Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)

The opening gag of Bridget Jones’s Baby is the entire movie in a microcosm. Alone on her birthday, Rene Zellweger’s now middle aged romcom anti-hero opens this years-late sequel on the exact note where she started the first film in the series: blowing out a single candle on a cupcake & lip-syncing to Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” in an amusingly over-the-top moment of self-pity. She asks her series-sparking diary “How in the hell did I end up here again?” in voice-over and as an audience I can’t help but breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even with all of the uncomfortable weight-cataloging & desperation to land a husband, 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary holds up nicely as a smart, darkly funny romcom that modernizes & subverts the Jane Austen classic Pride & Prejudice for the hard-loving, hard-drinking thirty-somethings of its era. As a protagonist, Bridget Jones is a little dopey & off-kilter, but personifies for her audience the Inner Idiot we all feel like we come off as whenever we’re anxious in public. 2004’s follow-up, the inexplicably titled Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, completely misinterprets the character’s appeal and makes her out to be an Actual Idiot in one of the most insultingly vapid romcoms I can ever remember seeing. That’s why it’s such a relief, over a decade later, to see Bridget Jones return to square one: drunk, alone, and once again personifying our collective Inner Idiot in a recognizably human way. It’s even more of a relief when this familiar beat is interrupted by Bridget switching the track to a modern pop song and deciding to celebrate her current middle age state instead of moping about her apartment, a welcome taste of what’s to come.

As necessary as Bridget Jones’s Baby was in undoing the damage wrought by Edge of Reason, it doesn’t find much else purpose for its existence besides transporting its protagonist to a modern context. The movie’s plot is centered on a simple “Who’s the father?” mystery as Bridget finds herself pregnant & caught between two potential lovers: Colin Firth’s eternally uptight Mr. Darcy from the first two films & the out of nowhere addition of an American billionaire played by 80s TV heartthrob Patrick Dempsey. I suppose as an audience we’re supposed to fret over which beau she (and her titular baby) will end the film with, but it’s difficult to care too much about that dilemma (especially since Mr. Darcy has been a kind of recurring inevitability since film one). The true conflict here is in watching Bridget navigate the 2010s, now a total outsider to the youth culture she drank her way through exiting in her original appearance. Surrounded by *shudder* millennials, Bridget weighs in on the cultural evils of music festivals, man buns, “ironic” beards, brand managers, “vegan condoms,” and (in an extended featured cameo) Ed Sheeran. I despised the trailer for this film for its regressive fretting over the fear of dying “alone” as a single mother, but the movie is much less concerned with the baby of its title than it is with ribbing a young, inauthentically hip culture it’s getting too old to understand. Bridget Jones is an awkward & as dopey as ever, but as a relic of the past she’s become a kind of Gen-X anti-hero tasked with cutting through the bullshit of modern culture in the name of middle aged women everywhere. That’s a huge step up from her blithering idiot persona who “hilariously” doesn’t know how to snow ski or navigate Thailand’s prison system in the miserable Edge of Reason.

There’s a comfort in familiarity to romcoms as a genre that Bridget Jones’s Baby delivers expertly. Rescuing its protagonist from the Idiot Plot screenwriting hell of Edge of Reason, this damage control sequel makes everything pleasantly familiar again. Bridget is back in her proper apartment, surrounded by her same cast of friends (including the always-welcome Shirley Henderson), and back to worrying about her same self-defeating anxieties over romance, her career, and her body. This return to normalcy is the cinematic equivalent of an electric blanket in a cold snap, to the point where any developments in Bridget’s romantic or professional life almost don’t matter at all. At its very last opportunity, Bridget Jones’s Baby introduces a plot twist that leaves the door open for a sequel that sounds pleasant, but unnecessary. Now that the damage from Edge of Reason has been undone there isn’t much a fourth Bridget Jones movie could possibly offer besides more comforting familiarity. At least that’s far from the worst thing a movie could accomplish. I’ll admit I was even tickled in this sequel by seeing Emma Thompson seemingly reprise her irreverent natal physician from Junior as Bridget’s smartass doctor. It didn’t really improve or even alter what I’d already seen her do before, but it was still a familiar, comforting reminder of a past pleasure. Bridget may despondently ask, “How in the hell did I end up here again?,” at the start of this movie, but her audience couldn’t possibly want to be anywhere else. Bridget Jones’s Baby doesn’t attempt to disrupt or subvert the romcom formula like recent bomb-throwers WetlandsObvious ChildSleeping With Other PeopleAppropriate Behavior, etc., but it does feel essentially redemptive for restoring a beloved character who deserved so much better in her previous outing to a comfortably familiar place.

-Brandon Ledet

The Big Sick (2017)

The Big Sick might be the sole Judd Apatow production to date that would benefit from a longer runtime. Written by real-life married couple & longtime comedy world mainstays Kumail Nanjiani & Emily Gordon, the film attempts to cram the bizarre true story about their personal relationship into the structure of a traditional romcom. In that respect, it’s mostly successful. The film is touching, sweet, and darkly funny in its awkward, vulnerably human reactions to an impossible romantic scenario. However, by molding a real, nuanced story into the shape of a three act, trope-laden genre structure, the film tends to glaze over some of its most essential relationships in a way that distorts its focus & undercuts its own power. Over time, The Big Sick turns out not to be about romance at all, but about unlikely partnerships that form in its absence. When its romcom genre structure demands that it return to that romance, then, the overall result is a picture that somehow isn’t self-aware of the emotional hook that makes it feel truly special in its best, most distinctive moments. With a little more screentime & a little less adherence to genre that may not have been the case.

Kumail Nanjiani stars as a younger version of himself, an aimless college graduate trying to stay afloat in the Chicago stand-up comedy scene & to maintain a relationship with his devout Muslim parents despite his own secular, Scorsese-esque crisis of faith. A Pakistani immigrant family, Nanjiani’s parents & brother push him to both pursue a more lucrative career & to submit to a traditional arranged marriage romance. Instead, he pays rent as an Uber driver & falls in love with a white girl. It’s a move his brother disappointedly calls cliche & his parents disown him over. The most shocking aspect of this family-destroying relationship isn’t that it bucks against Islamic values, however. Nanjiani’s life is disrupted when his new, white girlfriend, furious that he’s kept their relationship a secret as long as possible, is bedridden with a medically-induced coma and is faced with the precipice of death. He meets her family for the first time while she’s unconscious in the ICU & they’re technically broken up, leaving the parents suspicious as to why he cares enough to wait by her side. The questions this situation raises are vast in range. Will the girlfriend’s family remain cold to Kumail’s concern for their near-dead, comatose daughter? Will Kumail’s own family invite him back to the fold despite his secularism & apparent disregard for tradition? Will the girlfriend accept him back in her life when she recovers? Will she recover at all? These questions have all been answered by the real life history of the couple who penned the screenplay, but their tension still makes for a great dramatic plot for a modern, heartfelt romcom.

