Gregory’s Girl (1980)

The opening scene of Bill Forsyth’s cult-classic teen comedy Gregory’s Girl sets audience expectations for something much crasser and more irritating than what’s ultimately delivered. A group of horny high school nerds spy on a nurse via telescope as she changes out of her uniform in a hospital window. They hoot & guffaw at the shared sight of naked breasts, as if it were the opening to a Scottish version of Porky’s. It’s incredible, then, that the film that follows is such an earnestly sweet, heartwarming examination of pubescent awkwardness, not a ribald romp about bouncing boobies & lost virginities. In fact, the main thrust of Gregory’s Girl is in reforming the social & sexual awkwardness of those boys instead of drooling over women’s bodies along with them. It’s less of a teen sex comedy than it is a romantic heist film, wherein a gang of small-town Scottish girls conspire to hijack & reform the sexual attentions of the neighborhood boys so they can walk away with more charming, better socialized dates than the drooling idiots we’re introduced to.

Like with most eccentric comedies of the era, the characters who populate Gregory’s Girl are each fixated on a singular personal obsession: photography, cooking, window washing, soccer, etc. The gangly teenager Gregory’s obsession just happens to be another human being, as he develops a major crush on a girl on his soccer team who’s a much better athlete (and much better socialized) than him. The conspiratorial heist portion of the film involves a group of fellow teens breaking Gregory out of his fixation on this girl, who’s way more interested in playing soccer than she is in his goofball ass. There’s often an all-or-nothing singular obsession to hormone-addled teenage crushes, and most of the film dwells on that period of horse-blinders fixation. Watching Gregory become deprogrammed from his own romantic self-brainwashing is a major relief from the dumbass teen-boy behavior of the first hour, and it’s outright miraculous a movie this small in scope & budget taps into an observation so sweetly profound.

It’s a testament to John Gordon Sinclair’s central performance that Gregory remains an adorable goof long before he’s deprogrammed. His awkwardness in his own acne-riddled skin and unwieldy noodle body is consistently hilarious from the start, even when he’s just failing to look comfortable & confident sitting in a chair or crossing a road. He plays the part with the same energetic juvenalia as a Pee-wee Herman or Mr. Bean performance. It’s an absolutely lovely caricature of pubescent awkwardness, perfectly capturing the adorable but embarrassing stretch where you don’t know what to do with your body or your heart. The low-key absurdist humor of the world he awkwardly navigates also reminded me a lot of Better Off Dead & Rock n Roll High School—two of my all-time favorite high school comedies—in the matter-of-fact inclusion of students smoking pipes & playing chess in the boys room or aimlessly wandering the halls in a penguin costume as if it were a standard matter of course. Those subtly absurdist delights are just as difficult to convey to the uninitiated as the romantic sleight-of-hand of the film’s heist climax, but it’s movie magic alchemy all the same – turning horny teen-boy awkwardness into pure Scottish charm.

-Brandon Ledet

Is It Just Me? (2010)

When I went on my writing retreat a few months back, I didn’t come straight home after my internet-free cabin sojourn. For what was supposed to be two nights but ended up being only one, I made my way to the outlying areas near San Marcos to a separate isolated location, and that place did have internet, and a Roku TV, which I had never encountered before. I found my way to the Tubi app and was shocked by the width and breadth of its LGBTQIA content, although while scrolling through the trailers that the app featured, I realized why: 70% of them were releases from either TLA Releasing or Breaking Glass*, which both had major runs in the post-Brokeback pre-Trump era of independent filmmaking, churning out gay flicks at a rate faster than Blumhouse can pump out installments of Into the Dark. Most of them … are bad. I imagine they’re also very cheap to license, especially if you’re looking to fill out a free streaming service. Releases from these distributors are rarely just bad movies, they’re bad art not in the sense that they’re bad at being art, but in the sense that it’s a true, pure, intense look into the soul of the writers and directors (in this genre/time period, they are often one and the same), poorly made. These films are inscribed by limitations on their quality in every way, from material to performance to equipment. Most YouTubers now have better hardware than a lot of TLA releases from that time, and it shows. Sometimes, however, they manage to break through and somehow manage to be better than the sum of their parts.

