of the “romantic” ending scene. He violated her and she didn’t really care for him to begin with, so why is she going after him? Big mistake. Huge.

I first came across this film on late-night cable, and the main reason I tuned in was because I noticed that Shelley Long’s name was in the TV Guide description. I’m a huge Shelley Long fan, so I wasn’t going to miss this one. Strangely enough, it wasn’t Shelley that won me over; it was Guttenberg’s horrible New Zealander caricature. In real life, Guttenberg looks, sounds, and acts like someone who would own a candy shop or run a summer camp, so seeing him head to toe in leather, whispering to himself, “I am Lobo. I hunt alone. I need no one,” is beyond hilarious. Even when he’s plain old Gus, there’s just something about his signature Guttenberg mannerisms that make the character unforgettable.

Brandon, do you think Guttenberg did well in his role as Lobo/Gus? Does he contribute this film’s failure or is he without blame?

Brandon: Here’s where I have to cop to genuinely enjoying Steve Guttenberg. It helps that I am just a few years too young to remember a time when he was this unlikely, but oddly ubiquitous leading man that was legally required to star in every movie offered to him no matter the quality. I have the fortunate position of remembering The Gutte as an odd cultural footnote. It’s fascinating to me to see him play parts like the mayor with a secret on Veronica Mars or the pot-smoking DJ in the Village People movie or even his own charming self on Party Down. He’s not a particularly versatile actor, but he is a pleasantly goofy one. Somewhere along the line, I’ve somehow learned to love The Gutte, God help me.

I think that’s why it hurts so damn much to see him in the cancer survivor Uncle Fester make-up, the embarrassing leather daddy New Zealander chaps, and the lowly position of Shelley Long’s whipping boy in The Boyfriend School. I felt as if the film were a punishment someone was putting Guttenberg through to atone for the sins of his mid 80s omnipresence. Throughout the endless parade of embarrassments (especially in the first half of the film), my brain was screaming “This is Hell! This is Hell! Set him free!” The Gutte may not have been exactly deserving of his ludicrously overblown success, but surely this punishment was a little rough for even him. Y’all were right to call The Boyfriend School out for being more of a cringe comedy or a psycho in disguise horror than a romcom, but I find it also plays like an act of penance. Even in the film’s trailer, which Boomer mentioned earlier, where the Gutte is talking directly to the camera (looking like his normal, healthy, non-Kiwi self for longer than he does in the entire film), I can feel the menacing presence of someone slightly off-screen holding a gun to his head & pointing at the cue cards.

Erin, do you think it’s time that we as a society let Steve Guttenberg back into our hearts? Now that he’s served his time in the squalid prison of The Boyfriend School, what kinds of roles (if any) would you like to see him play?

Erin: I can understand how The Gutte earned his spot in the limelight – his completely non-threatening, boy-next-door good looks, his passable skill with goofy comedy, and his string of not-too-terrible 80s movies.  Not to discredit what I’m sure was lots of work, but it seems like The Gutte benefited a bit from right-place-right-time syndrome.

His current career has been hit and miss . . . well, actually, after appearing in Veronica Mars ten years ago, mostly miss.  His latest credit seems to be for Lavalantula.  If you are thinking that this is a move about giant and horrifying lava spewing tarantulas, then you are absolutely correct.  Could it be a hidden gem in the land of self-aware, poorly produced B movies?  Could it be the movie we’ve all been waiting for to watch at 3:00 am while eating a whole bag of pizza rolls?  Maybe.  But probably not.

I’d love to see Steve Guttenberg reclaim his career with a well produced family comedy (The Gutte as a slightly befuddled dad? Sure!), then maybe take on slightly more adult dark comedy roles that explore the world of the aging baby-boomers as they navigate a world vastly different from their heyday.  The Gutte takes on Tinder and deals with the death of his close friends?  Is that past The Gutte’s range?  I’d like to think not.

Boomer, do you see any room in our current movie environment for a Gutte-back?  Are his current roles due to some fault in talent, natural Hollywood career trajectory, or are we simply seeing a man taking the projects that make him happy?