Because Nanjiani stars as (a slightly fictionalized version of) himself, the story mostly follows his personal trajectory as he’s alienated by his cultural, professional, and romantic conflicts. This narrow focus works exceptionally well in the film’s second act, but allows the narrative to stray from its most interesting character dynamics in the bookends of that center: Emily’s coma. Before the coma, Kumail’s relationships with his girlfriend & the eligible Pakistani women his parents pressure into him auditioning are rushed, never given enough room to develop in a significant way. Zoe Kazan is endearing as (the fictionalized version of) Emily, but the screentime she’s allowed isn’t pronounced enough to make her relationship with Kumail feel worth the trouble & commitment it stirs. The Pakistani women are even less fortunate in that respect, essentially reduced to a pile of interchangable photographs in a cigar box. A slightly extended runtime could’ve fixed either deficiency, which is a truly strange thing to wish for in an Apatow production. Instead, the most significant relationship formed onscreen is between Kumail & Emily’s parents. Ray Romano (who is staggeringly impressive here) & Holly Hunter (who’s also great, but less surprisingly so) shape the heart of the film as they cautiously allow Kumail into their lives as Emily’s parents. They’re tense, emotionally vulnerable people suffering their loneliest, most terrifying hour and there’s genuine power in the way they recognize that same hurt in their daughter’s estranged boyfriend. That’s why it’s disappointing when the movie’s romcom genre trappings steer its third act back towards Kumail’s less-defined relationship with Emily (for wholly understandable reasons) instead of resolving or deepening the dynamic that made for its funniest & most devastating moments, his relationship with her parents.

Real life is obviously more complicated & unwieldy than any two hour romcom plot could contain. If The Big Sick were to capture the entirety of Kumail & Emily’s bizarre story, it’d be twice as long & half as funny than it is in its current, darkly hilarious, emotionally resonant state. I do think that time constraint limited the film’s potential to be its best self, however, since it downplayed a lot of the potential romantic partners in Kumail’s life to instead fully develop his relationship with Emily’s parents, only to double back to the romantic narrative as a convenient genre tool at the last minute. Obviously, if my main complaint about a film is that there could have been more of it, it’s probably a worthwhile & enjoyable picture as is. The jokes are funny. The romantic triumphs are rewarding. The cultural details of the stand-up comedy world setting & Pakistani familial dynamics make for a memorably specific, distinct experience. It’s just a little frustrating that the most significant, exciting relationships of the movie are sacrificed for a more traditional, Apatow style romcom plot instead of being freely explored in the darkly funny indie film melancholy territory they deserve. There are at least a handful of films that have already detail romantic relationships somewhat similar to Kumail & Emily’s story in The Big Sick, as odd & coma-specific as it is, but Kumail’s relationship with Emily’s parents is something much more unique & worth examining. A better, more self-aware film might have reconciled that, either by narrowing its focus or extending its runtime.

-Brandon Ledet

The Sick, Sad Art of the Rear Window Romcom

One of the more immediately bizarre aspects of April’s Movie of the Month, the deliriously silly Mark Waters romcom Head Over Heels, is that it’s a low-key reimagining of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window. Although Rear Window does have its own sly, delicate sense of humor operating under its murder mystery thriller beats, it’s hardly the light-hearted romantic romp Waters later fused with Zoolander-style fashion world parody in Head Over Heels. A blood pressure-raising thriller plot about a shameless voyeur spying on his neighbors​ through his apartment window and possibly witnessing a murder isn’t the first place you’d expect to find inspiration for a by the books romantic comedy, but Waters amplified & broadened the once subtle humor of the Hitchcock classic to do just that. The strangest thing about that choice is that he wasn’t even the first filmmaker to get there. Rear Window had been hammered into the shape of a generic romcom before, one that was even more faithful to its almighty genre tropes.

When describing Head Over Heels in our initial conversation about the film, Boomer explained, “It’s a nineties holdover of a specific kind of romantic comedy that paid for Meg Ryan’s house and every meal she will eat for the rest of her life.” I’m not sure he knew exactly how accurate he was when he wrote that. The 1997 Meg Ryan romcom Addicted to Love shares far more with Head Over Heels’s basic DNA than I could have imagined any film could, considering how uniquely ridiculous the Mark Waters picture feels as a novelty. Not only does Addicted to Love feature Ryan, the Queen of the 90s Romcom, getting wrapped up in a Rear Window-inspired plot, but the film itself is named after a Robert Palmer song, while Head Over Heels was titled after a track by The Go Go’s. As Boomer also pointed out in that initial Head Over Heels conversation, the art of “romantic films taking their titles from classic love songs and contemporary pop music” has somewhat died off since Meg Ryan’s heyday, so it’s amusing to me that both of these Rear Window romcoms would be titled that way.

It’s worth noting that, unlike with Head Over Heels, the Addicted to Love version of the Rear Window romcom involves no investigation of a possible murder. Matthew Broderick stars as a small town yokel/brilliant astronomer whose heart is broken when the love of his life (Kelly Preston) moves to NYC and falls for another man. Broderick, in his devastated state, sets up shop in the abandoned warehouse across the street from this couple and becomes a full time voyeur, spying on their relationship through the window, waiting for an opportunity to win back his love. One night, he witnesses a break-in and the masked criminal in the apartment catches him spying. After scarily barging into his hidey-hole, they’re quickly revealed to be a no nonsense, biker chick Meg Ryan, who is seeking to exact revenge on the ex-fiancee that just happens to be Broderick’s old love’s new beau. Through various tools of the astronomy trade, the miserable pair of vengeful saps start to spy on their ex-lovers as a team, occasionally venturing past simple voyeurism into revenge-in-action. And, wouldn’t you know it, the more time they spend together the less they care about what their exes are up to. It’s a match made in miserable wretch Heaven.

The theme of voyeurism and the inability to act that runs through Rear Window makes it just about as odd of a choice for romcom inspiration as its central threat of violence. Head Over Heels dives into the spiritual darkness of this premise head first, not only keeping the witnessed murder aspect of Rear Window as a central part of its romcom plot, but also dragging its poor protagonist and her supermodel roomates through a long line of degrading encounters with adulterous lovers, horny dogs, child molesters, and human feces. I dare say that in its own moments of pitch black despair Addicted to Love manages to get even darker than that Mark Waters work, however. Matthew Broderick’s brokenhearted voyeur stops shaving and takes to chugging hard liquor. While spying on his ex, he meticulously tracks her daily routines on astronomy style charts, even documenting her smiles based on frequency and enthusiasm. Meg Ryan also gets dragged down to this desperately sad level once she finds herself squatting with Broderick in his spy nest/shit hole, at one point crawling across its unswept floorboards, pawing at cockroaches to use in a prank at her ex’s expense. She also uses Broderick’s pain against him, exclaiming, “The only way that girl is going to come back to you is if a blast of semen catapults her across the street and through the window,” and going on to describe the enormity of her ex’s dick to be “like Godzilla’s tail; he can take Tokyo down with that thing,” (which is especially funny now, given Broderick’s eventual run-in with Godzilla, tail and all). And if all that weren’t enough pain & degradation already, the big dick Cassandra from across the street eventually goes on an alpha male tirade where he threatens Broderick with the line, “I will rip out your eyes and rape your skull. Excuse my French.” This is a romcom, though, don’t forget. Ryan and Broderick do eventually become romantically linked, even if their first night together involves them getting black out drunk and dressing up like each other’s exes. Yikes.