I didn’t end up watching any of those movies in the hills outside of San Marcos. I happened to be driving through (and having to kill time while also following strict COVID protocol) on the day when Texas State was having their graduation. I had hoped to set up somewhere on or along the riverwalk to get some more writing done or finish reading Alias Grace, but all of the picnic tables were covered in plastic wrap to discourage congregation. After walking around the park for a while, I drove around aimlessly, seeing lots of young graduates and their families (following less strict COVID protocols) and ending up on-campus accidentally, where people who now seem impossibly young to me were leaving their dorms and loading up their cars to go home for Christmas. In that cabin just a few short hours later, I couldn’t bring myself to watch dated, ugly movies from the time when I was that same age, a time that was such a short season ago but which was nonetheless a completely different world, one without marriage equality or queer intersectionality or that extra decade of distance from the AIDS crisis. But knowing that they were out there meant that, eventually, I would be drawn back to them, moth to flame.

I recently watched three such films chosen at random. As luck would have it, the first one was a Breaking Glass film and the second was a TLA release, with the third actually coming from Wolfe Releasing, which is cut from the same cloth but seems to have a … let’s say “classier” output. All three also contained go-go dancing/dancers prominently and extensively, which was not something I sought out as a thematic throughline, but that encapsulates this era in gay cinema better than the previous two paragraphs did, doesn’t it? (Not better than the footnote, though.) The first of these, from Breaking Glass, captures what I think of when I think about their other distributions: a lead actor aiming for deadpan and missing, landing in the realm of dull surprise; a gay twist on one of the nine basic well-worn romcom templates (in this case Cyrano de Bergerac); a cast consisting mostly of actors with only two other credits and no headshot on IMDb; and one older gay delivering withering barbs and alluding to youthfully sleeping with Tennessee Williams. You know, a tale as old as time.

Is it Just Me? opens with our hero protagonist waxing fauxlosophical in his Carrie Bradshaw-esque lifestyle article/voice over about wanting more out of life than sexual liberation, although he doesn’t phrase it that way. Meet Blaine (Nicholas Downs), who writes pseudonymously as the “Invisible Man” for USA ToGay, his pen name reflecting how he feels in the gay community of L.A. Part of what makes him feel invisible is that he shares his living space with super hunky Cameron (Adam Huss), a go-go dancer who’s forever hooking up with someone, and against whom Blaine compares himself and falls short. “Is it just me,” Blaine asks his readers, “or am I the only one in this town who’s interested in more than what’s behind a man’s zipper?” Blaine has a meet cute with handsome, guitar-playing Texan Xander (David Loren) at a local cafe, and the two coincidentally start chatting online shortly thereafter, then graduate to spending hours talking on the phone. Xander reveals that, improbably, he actually reads Blaine’s column and, even more impossibly, he likes it. When Xander shares his photo after the two get to know each other better virtually, Blaine is delighted by the serendipity of the situation, until he realizes that Cameron had left himself logged into the dating site when Blaine got online, so Xander thinks Blaine is Cameron. Whoops.

This is actually a cute premise, and I wish that I could say that the movie pulls it off, but it doesn’t quite pass muster. Downs’s credits list a lot of lead performances in short films and web series and bit roles in well-known properties (I feel like, if you’re reading this site, you know exactly what I mean when I say that he’s has the credit “Bellman” on NCIS: Los Angeles and a lot of credits in the exact same vein; you know what I’m talking about). The one that stood out to me most was a short entitled Orion Slave Girls Must Die!!!, obviously about Star Trek; I watched the trailer for that and he’s not giving the same flat performance in those clips as he is in Is it Just Me? In this, he delivers every line in an inflectionless monotone, and it seems to be a deliberate character choice, but—no disrespect to the actor—it doesn’t work. When a man in a bar flirtatiously asks Blaine what his sign is and he replies “Exit” and leaves, he doesn’t seem witty or sharp; he seems like a dick. Contributing to this is Blaine’s actions and attitudes regarding his desire for a monogamous, traditional relationship; that’s a perfectly fine goal and there’s nothing wrong with wanting that (I certainly do), but Blaine expresses his frustration with his lack of a solid relationship through slut-shaming his roommate and other queer folks who are still sowing their wild oats. Consider this exchange:

Antonio: “I totally wanna write for USA ToGay. I’m working on this sample column called ‘Circuit News.’ It’s important news for, you know, circuit people in the crowd.”
Blaine: “That’s a great idea. Another guide to where you can find cheap, empty, unfulfilled, drug-induced sex.”