Boomer: There is something to be said for Guttenberg’s natural charm. I, too, remember his sinister turn on Veronica Mars as yet another in a long line of adults who couldn’t be trusted, a wealthy man whose privilege made him feel above morality; somehow, this role felt well suited for him, despite his charm in movies like Police Academy, the Three Men and a Little X flicks and even, God help me, Cocoon. As an actor, he has a charisma that helps him sell characters that are despicable, either intentionally (as on Mars) or unintentionally (as in The Boyfriend School). Earlier, I praised Long, saying that another actress in the role would have made Lizzie seem more sinister, but that dubious accolade could be ascribed to Guttenberg just as easily, and his contribution to making Gus likable in spite of the character’s flaws can’t really be ignored.

Which is not to say that I’m suffering from a lack of Guttenberg in my life, at least not in the way that I miss seeing Shelley Long in vehicles that show off her charm (her occasional appearances on Modern Family notwithstanding). But I could stand to see him in something new. He could put in an appearance as relatively obscure character given new prominence in an upcoming Marvel film, for instance; there’s no dearth of those coming out, and it could give him the visibility he needs to resurrect his career. Personally, I think I’d like to see him in a role more like Michael Keaton’s in Birdman, where he tackles a thinly veiled version of one of his former characters in a serious, postmodern way. The Boyfriend Academy, perhaps? Or maybe Three Men and a Divorcee? If the Vacation movies aren’t sacred, perhaps nothing is.

Lagniappe

Brandon: When I said earlier that there’s very little humanity for the audience to identify with in this film, I may have been selling Gus’ aforementioned, nonverbal niece Annabelle a little short.  Known to her mother by the hideously cruel nickname “Piglet”, Annabelle is a bizarre collection of quirks just like every other character in the film, but she does have the very relatable impulse to escape the confines of The Boyfriend School‘s sadistic universe (and the evil clutches of Shelley Long) by ending her own life. Whether she’s shoving metal into electrical sockets or ingesting toxic household products, I totally understand Piglet’s desire to leave a world that can be this unkind to a man as simple and as goofy as The Gutte. Thank you for speaking up for the audience, Piglet, (even if you couldn’t use your words) when you repeatedly asked that they shuffle off this cruelest of mortal coils.

Britnee: Something I forgot to mention in the Swampchat was the short, strange appearance of zydeco music in the film. Shortly after Gus enrolls in Lizzie’s “boyfriend school” and starts getting into shape, all the fun 80s film pop is set aside to allow a few minutes of zydeco. Watching Guttenberg run to zydeco made my little Cajun heart very happy, but it really threw me for a loop. It was such a weird choice of music for a running scene, but I guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised because, afterall, this is a weird movie. A weird movie with a little heart and loads of discomfort.

Boomer: I was surprised to learn that the screenwriter of The Boyfriend School, Sara Bird, was also the author of the book on which the film was based, and she was named by The Austin Statesman as Austin’s best author in 2011. It’s hard to conceptualize that this accolade could be applied when School is, overall, a fairly mediocre movie, but I can see that the tight plotting of the film probably mirrors a more complex structure in the original novel. That having been said, this film gave us Beth Grant tonguing a lifesize mannequin, so it’s not without some value. I probably never would have seen this movie were it not for this Swampchat, and I can’t say that it changed my life, but it did give me a new perspective on the genre, so I’d have to say I appreciated the opportunity to view this little oddity.

Erin:  The Boyfriend School is definitely a strange movie.  I think that it definitely seems like a novel in the characterization and pacing.  Purely speculation, but I think that some of the creepiness would be mitigated if presented in written form since we would be able to understand some of the thought processes of the characters.  It’s actually pretty interesting for a self-referential trashy movie.

Upcoming Movie of the Months
October: Erin presents Innocent Blood (1992)
November: Boomer presents The Class of 1999 (1989)
December: Brandon presents The Independent (2000)

-The Swampflix Crew