Objectively speaking, Head Over Heels is a far better film than Addicted to Love, which is fine, but not nearly as memorable or as genuinely funny. Considered strictly on its merits as a romcom adaptation of Rear Window, however, Addicted to Love is the bigger success. Head Over Heels maintains the witnessed murder aspect of the Hitchcock classic, but branches off from there to cover everything from fashion world fantasy to ZAZ-style parody humor to Farrelly Brothers gross-outs to action comedy beats surrounding a diamond heist. Addicted to Love is much more faithful to the perverse, depressive aspects of voyeurism that humored Hitchcock in Rear Window and had a sort of novelty to the way it sticks more closely to that seminal work. It even finds a striking visual palette in its voyeurism-aiding astronomy equipment. Broderick builds a camera obscura to more easily spy on his & Ryan’s exes in his squat, and the two often watch that machine’s projection as if it were a 24 hour soap opera. All of the telescopes, flow charts, and depressive bouts of alcoholism in the world couldn’t save the picture from being just one of many titles in a long line of Meg Ryan romcoms, though. It’s a fairly generic example of a Meg Ryan Picture, except for its novelty as a Rear Window-inspired romcom, but the basic absurdity of that combination can’t be overlooked and the fact that there are at least two movies that fit that description is highly amusing to me.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters fashion world romcom Head Over Heels, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its dark humor to that of fellow 2001 fashion world parody Zoolander, and this piece exploring the similarities in the premise and humor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #28 of The Swampflix Podcast: Ramen Girl (2008) & What Ever Happened to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Welcome to Episode #28 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-eighth episode, Brandon makes new co-host Britnee watch the Tampopo-riffing Brittany Murphy romcom Ramen Girl (2008) for the first time. Also, Britnee & Brandon discuss the cult classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and its much less prestigious made-for-TV remake from 1991. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet

Mark Waters, Rear Window (1954), and the Delicate Slyness of Hitchcock Humor

Mark Waters is a wonderfully talented (if occasionally inconsistent) comedic director, but something I would never accuse his best-known works like Mean Girls & House of Yes of being is subtle or delicate. Waters works in broad strokes. His jokes can be pointedly satirical & smartly written, but they’re delivered in the loud, brash cadence of a mainstream comedy, not the hushed tones of dry wit. That’s why it seemed jarring that Waters would build a flighty modern romcom starring Monica Potter & Freddie Prinze Jr. around something as tightly controlled and quietly sophisticated as a Hitchcock thriller. Waters didn’t seek to upend just any old Hitchcock thriller, either. He built his delirious romcom around the basic concept of Rear Window, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. It might be tempting to think of that romcom, Head Over Heels, as an act of cinematic blasphemy, a disrespectful transgression that drags down one of the Hollywood greats to the level of a Zoolander-style fashion world satire that indulges in such less-refined pleasures as shit jokes and oggling Freddie Prinze Jr.’s rock hard abs. The truth is, though, that Waters was not at all perverting a refined work of stone-faced seriousness, but rather exposing the Hitchcock classic for what it truly is: a stealth comedy in a thriller’s disguise.

Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation as a filmmaker is difficult for me to contextualize. It took a long while for the director to be recognized as the master that he is, since he often chose to work in the trashy trenches of genre cinema, mainly with thrillers. I grew up in a world where Hitchcock was already a respected name, so it’s difficult to conceive that high art thriller works Psycho & The Birds were initially considered by some critics to be tawdry, gimmick-heavy works of populism. Rear Window is a great, distilled example of the meticulous visual mastery that eventually earned Hitchcock his deserved respect. It finds him working with big Hollywood budgets & stars (you don’t get much more Hollywood than James Stewart & Grace Kelly), delivering a beautiful, Technicolor-rich mystery thriller where every image feels tightly controlled & meticulously planned. The sets of Rear Window have a proto-Wes Anderson dollhouse quality to them. The lavishness of the costume design tops even Douglas Sirk productions like All That Heaven Allows. Not a single hair feels out of place and each mechanical piece of the plot moves along like clockwork, even though the film’s star, Stewart, is supposed to convey a pathetic, disheveled state with his broken leg & unwashed body. With all of the film’s intricate visual design, complex plotting, and trick photography innovation at the inevitable climax, it’s easy to see Rear Window only as a gorgeous middle ground between a populist thriller & a high brow art film. The truth is, though, that the movie also slyly functions as a morose comedy. It never approaches the broadness if its 00s romcom counterpart, but it can still be openly silly all the same.

Rear Window is an intense thriller about a disabled man who can only watch in horror as he pieces together the murder of a neighbor by her traveling salesman husband. It’s immediately jarring, then, that the movie opens with the most upbeat jazz music imaginable, almost as if its credits were leading into a 1950s sitcom. It’s not a direct, 1:1 comparison, but the upbeat club music that deliriously pulsates throughout Head Over Heels seems to echo that exact tonal clash. The Mark Waters romcom also echoes the way Rear Window builds comedy around friction between the sexes. Monica Potter’s openly spying on her hunky (and possibly murderous) neighbor and her various musings on how she can only find the worst men in NYC are basically just a gender-flipped version of James Stewart’s idle banter about how women are weak-willed nags & his casual gawking of a young ballerina who practices her routines in her skivvies across the courtyard. Hitchcock pokes subtle fun at his debilitated protagonist for being something of a pervert & a misogynist by making him physically impotent while two strong women (a nurse & a girlfriend) run circles around him, acting on suspicions he can only voice. The stakes of the central murder mystery are severe, much more severe than they are in the convoluted diamond heist plot of Head Over Heels, but Rear Window‘s tension is constantly eroded with dry, verbal wit and the occasional visual gag to the point where the whole movie almost feels like a subtle comedy that just happens to revolve around a murder mystery. It even concludes on a comedic gag, a whomp-whomp reveal of James Stewart’s second broken leg (and just when the first one was almost healed!).

Head Over Heels is certainly much broader in its humor than Rear Window and doesn’t even attempt to match its inspiration’s attention to visual craft, but I don’t think its reduction of the Hitchcock classic to the level of trope-laden romcom is at all blasphemous. Head Over Heels borrows the basic voyeuristically-witnessed murdered aspect of Rear Window‘s thriller plot as a launching point, but deviates from Hitchcock’s tightly-controlled tension-builder, contained entirely in a single apartment, by branching out all over NYC into various genres & tones. Although it’s a much more restrained, subtly humorous work, Hitchcock’s classic is a sort of tonal mashup in its own right, refusing to take its morbid subject matter entirely seriously, even when life & love are dangling on the line. I can’t speculate that the director would’ve enjoyed watching what Mark Waters did to one of his most revered works, but as he was no stranger to populist cinema & tonally inappropriate humor himself, Head Over Heels feels oddly at home with his prankster spirit, especially for a by the books romcom.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters fashion world romcom Head Over Heels, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison of its dark humor to that of fellow 2001 fashion world parody Zoolander.