Blaine: “That’s a great idea. Another guide to where you can find cheap, empty, unfulfilled, drug-induced sex.”

Blaine. Dude. Just keep that shit to yourself.

Gay romances of this era always have a lady best friend for the lead, and this one is no different. I honestly can’t tell if Michelle (Michelle Laurent) is intentionally comically toxic or just utterly superfluous. Her only role in the film is to give Blaine bad advice while they’re jogging. If it’s intentionally bad because she likes drama, that’s actually pretty funny, but if the script is simply defaulting to having her give bad advice because she’s not actually allowed to affect the course of the plot, that’s less funny. Her role as Blaine’s friend and confidant is duplicated in Cameron, who’s surprisingly helpful, thoughtful, and generously patient with Blaine’s nonsense, especially given that Blaine’s internal monologue regarding Cameron is dismissive and, frankly, mean. At one point, Michelle tells Blaine explicitly that “Cameron is [his] roommate; he’s not [his] friend,” but Cameron is a better friend to Blaine than (a) Michelle is or (b) Blaine deserves.

Blaine drafts a reluctant Cameron into pretending to be him, and vice versa, in order to meet Xander IRL for the first time. Cameron warns Blaine that this is doomed to failure, but Blaine is for some reason convinced that wacky sitcom hijinx will have a better outcome than just being honest about the mix-up, because this is a romcom and there wouldn’t be a plot if there wasn’t unnecessary farce. Cameron-as-Blaine does his level best to be friendly with Xander while gently pushing him towards Blaine-as-Cameron, but the miscommunication takes another twist when Blaine overhears Cameron-as-Blaine helping a vomiting-drunk Xander navigate their apartment’s bathroom in ambiguous, offscreen dialogue that mirrors the noises Cameron makes when he’s fucking. Now Blaine thinks that Cameron broke his trust too, and when Michelle hears about it she eats that shit up with a spoon because she’s messy.

Xander has his own sounding board in Ernie (single serving sci-fi vet Bruce Gray from Cube 2: Hypercube), an elderly gay man, long-widowed but scared to re-enter the dating scene. Ernie has a popcorn machine in his movie den and I covet it. He generally wanders into a scene to cut the dramatic tension, and every time he exits the screen it’s accompanied by a line about his dog shitting in the house. He delivers little nuggets of wisdom like “Listen: writers [like Blaine] when they’re alone, they’re prophetic; when they’re with people, they’re pathetic. They’re just too in their heads.” He’s really as superfluous as Michelle, but if we didn’t cut to them from time to time, the threadbare nature of this plot would be even more exposed.

Obviously, Xander eventually realizes that he’s been lied to (from the credits of a slasher movie in which Cameron played a camp counselor, no less) and confronts Blaine, feeling betrayed and angry. But then he decides to give it a chance anyway and writes a song for Blaine, Blaine (and I cannot stress this enough impossibly) gets a job offer from the L.A. Times as a columnist, and Ernie gains the courage to start dating again. Everyone lives happily ever after, I guess.

There are cute moments scattered throughout this film, but on the whole it’s desperately lacking in critical areas. Not every narrative needs to have a main character that we empathize with or even understand, as long as we can form some kind of emotional attachment with them, but Blaine is a character that defies any attempts at empathy by virtue of being a complete dick. I don’t want to blame Downs as an actor without seeing more of his work, but although Blaine’s bon mots seem like they would work really well on the page, as delivered here, it just doesn’t work. Loren’s Texan accent is inconsistent and distracting, but Xander is so likable (if naïve) in comparison to Blaine’s bitter, jaded little pill that it’s a relief when he’s on screen. The MVP here, however, is Huss, who not only never skips chest day, he turns up the charm to distract you from some of the film’s larger, more glaring issues.

Although this happened to be the first of this loose non-trilogy that I saw and thus in a very literal sense it was my first choice, in a larger sense, this wouldn’t be my first choice. It’s a prime example of the TLA brand when it comes to its politics, style, and structure, but with the least effective love story of the lot. Even when Blaine is supposed to be hitting it off with Xander (like discovering that they like the same obscure band), he feels more like a gatekeeper than a keeper because of his monotone delivery. I’ve seen worsea lot worsebut I still can’t recommend it.

*No one ever seems to talk about this, probably because no one cares but me, but these two completely eclipsed Ariztical Entertainment, didn’t they? Ariztical’s bread and butter were a sex comedy franchise that had pretty severe sequelitis and vanity projects like Ben and Arthur (edited, produced, written, directed, scored by, and starring Sam Mraovich), but I can’t remember the last time I saw that logo in front of anything. Their website still has a New Releases section that lists a movie that came out in January, but their homepage is also full of broken Quicktime plug-ins, so take from that what you will. The catalog page for Eating Out 3 has still-visible deadlinks to the film’s Blogger, Facebook, and MySpace pages, as well as a suspended Twitter account. A lot of their films are unsearchable on JustWatch, and as much as I’m interested in seeing their adaptation of Other Voices, Other Rooms, I can’t justify paying $18 for it, especially since it could end up being in a file format that won’t play on anything I own. All TLA had to do was release their own so-so sex comedy and Ariztical basically disappeared from the marketplace. At least Eating Out will always have longevity and legacy over Another Gay Movie with regards to sequels (Another Gay Sequel featured Perez Hilton as himself and was DOA). At least we’ll always have The Gay Bed and Breakfast of Terror.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #127 of The Swampflix Podcast: Music and Lyrics (2007) & A Romcom Grab Bag

Welcome to Episode #127 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, and Brandon discuss the 80s Nostalgia romcom Music & Lyrics (2007) and other gems in the romantic comedy genre.

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on  SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTube, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Locked Down (2021)

Doug Liman’s COVID-themed, straight-to-HBO romcom Locked Down has seemingly hit a raw nerve for a lot of the pro critics who were assigned to cover it. What I found to be a low-key, innocuous charmer has been burdened with tons of handwringing about what Popular Art is allowed to be made & distributed during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The collective complaint appears to be that movies should transport their audience away from the time & place we occupy, not dwell in it; or at least that being stuck in our domestic spaces for the past year has emphasized a need for pop culture escapism. Locked Down‘s major faux pas against good taste is in its desire to be of-the-moment, compromising its value as fluff entertainment by reminding us just how miserable it is to be alive in our confined, isolated worlds right now. It has critics gritting their teeth in guarded anticipation of more COVID-themed pop media to come, especially since ongoing lockdown restrictions continue to limit what can be made & distributed in the year. I just personally fail to see how any of this is intrinsically bad.

A lot of my openness to COVID-themed pop media is an extension of my interest in, of all things, social media-themed horror films. I do love a gimmicky exploitation flick that fixates on the distinctly modern evils of momentary novelties like Skype calls (Unfriended), ride-share apps (Spree), Facebook timelines (Friend Request), Instagram clout (Ingrid Goes West), camgirl chatrooms (Cam), and so on. Not only are these technophobic thrillers entertaining for their traditional genre payoffs, but they’re also culturally valuable for daring to document the particular inanities of what our lives look & feel like online in a way that the more respectable corners of Mainstream Cinema wouldn’t dare. In a way, Locked Down (along with other COVID-era productions) is a natural evolution of that kind of strike-while-the-iron’s-hot exploitation filmmaking. It’s blatantly capitalizing on the idiosyncrasies of surviving the past year by using them to flavor an otherwise superficial, well-behaved genre film. The only difference is that it’s hanging those of-the-moment details off of genres people usually take more seriously than the technophobic horror: the break-up drama, the romcom, the heist film, etc. Whether or not that kind of cynical Life During COVID documentation violates a current cultural desire for Movie Magic escapism, it will only become more valuable the further we get away from this moment.