-Brandon Ledet

The Battle of the 2001 Fashion Industry Parodies was a Race into the Darkness of the Human Soul

April’s​ Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters comedy Head Over Heels, is many disparate films tied up in a single package. At times a formulaic romcom, a Farrelly brothers-style gross-out comedy, a diamond heist action thriller, and a winking Hitchcock homage, this Freddie Prinze Jr./Monica Potter madcap romance is largely a fun watch due to its violent, unexpected shifts in genre & tone. At its core, however, Head Over Heels can be readily understood as a light-headed satire of the fashion industry. Constantly poking fun at Monica Potter’s befuddled lead’s supermodel roomates, borrowing some of their second-hand glamor for its central romance fantasy, and staging its climactic showdown on a Fashion Week runway, Head Over Heels is a silly, parodic stab at couture culture. It was not alone in its year of release, either. The similarly silly, but much more popular Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander also arrived in 2001, with its own jokes about fashion models’ supposed stupidity and its own climactic runway-set showdown. Head Over Heels & Zoolander share more than just their deliriously silly fashion world parody too. They also undercut the frivolity that drives their central fashion world gags with some truly depressive, cruel lines of pitch black humor, diving much deeper into the darkness of the human soul than you might expect from a Freddie Prinze Jr. romcom and a ZAZ-style comedy that proudly features a Fabio cameo.

Fashion models seem to lead surreal, absurd, almost inhuman lives. Zoolander & Head Over Heels build their humor around that perception. They introduce a “normal” person (movie-normal anyway; one’s an art-restorer and one’s a photo-journalist for TIME Magazine) into the otherworldly realm of superhuman fashion models, or in Zoolander‘s parlance “people who are really, really, ridiculously good-looking,” to play off that eccentricity. Part of the humor they find there is in jealousy: lavish parties, beautiful clothes, a total lack of sexual inhibition, etc. are overwhelming to the two films’ non-model normies and both movies have a lot of fun indoctrinating them into this culture, which appears to be a live action cartoon from the outside looking in. To take the models down a peg, then, they also poke fun at the two things typically associated with people who are really, really, ridiculously good-looking: low intelligence & eating disorders. Zoolander is a lot harsher on both of those topics than Head Over Heels. The Mark Waters film is a lot more humanizing in its portrayal of its star’s supermodel roomates, who are eventually proven to be a lot more cunning & self-aware than any of their foils give them credit for. I don’t really see the point in diving into the particulars of either films’ jabs at bulimia or stupidity, though, since it’s the easiest, most common sources of humor you’d expect from any fashion world comedy. What interests me, and I think what makes these films memorable, are the more unconventional places they find their dark humor, the real weirdo shit.

At its core, Head Over Heels is a much sweeter movie than Zoolander, with more of a sincere focus on its milquetoast woman/fashion world weirdo romance. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t indulge in its own forms of pitch black humor. The reason our generic romcom lead puts herself on the market for a new man at the beginning of the film is that her old biddy coworkers keep announcing, plainly, “You are going to die alone.” She then has her “meet cute” moment with Freddie Prinze Jr.’s hotshot fashion exec when the dog he’s walking tackles & mounts her in the lobby of their apartment building, which is a special kind of brutally embarrassing public humiliation for a cutesy romcom. The movie later indulges in other similar raunchy comedy moments, like a stray cunnilingus gag or an epic scene where the leads’ fashion model roomates are covered head to toe in human feces. What’s even darker is that the movie’s entire romcom plot is built on a Rear Window moment where the lead witnesses the fashion exec hunk “murder” someone through his apartment window, but romantically pursues him anyway, because of their overwhelming sexual chemistry. This includes a scene where she bangs the possible murderer before he’s convincingly absolved of the crime, an act her roommates gleefully watch through the window as if it were a plot point on a daytime soap. Sometimes these models’ lack of sexual inhibition is played for light laughs, like in an early scene when they aggressively catwalk nude through their apartment’s shared living space. Sometimes it gets much darker, though, like when the Russian-born model casually accuses a Girl Scouts troupe of being a childhood prostitution ring or when the Australian-born model (who has a crippling addiction to plastic surgery) constantly makes casual references to being molested by her uncle as a child, which is played for laughs. For all of its indulgences in cutesy romcom tropes, Head Over Heels can be a deeply strange, deeply fucked up comedy.

Much like how Head Over Heels builds its madcap romantic mixup around a possible cold-blooded murder, Zoolander finds its humorous A-plot in a conspiracy to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia so that child labor laws will relax enough in that country for fashion clothing production to pinch a few pennies. That’s pretty fucked. Its dark soul wasn’t lost on critics at the time of its release either. Ebert famously wrote in his post-9/11 review of the film, “There have been articles lately asking why the United States is so hated in some parts of the world. As this week’s Exhibit A from Hollywood, I offer Zoolander, a comedy about a plot to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia because of his opposition to child labor.” Besides that boldly crass plot line (which does have a pointedly satirical jab at fashion as an industry built into its DNA) and its much harsher stance on models being oversexed, anorexic idiots than the one taken in Head Over Heels, Zoolander ups the stakes of its dark humor by actually claiming a few human casualties. While the witnessed “murder” of Head Over Heels turns out to have been faked, one of Zoolander‘s first big gags (and easily the one that got the biggest laugh out of me as a teen at the theater) involves four of its idiotic lead’s closest male model friends perishing in a gas station explosion. It’s the kind of gag that you’d expect to see in the icily funny mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, where the punchline is a smash cut to a funeral service. Later in the film, the fashion industry is again skewered when Ben Stiller’s male model lead participates in a runway show that exploits/appropriates the tattered rags of the world’s “crack whores” & homeless for a marketable fashion aesthetic. And the darkest joke of all is that the film’s very first celebrity cameo (one of thousands) is none other than Donald J. Trump. Yikes.

As harsh as the humor can be in both of these movies, they’re still largely absurd, silly, light-hearted films. In both Head Over Heels & Zoolander, initial competitive jealousies in an industry where vanity is everything eventually give way to heartfelt camaraderie. Initial unease with the fashion world’s liberated, uninhibited sexuality eventually leads to sexual & romantic satisfaction. Models considered to be useless idiots at the outset save the day & prove their worth as human beings. Still, there’s a dark soul lurking at the center of both Head Over Heels & Zoolander, a black comedy undercurrent that occasionally cuts through the deliriously silly fashion world parody to laugh in the face of betrayal, death, bulimia, child abuse, etc. 2001 not only saw the release of two energetically silly fashion world comedies; it also brought out a surprisingly corrosive spirit in each of them that can disrupt & subvert the cheeriness of their shared mainstream comedy surface. Both movies were better & more memorable for it.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters fashion world romcom Head Over Heels, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Head Over Heels (2001)

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 Boomer made Alli, Britnee , and Brandon watch Head Over Heels (2001).

Boomer: Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Head Over Heels is not a good movie. Objectively, it’s actually kind of awful. It’s a nineties holdover of a specific kind of romantic comedy that paid for Meg Ryan’s house and every meal she will eat for the rest of her life. There’s a silly voice-over at the beginning about growing up in [small Midwest location] but now the protagonist lives in [major metropolitan city] with [impossibly perfect job], but gosh darn it she’s just so unlucky in love! It’s so dumb, and I love it so, so much.

I already wrote a more complete recap of the film’s plot in my review of it so I won’t go overlong with the details here, but I’d stand by my assessment of it as “Two parts standard turn of the century romcom, one part Rear Window, with just a dash of genderbent Zoolander.” Future Mean Girls helmer Mark Waters directs Monica Potter as Amanda Pierce, an art restoration expert who moves in with four supermodels after catching her fiancé in bed with another woman. With the encouragement of her newfound group of unlikely friends, Amanda reluctantly begins to open her heart to handsome neighbor Jim Winston (Freddie Prinze Jr.), upon whom the women spy through his windows. He seems perfect, until Amanda alone sees him murder a woman. Or does he?

Britnee, what did you think of the relationships between the women in this movie? The film just barely passes the Bechdel Test (when the models talk about fashion and trading clothing), but that’s not a make-or-break barometer, really. I feel like the representation of non-traditional female friendships and the presentation of the supermodels as being vain and vaguely self-centered but also powerful and accepting of their new friend was fresh, especially for 2001. What do you think?

Britnee: First off, I just have to say that I absolutely loved Head Over Heels. It has that late 1990’s vibe that I am totally addicted to (Romy and Michelle’s High School ReunionJawbreakerShe’s All That, etc.), even though the film was released in 2001. What can I say, brightly colored mismatched clothes, frosty lipstick, hair chopsticks, chunky heels, and halter tops get me jazzed. To top it all off, the movie stars Freddie Prinze Jr.! He’s such a great actor for those terrible-yet-addictive types of movies, so what a perfect choice for the lead guy in Head Over Heels. It’s a shame that he doesn’t really act anymore. If I’m not mistaken, I remember him becoming involved with WWE after he stepped away from acting, but the latest I’ve heard of Prinze is that he wrote a cookbook (with a forward by Sarah Michelle Gellar). I haven’t tried any of the recipes, but I hope that he makes references to his films in them (Spaghetti à la House of Yes).

To answer your question, Mark, I loved the relationships between the film’s female characters. Amanda’s friendship with the models and Lisa (her hilarious lesbian coworker) really shows that sisterhood comes in many forms, some more unique than others. In the beginning of the film, Amanda is harassed about not being married by her elderly coworkers, and I get it, being single wasn’t seen as an option during their youth, but it was still annoying to listen to their comments. Once she moves in with the models, they didn’t seem to be interested in her other than the $500 per month she was going to pay to live in a closet to fund their spending habits. I couldn’t help but assume that they were going to be a portrayed as the stereotypical self-absorbed group of air-headed models that were total mean girls, but thankfully, things didn’t go in that direction. The models, although very self-absorbed, did care about Amanda. They saw that she was interested (more like obsessed) with Jim, and they helped her score a date with him. Unfortunately, they covered her in makeup and dressed her up to their liking, making her look nothing like herself, but they were truly doing what they thought was best. And during Amanda’s quest to find out whether or not Jim was a murderer, they helped her break into his apartment to look for clues. They even endured Jim’s very intense poop and an absolutely disgusting septic tank shower in a public men’s room to get information for Amanda. If that’s not friendship, I don’t know what is.

What surprised me the most out of all the insanity in Head Over Heels was the incorporation of a murder mystery. I definitely didn’t see it coming, and I just about flew off my chair when Jim “murdered” Megan in his apartment. I sort of wish that Jim would’ve actually committed the murder and was part of a Russian mob or something like that because it would’ve made for a more interesting ending. Alli, what are your thoughts on the idea of Jim being an actual murderer? Or were you satisfied with him being an undercover agent?

Alli: I, too, actually kind of wish he was an actual murderer. The contrast between the bubble gum 90’s romcom aesthetic and a grim serial killer story really could have saved this movie for me. If Amanda had actually had a bad case of Hybristophilia (a crime fetish; I just looked up this word in case anyone was getting worried about me), I think the dark turn could have made for an extremely interesting and unique twist. Imagine her going to all this trouble and Rear Window-esque voyeurism to find out he actually did, only for her to realize that she doesn’t care and still loves him anyway. I thought the whole undercover agent thing was tacked on and sloppy. I understand that we’re supposed to be rooting for Amanda and want her to finally fall in love with Mr. Right, but it just seemed like a forced way to have a happy ending. It did make it possible to have that bizarre fashion show chase scene, though.

Fashion is an interesting part of this movie. The four models are dressed in perfect representation of current fashion for 2001, fashion that is now extremely dated. It seemed like, though, Head Over Heels was already acknowledging how ridiculous this all is. In the scene where the four models give Amanda a makeover, she knows it’s ridiculous. Her crush, Jim, knows it’s ridiculous.

Rather than a love letter to the fashion of the times, this movie strikes me more as a subtle satire. There’s vapid models constantly getting pointless plastic surgery done, who only care about rich men so they can continue a comfortable lifestyle (though, they do have a certain amount of Girl Power and protective instinct when it comes to Amanda), and there’s the fashion show gone wrong, but the press thinks it’s intentional. Brandon, what do you think about fashion in this film?  Do you see this movie as a satire of the industry?

Brandon: It’s clearly satire, but I think there’s a pretty distinct difference between the way this film handles its fashion industry parody and how that same attitude is executed in meaner, more pointed works of the era like Zoolander & Josie and the Pussycats. When we first encounter Amanda’s fashion model roomates, Head Over Heels clearly sets up a dichotomy between our protagonist’s supposedly more worthwhile career in fine art academia and the mindless frivolity of fashionista trend chasing. Unlike with Zoolander, however, the fashion industry and the perceived stupidity of fashion models eventually fades as a punchline and we start to see the value of their lifestyle. One of the roomates is a cunning academic who put her education on hold to take advantage of what a young, beautiful body can (temporarily) afford her. Casual nudity, aggressive catwalking, uninhibited attitudes toward sex, and blatant financial negotiations with men who want to be seen in public with them all afford these women a certain confidence & power that Amanda’s missing out on as a meek, academic shut-in. Waters (who is no stranger to dark humor in projects like Mean Girls and House of Yes) will sometimes undercut their power with somewhat tragic jokes about incest, child prostitution, and routine plastic surgery, but his script makes it clear that these are worthwhile, intelligent people who improve Amanda’s life with their specific skill set & collective life experience. There’s plenty of stray jabs aimed at the basic absurdity of fashion modeling as a profession, but the models themselves aren’t portrayed as nearly as cruel or idiotic as the people who look down on them merely for being models (especially the reoccurring police officer who won’t take their legitimate cries for help seriously until after they’re vindicated by his higher-ups).

One thing I love about the film that the modeling industry opens up to it is the incessant runway music. Gay 90s club music is just as omnipresent here as it is in the SNL comedy A Night at the Roxbury, which feels like a deliberate choice, given that this film would’ve been released a few years after the heyday of acts like La Bouche and Real McCoy. From the A*Teens’ aggressively bubbly cover of ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” in the make-over montage to the film’s wordless, repetitive Gay 90s theme music to the choice to include The Go-Go’s titular hit song “Head Over Heels” instead of the more obvious (and more romantic) Tears for Fears option, there’s a very specific soundtrack direction to Head Over Heels that keeps it away from the detached cynicism of Zoolander and moves it toward the absurdist fantasy of films like Spice World & Teen Witch. As Head Over Heels shifts its genre gears from romcom to Farrelly brothers-style gross-out to murder mystery to action comedy, the 90s style club music remains its only real constant, a consistent runway beat that feels just as important to the fashion world setting as the actual on-the-runway debacle of its Fashion Week conclusion.