In fact, Locked Down is already a document of a bygone era. Its version of Life During COVID is more specific to the earliest lockdown orders of last March when the world at large finally started taking the virus seriously (i.e. when it nearly assassinated Tom Hanks). Anne Hathaway & Chiwetel Ejiofor star as a bitter Londoner couple who foolishly break up just when the stay-at-home orders hit the city, confining their romantic meltdown to a single (fabulously stylish) house they’re pressured not to leave. Their isolation from the outside world and increased “alone” time triggers an avalanche of neurotic second-guessings of their life philosophies & self-mythologies. They not only reassess their relationship, but also the overall trajectory of their life together, their individual professional careers, and the world at large. Meanwhile, early-pandemic observations about empty city streets, supermarket mask etiquette, at-home breadmaking, laggy Zoom calls (a convenient excuse for Celebrity Cameos), and the introduction of pajama bottoms to “office” wear anchor those alone-time reassessments to a very specific, instantly recognizable moment in recent history. All of this anti-romantic back & forth unfolds like a lightly bitter stage play (thanks mostly to the limited setting and the screenwriting contribution from Locke-director Steven Knight) until seemingly insignificant details accumulate to present an absurd opportunity to the struggling couple: they could easily pull off a minimal-effort diamond heist. Even just the suggestion of that risky transgression is enough to reignite their lost excitement for life & each other. The major conflict of the heist is not in its planning but in the decision of whether or not to go through with it at all.

In a word, Locked Down is cute. Like with the last time Anne Hathaway starred in a frothy heist comedy (Ocean’s 8), its only major sin is that it’s decent enough but Soderbergh could’ve done something phenomenal with the same cast & resources. Its major selling point—whether or not anyone knows it yet—is that it’ll be a great fluffy time capsule for people who were too snooty or squeamish to watch last year’s Host. The promotional materials for Locked Down have claimed that it’s “one of the first and most ambitious films to be conceived and shot during the pandemic”. I know that’s bullshit for two glaring reasons: 1. Critics who are professionally assigned to watch & review pop media are apparently already sick of grappling with COVID-era cinema, indicating that it’s far from a novelty at this point. 2. The found-footage Zoom meeting horror flick Host was conceived, shot, and released last summer, when many of Locked Down‘s more zeitgiesty observations would’ve still felt fresh. Host was also way more ambitious in its genre payoffs & budget-defying stunts, whereas Locked Down is mostly just handsome celebrities exchanging cutesy monologues in a few limited locales. Even its central diamond “heist” is mostly a series of conversations. The only difference is that Host (despite being the far superior work) happens to belong to a genre that most audiences don’t take seriously as Art, whereas Locked Down echoes more widely familiar moods & rhythms of Mainstream Filmmaking, which has largely been halted for the past 10 months. Despite the cries of its COVID-era commentary being Too Soon, Too Crass, or Too Much, I think there’s immense cultural value to pop media like this directly grappling with the real-world circumstances that are limiting its scope by effectively documenting them for cultural posterity. It’s time-capsule exploitation filmmaking at its sweetest & most harmless, so I’m a little baffled as to why it’s become such a critical scapegoat.

-Brandon Ledet

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Since the city’s stay-at-home orders took effect this March, I’ve watched no fewer than six (six!) fashion-related reality competition shows: Project Runway, Next in Fashion, Making the Cut, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Dragula, and Glow-Up. A major part of these shows’ appeal to me during the pandemic has simply been the pleasure of watching someone routinely complete an artistic project from start to end without taking a second’s pause. Meanwhile, I’ve been wasting a lot of the downtime I’d usually dedicate to writing & illustrating by staring slack-jawed at my phone, endlessly scrolling through the same three or four apps long after I’ve drained them of their entertainment or informational value. These runway competition shows would have eventually snuck into my media diet with or without a global pandemic, however, since fashion is an artform I’ve been trying to pay more attention to in general. It’s probably the most vital artistic medium I’ve overlooked & undervalued throughout my life – an oversight I’ve been actively striving to correct in recent years. After tiring out on podcasts & documentaries, fashion competition shows have been an excellent crash course in the terminology & history of fashion as artform, but they aren’t the only resource that have guided me through this personal journey in recent months; they had a little help from a mid-00s romcom.