Boomer, did you at all notice the soundtrack while watching Head Over Heels or did it just feel like typical romcom tunage to you? Is the film’s 90s-hangover club music significant to its fashion world aesthetic or am I allowing my love of acts like Deee-Lite & Snap! to make it appear to be more than it is?

Boomer: I love this question, because I’ve held a longtime fascination with films that are named for song titles. Until the 1980s, most movies that followed this naming convention were about music and starred musicians: White Christmas (1954) starring Bing Crosby, Rock Around the Clock (1956) starring Bill Haley and the Comets and The Platters among others, and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) starring future Mrs. Brian De Palma Nancy Allen and focusing on four girls going to see The Beatles. Starting with John Hughes’s 1984 film Sixteen Candles, there was a boom of more romantic films taking their titles from classic love songs and contemporary pop music. Candles was followed by Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Some Kind of Wonderful, Roxanne, and Can’t Buy Me Love (all 1987), My Girl (1991), Love Potion No. 9 (1992), When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), One Fine Day (1996), Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), Simply Irresistible (1999)Of course, the veritable apotheosis of this concept was 1990’s Pretty Woman.

This conceit started to die out around the time that Head Over Heels was released (give or take a Sweet Home Alabama here and there), but I have to admit that, minus the cover of “Take a Chance on Me,” and the inclusion of the title song, none of the music in the film stood out to me all that much. That’s odd, considering how often I find myself consciously dissecting a film’s score while watching, sometimes to my own annoyance (while at a recent screening of A Tale of Two Sisters, every time the piercing, intense strings started playing, I found myself daydreaming about Psycho). Maybe the overall generic nature of the (accurately described) “gay 90s club music” is what makes the film flow with such grace. It fits well enough that it’s beneath notice, which is a compliment, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

When I hear the phrase “head over heels,” I too first think of Tears for Fears, but looking at the lyrics of the Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels,” it’s apparent why this is the title song and not the more famous new wave track. The song includes lines like “I couldn’t see the warning signs/I must be losin’ it/Cause my mind plays tricks on me,” which is much more in line with Amanda’s state of mind than poetical waxing about talking about the weather, wasting time, or being lost in admiration. It’s more consistent with the film’s thesis of a woman who has been fooled too many times but still finds herself smitten with a handsome stranger against her better judgment, although I can almost hear her say “don’t take my heart, don’t break my heart/Don’t, don’t, don’t throw it away” (presumably while sitting on the stairs outside a dreamboat’s apartment while he explains that his work persona is a facade).

To be honest, a part of me wishes that this was less of a romcom and more about an art restorer who gets into international shenanigans with the help of her fashion model roommates. Britnee, what do you think of the espionage plot? I agree with Alli that it feels tacked on and sloppy, and I wish the intrigue of smuggled diamonds had played a larger role in the overall narrative. Do you feel the same way? What changes would you make to the screenplay if you had the chance?

Britnee: I agree that the whole secret agent twist was sloppily thrown in. To be honest, I was waiting for another plot twist to happen about 5 minutes to the end of the movie where Jim reveals himself as a murderer disguised as a federal agent who was pretending to be a murderer. Anything would have been better than the overused agent-in-disguise cop out. I get it, Amanda and Jim needed to end up together, and this was written in the script so the two love birds could have their “happily ever after.” It just felt so lazy. Thankfully, there were many other interesting events that made up for it.

Like Mark, I too would like to see the film focus more on Amanda’s career as an art restorer because that has to be one of the coolest jobs on the planet. If I could make changes to the screenplay, I would definitely make the film more of a fantasy romcom that would focus on Amanda’s art restoration skills. Amanda receives a renaissance painting in desperate need of restoration, and as she starts to restore the faces on each person in the painting, they come to life. Sort of like the street art in the movie Xanadu. The characters from her paintings are confused about the time period change, and she has to bring them home with her until she can figure out a way to get them back to their world. When Amanda leaves the medieval folk at her apartment while she attempts to research the mysterious painting, her model roommates give them makeovers and take them out clubbing. Amanda would end up falling in love with one of the painting characters and in the end, she would chose to go back with them to their time period as she doesn’t feel like she fits in with early 2000s city life. Also, I would make sure that my version of Head Over Heels would be a bit slower than the original so the audience could have time to catch their breath and comprehend what’s going on.

Alli, did you feel as though the pace of Head Over Heels was extremely fast? The moment the film begins, Amanda’s voice immediately started to describe her upbringing, and everything was moving at 100 mph from that moment on.

Alli: I did think the pace of the movie was pretty strange actually. I felt like it breezed over interesting and important things and then spent too much time on others. Like you said, there’s barely any time spent on her career, even though it’s made out to be a minor plot point eventually, but we get to see a bunch of Freddy Prince Jr. doing chin-ups. I think part of it was that there was so much stuff going on in this movie, too much even. There wasn’t enough time to make a well paced film, because there was just a lot. It’s the sort of movie that makes you think, “less is definitely more.”

I think I would have cut out the jewel heist, and made it an art related plot. The diamonds just felt thrown in there. I know it was a good vehicle for the runway sequence, though. I think it would have also helped to have the big undercover agent reveal earlier on if we’re forced to go that route, instead of Amanda investigating this murder forever. Another thing that could go is the voiceover. We can see she’s in New York. We can see that she’s unlucky in love, but has a dream job. Maybe, I’m just being a hardline film snob here, but the voiceover felt completely unnecessary.

Brandon, are there any details you find unnecessary? Am I being too hard on the voiceover?

Brandon: “So dumb,” “sloppy,” “extremely dated,” “lazy,” “not a good movie,” “actually kind of awful;” I’m being a little unfair with the pull-quotes I’m cherry picking here, but it is funny how willing we are to tear this movie down even though we seemed to have a lot of fun watching it (excluding maybe Alli). The problem there might be that the romcom fantasy is so inherently frivolous as a genre that it can’t support this kind of roundtable critical discussion without the conversation devolving into nitpicking. I don’t often excuse the use of voiceover as an easy narrative tool, but removing it from Head Over Heels would be like asking a Batman movie to skip its suiting-up montage or a slasher film to cast geriatric actors instead of hot, horny teens. Without its voiceover narration, Head Over Heels would likely be a struggle to follow as an audience, given the film’s whiplash-inducing pace & shifts in tone. More importantly, though, it would remove one of the earliest & most consistent markers that this is an exercise in romcom genre filmmaking, with all the deliriously silly bells & whistles the format implies. The voiceover is just as much a part of the territory to me as the film’s dogwalking meet cute, its Big Misunderstanding romantic mixup, or its pretty-but-not-too-pretty lead (Monica Potter looks like she was built in a lab by combining Sandra Bullock & Julia Roberts DNA into a cute, but “approachable” hybrid).

What’s most fun about Head Over Heels is how it uses this familiarity with romcom tropes to allow the film to continuously shift gears from minute to minute in terms of content & tone. The clash of Zoolander-style fashion world parody with Hitchcock homage thriller beats, diamond heist action comedy, and scatological Farrelly brothers humor amounts to a disorienting, absurdist whirlwind that in any other situation might feel like an untethered mess, but there’s always the familiar romcom structure about a clumsy academic-type with “the worst taste in men” waiting to anchor the story to something that can easily be processed & understood. I believe that method of anchoring the film was an entirely intentional decision on Waters’s part, one that allows for a lot of the film’s more absurd tangents to creep in (like its crossdressing security guard or its unexpectedly raunchy cunnilingus joke), while still making for one of the most memorable romcom plots of all time. In terms of pure absurdity, it’s right up there with Brittany Murphy learning to make a magical bowl of ramen in Ramen Girl or Aubrey Plaza falling for a delusional “time traveler” in Safety Not Guaranteed or whatever the hell’s going on in former Movie of the Month entry My Demon Lover. I’m not saying that Head Over Heels is beyond critical nitpicking because of the genre territory it willfully chooses to occupy, but I just don’t have the heart to tear it down myself. I had too much fun going to the one million and ten places the movie took me in just 90 minutes to sour on the trope-reliant methods it needed to exploit to get me there.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Candi, the Australian model, was my favorite character. Her quirky personality and constant plastic surgery procedures added a lot of humor to Head Over Heels. However, I could have done without all the creepy Uncle Pete comments. Those just made me feel super uncomfortable.

Alli: I was really not expecting the amount of poop jokes. Poop jokes are fine and all, but it just didn’t work for me. The one in the bathroom stall is nauseating even.

Brandon: It’s funny to me that everyone’s drawing a line here as to where specific gags of crude, gross-out humor didn’t work for them. While I was a little more willing to follow Head Over Heels into its nasty child abuse humor and grotesque scatological visuals than Britnee or Alli (if not solely because they were such an absurd intrusion on the typically tamer romcom reverie at the film’s center), I also had a moment where the movie pushed me a little too far: the film’s plot-instigating meet cute. Freddie Prinze Jr. is introduced walking a friend’s dog (a Great Dane named Hamlet, heh heh) that knocks over and sexually mounts our poor down-on-her-luck protagonist. My shock at this most undignified public degradation might be a result of it arriving long before any of the film’s other gross-out gags. It was still shockingly cruel either way, a moment that’s even repeated to bring the chaotic plot around full-circle in a strangely sadistic way. Although I was taken aback by the film’s bestial meet cute cruelty, however, I still ultimately respect that it could have that kind of effect on me at all. It’s not often that a traditional romcom can surprise its audience that sharply and it’s only one of many examples of Head Over Heels continually pulling the rug.

Boomer: I think that some of the aberrant elements of the screenplay were an attempt to appeal to too many people: eye-candy in the form of FPJ doing pull-ups and lady models strutting about in various states of undress to suit whatever your tastes may be; scat humor and an action plot to serve as a more stereotypically masculine counterweight to the trappings of the “chick flick” formula (i.e., makeovers and girlie talk); a little bit of gay panic with Amanda and her overly-touchy friend but also a celebration of queerness in the form of Bob’s landlord. It’s probably not the only reason this film was a commercial failure and is relegated to late-night programming on USA, but it certainly doesn’t help. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick a movie that Alli likes next time.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Alli presents Mikey and Nicky (1976)
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)

-The Swampflix Crew

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

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fourstar

There’s an alternate universe where Noah Baumbach’s films, with their manicured Wes Anderson visual palette and ensemble casts of talented actors both early & late in their respective careers, are a populist hit. In the universe we do live in, however, Baumbach’s films are more consistent crowd-splitters. Titles like The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young, and Mistress America look like cutesy indie dramas from the outside, but harbor a strong, corrosive hatred for their own characters, revealing Baumbach to be much more of a misanthrope than he appears to be. The recent comedy Maggie’s Plan is an interesting window into this alternate timeline where Noah Baumbach’s works are actually the smart, breezy farces they’re advertised to be instead of comedic exercises in pitch black misanthropy (which I also enjoy just fine). Starring & directed by Baumbach collaborators (Greta Gerwig & Rebecca Miller, daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller), Maggie’s Plan is not at all a cutesy indie trifle. It still pokes fun at its characters and indulges in morally & emotionally uncomfortable romantic scenarios. It just does so without tail-spinning its audience into frustrated hatred of every personality presented onscreen. The film is much more interested in the complicated plots of Old Hollywood farces and the general quirks of human folly than tearing down the self-absorption & self-destructive ego of modern ennui. I can’t say it’s exactly a better film for it, but it’s certainly a kinder & more enjoyable one.

Greta Gerwig stars as a young East Coast Academic who wants to become a mother under her own terms, a plan that involves a sperm donation from a crazy-eyed hipster who’s made a career for himself as a “pickle entrepreneur” (just about the most Brooklyn thing I’ve ever heard of). The plot is disrupted when Gerwig’s protagonist falls passionately in love with another East Coast Academic™, played by Ethan Hawke, (whom I somehow confused for Kevin Bacon for the opening few scenes). The problem is that he happens to be a married man. The dangerous sensation of this blossoming affair combines with several possible love triangle plots to threaten an eyeroll-worthy romcom yarn, but Maggie’s Plan is much smarter than anything I feared it might become. Instead of the complications of single mother pregnancy and the moral dilemmas presented by romantic jealousy, the movie tackles the ways love & desire are messy, with outcomes that cannot be controlled and the way romantic partners, especially men, can take their significant others for granted, treating them almost like an employee without giving it any thought. There’s no will-they-won’t-they series of missed connections and tangled misunderstandings here. Miller’s farce is much more about the way characters uncomfortable with loosening control over their messy personal lives have to learn to let go and let life happen naturally than it is about who they’ll be sleeping with by the time the credits roll.

Movies with this intimate of a narrative & limited visual scope obviously rely heavily on the strength of their cast to sell their charms and Maggie’s Plan is overloaded with talent. Gerwig does her usual thing, but with a much more endearing spin on her characters’ total lack of self-awareness. Hawke is perfectly cast as the smartest idiot in the room. They’re backed up by a long list of excellent bit players & single scene cameos: Bill Harder, Maya Rudolph, Wallace Shawn, Kathleen Hanna. And that’s not even mentioning Julianne Moore, who very nearly steals the show in an absurd caricature of European academic coldness. Of course, none of this talent would mean a thing without Miller’s superbly constructed script, which manages to feel intelligently assembled & well-considered in every moment while still working in punchlines as inane as “I don’t want you to have a baby with the pickle man.” There are a couple stray choices that make Maggie’s Plan feel distinct even as a small budget indie, including a time jump that completely upends its initial plot trajectory & a surprise over-abundance of 60s dancehall reggae on its soundtrack. It’s the cast Miller assembles and the ways her script arranges those chess pieces to craft a newfangled version of an Old Hollywood farce that makes the film worth a recommendation, though. It’s all intricately plotted stuff made to somehow feel like effortless charm.