The Devil Wears Prada is more overtly about the fashion industry as a business rather than fashion as artform. Based off the memoirs of a disgruntled former assistant to longtime Vogue editor & industry tastemaker Anna Wintour, the film is presented as a behind-the-scenes tell-all about how stressful & cruel the industry can be for unsuspecting artsy types who get sucked into its orbit. It’s hardly the tear-it-all-down exposé that dating competition shows like The Bachelor got in the similar tell-all series Unreal, however. Instead, its peek behind the Vogue Magazine curtain is utilized as a backdrop for some fairly straightforward romantic comedy storytelling, which both helps & hurts its value as fashion-world insight. To its detriment, The Devil Wears Prada suffers the classic romcom problem of cornering its lead (Anne Hathaway, playing a fashion-ignorant academic who improbably lands a job at the fictional Vogue surrogate Runway Magazine) into choosing between two dweebs who don’t deserve her (a snobby line-cook who believes fashion is for vapid rubes and a publishing industry bigshot who believes she’s outgrown her former social circle). However, since the film mostly focuses on her terrified admiration of her boss (Meryl Streep as the tyrannical Anna Wintour avatar), it more or less gets away with that cliché. This is mostly a story about a woman falling in & out of love with fashion itself; the men she dates along the way are just accessories.

Hathaway may be the least convincing dumpy-nerd-next-door casting since Sandra Bullock play a l33t hacker in The Net. She’s a perfectly cromulent choice for a romcom lead, though, especially as the fashion-ignorant academic turns up her nose at an entire artform for supposedly being beneath her intellectually. By contrast, Streep is without question perfectly cast as a tyrannical auteur who barely speaks above a whisper but still has an entire industry groveling at her stilettoed feet. There’s rarely a crack in her emotional armor that reveals any vulnerability or trace of humanity, but she’s consistently the film’s most useful keyhole into the power of fashion as an artform (in her confident editorial eye) and its destructive nature as an industry (in the fear-based environment she runs as an employer). Streep is fascinating to watch, so much so that you never question why her least fashion-aware employee would stick around for the daily abuse – even when her closest friends do. In the film’s best scene, Streep delivers a distinct, cutting monologue about the couture to ready-to-wear pipeline that influences Hathaway’s dumpy lead’s daily life while she naively believes fashion to be an inconsequential frivolity that does not affect her personally. It affects & influences us all, maybe more so than any other modern artform, and the journey Hathaway goes on here is mostly in learning how to accept that inescapable truth and use it to her full advantage.

There’s nothing especially novel about The Devil Wears Prada in terms of craft; it looks & acts like almost any post-80s studio romcom you can name (which is especially apparent in its refusal to challenge the fashion industry’s addiction to weight-shaming). Its earned foundational respect for fashion as an artform is what really saves it from falling into total tedium, an accomplishment it could not manage without Streep’s steely presence as an industry figurehead. Hathaway holds her own as an audience surrogate despite her naturally glamorous beauty (in a role that makes her image-subverting turn in Ocean’s 8 even funnier in retrospect), as does Stanley Tucci as the fashion insider who teaches her that clothes equal confidence (a role that feels like the birthplace of Modern Tucci). This is somehow still Streep’s movie, though, even if she barely ever lifts a finger or speaks above a whisper. I’m not well-versed enough in fashion industry lore to comment on whether she captured Wintour’s specific persona accurately, but she’s effortlessly electric throughout the picture the way all enigmatic auteurs are within their own artistic fiefdoms. If nothing else, that monologue about the ready-to-wear pipeline really is an all-timer, maybe the most succinctly insightful summation of fashion’s undetected importance I’ve come across so far in my scramble to play catch-up.

-Brandon Ledet

Reality Bites (1994)

If there’s any one clear enemy that Gen-X kids rallied against in the 90s it was “Phoniness.” It was as if the entire Slacker generation had taken Holden Caulfield’s tirades against “phonies” as gospel instead of mocking the blowhard for his own vapid narcissism, creating a kind of low-effort religious movement that worshipped Authenticity as the main driver of counterculture. Any artist in search of a self-sustaining paycheck was labeled a sell-out. Any bozo who debased themselves by wearing a suit was a corporate clown. Anyone caught caring especially deeply on any topic at all was a sucker & a loser, at least in the eyes of Generation Apathy. That anti-phonies mindset made Gen-X especially difficult to pander to as a movie-going audience, since any studio actually caught putting an effort into marketing to that demographic had already committed their intended audience’s cardinal sin: putting effort into anything at all. So, the few times that Hollywood did openly pander to Gen-X sensibilities mostly produced flops – both critically & financially. While “indie cinema” flourished, Slacker Era studio pictures like Empire Records, Airheads, and Reality Bites were slapped aside as phonies by the Gen-X audience they were actually aimed at, only to gradually gain cult status among younger viewers who foolishly looked up to that generation as The Cool Kids.