It’s probably not at all fair of me to conjure Noah Baumbach’s name in this review, as Rebecca Miller has had a long, self-driven career long before recently joining forces with that divisive filmmaker. It’s likely that Gerwig’s presence is a lot of what recalls his work here. I really do think that anyone on the verge of liking Baumbach who finds his general misanthropy difficult to stomach would likely enjoy Maggie’s Plan, though. It’s just reminiscent enough of his storytelling style to draw the comparison, but so distinctly on its own wavelength that it won’t feel like an empty exercise for those who devotedly follow his career. I’m now curious myself to double back and watch some of Miller’s previous works to see if this is a vibe she’s always worked within. Maggie’s Plan at the very least proves her capable of turning small, familiar parts into memorably distinct, endearing pictures. It’s a lot rarer than it sounds.

-Brandon Ledet

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

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fourstar

“I just had the worst thought. I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with myself.”

Is the world finally realizing that the 90s high school movie was one of the all-time heights of comedy cinema? The last gasp of the genuine Heathers & Clueless lineage might have been Mean Girls in 2004, but we’ve recently seen a few really great throwbacks to the era that repurpose 90s high school movie tropes for a new effect. Cheerleader reinterprets the genre as an abstract art piece. The To Do List transforms it into a raunchy, gender-flipped sex comedy. The DUFF lightly parodies it in a longform homage. The Edge of Seventeen, for its part, follows the basic rules of the 90s high school movie, except it matures the material slightly by portraying its teen girl protagonist as a deeply flawed antihero. Nadine (Hailee Seinfeld) is a mean, self-centered emotional wreck who talks trash a mile a minute as a means to cover up her own anxieties & vulnerabilities. In other words, she’s a realistic portrait of a teenager (or at least how I remember my asshole teenage self). The Edge of Seventeen is a worthy contribution to the high school comedy genre, not least of all because it adds a realistic layer of paradoxical self-loathing narcissism to its young protagonist that taps into a strikingly honest aspect of teen life that isn’t often represented onscreen. Or at least not often enough.

The movie opens with a grizzled history teacher (Woody Harrelson, reprising a less-drunk version of his role in The Hunger Games) shrugging off Nadine’s threat of suicide. She’s in so much pain; you can see it in her eyes as she rattles off a long list of grievances with the world and the details of the way she’d most like to die. Her teacher slowly, methodically deflates her moment of crisis by turning it into a quietly sweet, but deeply mean-spirited joke. This method works in its own weird way as it both slows down Nadine’s panic-mode thought processes, but also matches her own mean-spirited mode of verbally lashing out at people she cares about, but can’t control. Her reasons for being suicidally upset range from legitimate grief over a lost family member to petty anxiety over not being able to dictate the romantic pairings of her best friend, her family, her crush, or the boy who crushes on her. She harshly pushes away anyone who could potentially care about her, yet yearns for genuine interpersonal intimacy. The Edge of Seventeen is an eerily accurate portrait of teenage life that captures both the small details of lazing around watching TV, depending on others for transportation, and puking orange soda mix drinks into your parents’ toilet as well as the larger themes of godlike hubris clashing with soul-crushing self deprecation that makes teens so difficult to deal with, even when you are one. As self-centered as Nadine constantly seems to be, she often breaks down to ask friends questions like “How do you even like me? What’s wrong with you? I don’t even like me.” It’s that exact narcissistic self-conflict and focus on an anxious time where every thing means everything that makes this film so true to one of life’s most unpleasant stretches.

One of the best parts about The Edge of Seventeen is how it accomplishes all this while still feeling like a traditional high school comedy. This isn’t the soul-shattering trauma of The Diary of a Teenage Girl or the indie-minded, slang-loaded melodrama of Juno. In its own muted way, The Edge of Seventeen follows the will-they-won’t-they patterns of any & all high school romcoms and it’s tempting to call the film typical of its genre because of that narrative predictability. Everything outside of the basic plot structure is handled too smartly for me to be that reductive, though. Nadine’s own quest for self-acceptance and friendship is given far more prominence than her romantic machinations. Of all the people she can’t seem to get along with despite herself, she clashes hardest with her mother, yet the two are nearly identical personalities. The movie could’ve made a huge, emotionally cathartic deal out of that tension or out of Nadine’s oddly antagonistic relationship with her favorite teacher. Instead, it lets those relationships exist as they are and allows the audience to catch up with how they’re significant in its own time. It’s also an R-rated teen comedy with a female emotional bully protagonist who’s far less interested in winning people over than she is in protecting herself from yet another damaging blow to her heart & her ego. As much as The Edge of Seventeen feels like a throwback to a genre that saw its heyday two whole decades ago, it also exists as a shining exception of unflinching black comedy & truthful self-examination that doesn’t often touch the teen comedy genre outside an outlier like Election or Strangers With Candy. It’s a rare treat in that way, however bittersweet.

-Brandon Ledet

I Married a Witch (1942)

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It’s very cliché to say that a film is “ahead of its time,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe René Clair’s comedy, I Married a Witch. For a film that debuted in the early 1940s, it’s got a very different style of humor when compared to other comedies that came about during that era. When I think of films of the 1940s, I think of Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Meet Me in St. Louis, so watching a film that is about a resurrected witch that preys on a soon-to-be-married man just feels so scandalous!

The film begins with a good old fashioned witch burning in Salem, Massachusetts. Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her father are outed as witches by Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March), causing them both to be burned at the stake. Jennifer doesn’t let Jonathan’s crime go unpunished as she places a curse on his family that will cause all the Wooley men to have unsuccessful marriages. After a hilarious montage showing generations of Wooley men suffering from the curse, the film flips to a present day scene (1942). One of the descendants of Jonathan Wooley, Wallace Wooley (Fredric March…again) is having a party to celebrate his upcoming marriage to his fiancé, Estelle (Susan Hayward), as well as his candidacy for governor. During the grand event, lighting strikes a nearby tree where the ashes of Jennifer and her father were buried centuries ago. The lightning strike causes both witches to be resurrected in the form of clouds of smoke. As they’re floating around outside of the party, Jennifer realizes that Wallace is a descendant of Jonathan, and she decides to torment him by making him fall in love with her. She eventually gets a body, and the shenanigans begin. After she has several unsuccessful attempts at making Wallace fall in love with her, she conjures up a love potion because, well, that’s just what witches do. Her plan completely backfires when she accidentally drinks the potion, causing her to fall head over heels for Wallace. Needless to say, everything still works out as planned because Wallace does eventually fall in love with Jennifer. This movie isn’t called I Married a Witch for nothing.

Lake is absolutely hilarious in her role as Jennifer. She’s totally a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but in the best way possible. Wallace is a stereotypical vanilla politician, and Jennifer is possibly the bubbliest witch in the history of cinema. Watching the two interact is so comical that after seeing this film numerous times, I still catch myself laughing out loud. But it’s Jennifer’s father, Daniel (portrayed by the hilarious Cecil Kellaway), that reigns supreme as the funniest character in the movie. He too eventually gets a body, but he spends a good part of the film as a cloud of smoke that finds himself trapped in various bottles of liquor. There are also several scenes where he is too drunk to perform spells, and he eventually loses his body and gets trapped in a liquor bottle for all eternity. This is why I will forever refer to him as the funniest, drunkest witch dad to ever grace the silver screen.

I Married a Witch is entertaining from beginning to end, and what I love most about this movie is that it is completely re-watchable. I’ve seen the film numerous times and it has yet to lose its charm.

-Britnee Lombas