Speaking as a foolish Millennial myself, I’m highly susceptible to being charmed by these big-studio attempts at X-tremely 90s Gen-X pandering, which is why I recently gave Reality Bites a shot despite its contemporary critical dismissal. It’s easy to see why this film in particular was such a target for claims of corporate phoniness, while goofier titles like Empire Records & Airheads were merely forgotten as trivialities. It’s just so achingly sincere as a romantic comedy in a way that just does not jive at all with Gen-X apathy politics. Reality Bites tries to have it both ways in “giving voice” to a generation that only wants to eat pizza, watch syndicated television, and smoke weed out of half-crushed soda cans while also committing wholeheartedly to a traditional romantic triangle plot. Because all three participants in that central melodrama are such Apathetic brats, it’s difficult to care at all about who ends up with whom as the story shakes out, which I’m saying even as a product of the Radical Empathy generation that eagerly followed in the Slackers’ footsteps. Reality Bites is terminally phony, but only because it can’t find a proper way to marry genuine heartfelt emotion with the who-cares slackerdom of its target demographic. In the attempt, it amounts to nothing at all, just wasted time.

The one saving grace of this big-studio Slacker facsimile is the charm of its Ultra 90s cast. If nothing else, Winona Ryder is always some baseline level of delightful, apparently even as a privileged brat with no sense of morals, goals, or an internal life. Jeanine Garofalo & Steve Zahn are likewise adorably chummy as her pizza-loving, couch-dwelling roommates, so much so that you wish the movie were solely about that trio’s friendship so you could spend more time in their smoky living room with them, just hanging out. Instead, the film details a romantic rivalry in which a greasy go-nowhere musician (Ethan Hawke) and a yuppie corporate stooge (Ben Stiller) play tug of war with Ryder’s confused heart – a literalized conflict between Authenticity & Phoniness. I’ll spare you the reveal of which undeserving beau she chooses in this review, but know this: the movie would have been vastly improved if it didn’t care about that romantic conflict at all. Reality Bites pretends to be interested in the static ennui of a generation with no sense of ambition or enthusiasm for participating in established social norms, but it quickly bails on that inert navel-gazing to instead dive headfirst into the normiest bullshit I can possibly think of: a potentially flourishing young woman wasting her time on two bonehead men who don’t deserve a second’s pause.

Directed by Ben Stiller around the time when he was producing much more successful Gen-X comedy with The Ben Stiller Show, Reality Bites does make some admirable motions towards actively mocking its own Slacker sensibilities instead of merely pandering to them. Stiller was genius to cast himself as the nexus of this sarcastic, self-effacing humor. As a suited network exec for an MTV-parodying cable channel called In Your Face Television, Stiller positions himself as a money-grubbing goon who literally peddles youth counterculture for cheap payouts. Ryder’s character is an amateur documentarian who interviews her immediate social circle about their post-college ennui as a self-satisfying art project, which Stiller turns around to sell to his network as a slapstick comedy mutation of The Real World. This line of generational parody brilliantly goes one level deeper in the end credits, when Stiller’s network exec bozo turns the love triangle drama that drives the film into a scripted Gen-X soap opera. If Reality Bites were ever going to speak directly to its intended audience, this self-parody would have to have been way more pronounced & exaggerated to mean much of anything. As is, it takes the romantic lives of the privileged brats it lightly ribs very seriously, so unfortunately all that registers is its tragic phoniness as a corporate product.

Aesthetics-wise, there’s a lot to admire here. The film’s soundtrack is peppered with some pure 90s car-cassette gems, including the 5-star Lisa Loeb classic “Stay,” which it popularized with a tie-in music video (sadly, a dead artform). Ryder & Garofalo’s costuming is distinctly College Grad 90s chic, which is a pleasure in itself. However, the movie’s strongest asset is its VHS camcorder-style cinematography meant to mimic Ryder’s D.I.Y. documentary project, a vivid visual texture achieved by a young Emmanuel Lubezki of all people. The thing is, though, that you can get those same camcorder vibes from Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape without having to hang out with total dipshits for 100 minutes. Nothing is good enough to survive the contrived, dispiriting dirge of this film’s love triangle conflict: not Lubezki’s spectacularly Authentic camerawork, not Stiller’s astute Gen-X self-parody, not even Ryder’s consistently stellar on-screen charm. Reality Bites isn’t a total waste of time, but it’s also not much of anything at all. It’s ultimately stuck between two disparate sensibilities—the romantic & the apathetic—and thus ultimately panders to no one. This is one of those cases where the Gen-X kids were right to shrug it off, of which there are many since their collective impulse was to immediately shrug off Everything.

-Brandon Ledet

P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet

Mamma Mina!: A Crash Course in Musicarelli

One of the most purely joyous moments in our current Movie of the Month, the horned-up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon, is the climactic musical number on the bus where the main couple lip-sync to the Italian pop song “Ta Ra Ta Ta” by 1960s icon Mina. It’s the moment when the film fully blossoms into the proto-Mamma Mia! jukebox musical it’s been teasing for its entire runtime and, thus, plays like more of a major emotional payoff than an out-of-nowhere indulgence. However, it’s a moment that I completely misinterpreted when we first discussed the film. At the time, I believed the big “Ta Ra Ta Ta” dance number to be an homage to the similar romantic conclusions of a typical Bollywood production. That made enough sense to me at the time, given the wistful sitars that pepper the soundtrack and the film’s general scatterbrained approach to eclectic musical tastes: Boy George, Wire, The Village People, Saturday morning cartoon theme songs, etc. I was wrong, though. That climactic dance number was meant as an homage to an entirely different film genre: the musicarello.

Instigated by the 1958 musical comedy Regazzi del Juke-Box (directed by Lucio Fulci, who would later become infamous in the sleazy world of gialli), the musicarello was an Italian genre of rock n’ roll pictures meant to exploit teenage culture & promote rising pop acts. Combining the rebellious teenage energy of Roger Corman’s drive-in era with the variety show rock performances of television programs like Ed Sullivan & American Bandstand, musicarelli were mostly irreverent slapstick comedies that enabled youngsters to see their favorite pop groups on the big screen in proto-MTV music videos. It was a shamelessly commercial version of teenage rebellion, one that’s lightly anti-conformist & anti-bourgeois messaging did not survive the more radicalized politics of the late 1960s. Ginger & Cinnamon’s climactic homage to miscarello tradition would have been a distinctly nostalgic indulgence, then, which lines up perfectly with its main character’s nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons & club music from the 1980s. It’s the exact kind of outdated fluff entertainment that would have been in heavy rotation on Italian television when she was a kid.

If I had been more familiar with Italian pop culture of yesteryear, I would have known instantly that the “Ta Ra Ta Ta” sequence was a nod to musicarelli, not Bollywood. That’s because the song choice of a Mina tune in particular has strong ties to musicarelli of the 1960s, so that any Italian Woman Of A Certain Age would have recognized the reference. Mina was famous in Italy (and internationally) for many reasons. Her three-octave vocal range as a soprano made her a standout in her field. Her public image as “an emancipated woman” and the mistress to a married man made her a popular topic for tabloid coverage. Her rambunctious stage presence and predilection for song topics like sex, religion, and (in “Ta Ra Ta Ta”) smoking cigarettes earned her the nickname The Queen of Screams. However, one of the biggest boosters for Mina’s career were her starring roles in musicarelli. Mina performed her 60s pop tunes in over a dozen musicarello titles, making her one of the most popular figures in one of Italy’s most popular film genres. Unfortunately, I can’t find any musicarelli featuring Mina available with an English translation in the US, but thankfully there’s plenty performances from them hosted on sites like YouTube.

Below are a few of my favorite Mina musicarello performances that are available on YouTube, a 60s rock ‘n roll primer I wish I had discovered before we discussed our Movie of the Month.

1. “Ta Ra Ta Ta” from Totò Ye Ye (1967)

2. “Mandalo giu” from Pere amore per magia (1967)

3. “Nessuno” from Howlers of the Dock (1960)

4. “Tintarella di Luna” from Juke box – Urli d’amore (1959)

5. “Io bacio… tu baci” from Io bacio… tu baci (1961)

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the horned up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet