Category Archives: Romantic Comedy

Julie & Julia (2009)

Julie and Julia

If you haven’t indulged in this film yet, please be aware that this post contains more spoilers than half an avocado left out on a countertop in the middle of a heatwave. (But it’s much more enjoyable.)

Here’s a confession. I thought this film was going to be like one of those pre-packaged cakes with a shelf life of 10 years: sweet enough to satisfy my craving for a sugary treat, but mostly fluff, air, and artificial preservatives. But it’s more like a really good homemade cake: sweet and light but substantial, decorated with flourish, with care baked into every mouthful, and a gentle lingering taste after you’ve finished the last bite.

Cake

Columbia Pictures

It’s written and directed by Nora ‘Queen of Actually Smart Movies About Women’ Ephron, so I should have had more faith. I enjoyed it much more than I thought: but can a movie that’s mostly about women staying in the kitchen deliver from a feminist point of view?

 

What happens in this movie?

This film is based on not one but two true stories. The first one chronologically is that of Julia Child (Meryl Streep), whom we first meet in the 1950s when she and husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) arrive in Paris from America for his Important American Government Job. Looking for something to fill her days, she hustles her way into Le Cordon Bleu (that’s a super fancy French cooking school, for those of us who mostly survive on tinned soup and frozen peas.) Thanks to her resilience, warmth and strong wrist action, she’s soon doing better than the other (all male) students. While living up that expat life in Paris, she meets two French women who are writing a French cookbook for American housewives, and through various twists and turns, Julia ends up editing it: cue a long process trying to get the book published.

Meanwhile, in not-quite-present-day New York City, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is a failed novelist and discontented cubicle drone for the development company in charge of rebuilding Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks, which means taking sad and angry telephone calls from victims, their families, and random members of the public in various stages of grief one year on. Meanwhile, her frenemies are all selling real estate for millions of dollars, getting important promotions, and writing bitchy articles for print magazines (those were a thing in 2002.)

To escape the drudgery and give herself a project to focus on, Julie decides to take one year to cook every recipe in that cookbook Julia worked so hard to get published, now called Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and write about it on this newfangled thing called a blog. This sparks joy, fights with her husband Eric (Chris Messina), a pearl necklace (no, not that kind, the real fake kind) and eventually a publishing deal to write the book that became one of the books this film is based on, Julie & Julia. The other is Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France.

 

Does it pass the Bechdel test?

Yes, multiple times!

Bechdel

Columbia Pictures

For instance, Julia and her collaborators talk about their book; Julie whines to her friend Sarah (Mary Lynn Rajskub) about how everyone else is more successful than her; she and her friends discuss their jobs; and she waxes lyrical to the food writer about how much she loves Julia.

 

What are the female characters like?

Julia Child (Meryl Streep)

Julia bonjour

Columbia Pictures

The Julia Child of the movie is both a wonderfully odd outsider and the kind of person who makes (nearly) everyone feel instantly happier in her presence. In many ways she defies conventions women in the ‘50s were expected to live up to: she was 6’2”, so not your small and dainty girdled housewife; she didn’t get married (or have sex, apparently) until she was in her 40s; she muscles her way into an all-male cooking course; she publishes a book with two other women; she very much enjoys having sex with her husband; oh, and she was a spy, but that’s hush hush.

At the same time as she seems to accept and embrace her differences, she also desires that conventional lifestyle: she wants children but can’t have them; she wants to live in one place instead of having to move around for Paul’s job; she is a housewife; and the kind of cooking she focuses on is home cooking, not the kind you sell in tiny portions in restaurants with no prices on the menu. Oh, and she hates swearing. All of which makes her an enjoyably realistic character (probably because she was real!) And Meryl Streep is fantastic at nailing her extremely unique way of talking, her awkward hand gestures, and her excitable facial expressions, because she is Meryl Streep.

 

Julie Powell (Amy Adams)

Julie blog

Columbia Pictures

Where Julia is confident and warm and ready to take on any challenge, Julie is hesitant and down on herself, at least at the beginning. She gets totally wrapped up in her project — the cooking itself and the blog where she records her progress — which brings her more self confidence and joy and professional pride, but also frustration and a dose of narcissism. If she wasn’t played by Amy Adams, who always finds a way to make her characters charming, she would get frustrating much sooner.

 

How does it represent women?

No men

Columbia Pictures

1) It shows that women are as complex as a perfectly executed curry… sort of.

Having two such different women as main characters does a nice job of reminding everyone that women don’t have to just fit one mold — even when they both enjoy something as stereotypically feminine as cooking. This might be down to the fact this movie is based on two real women’s stories: they are as different as two total strangers living half a century apart really would be.

Hurray for Julia

Columbia Pictures

That said, some of the side characters feel a little reductive, especially Julie’s circle of bitchy ‘friends.’ Her mother is also the typical ‘nagging’ Texas mom who doesn’t understand why she can’t just, like, focus on her husband instead of a big blog project that brings her fulfillment. Julie’s friend Sarah is more sympathetic, and lukewarm supportive, but overall this part of the story feels like it returns to that idea that there are certain ‘types’ of women — the super successful New York career woman, versus the shy, thoughtful, artsy woman — which creates a Mean Girls vibe but without any of the irony.

2) Julia’s storyline celebrates women supporting women… sort of.

Julia’s friendships are a mixed bag too. On the one hand, she’s someone who gets on with anyone and everyone she meets (but without being a doormat.) The notable exception is the woman in charge of Le Cordon Bleu, who is like a cartoon of the snooty French bitch: her hair is pulled back very tight, she purses her lips a lot, and she’s suspiciously slender for someone who runs a cookery school (must be those tiny portions.) She has no redeeming traits, or a reason to dislike Julia other than the fact Julia isn’t behaving how one would expect a housewife in the ‘50s to behave.

The other two women who work on the cookbook — Simone ‘Simca’ (Linda Emond) and Louisette (Helen Carey) — don’t get a lot of airtime but at least they are treated as individuals — partially thanks to the fact they were real people. Julia and Simca are forced to kick Louisette out of the trio because she isn’t pulling her weight, but even this doesn’t make them seem bitchy so much as practical. Julia also has a warm relationship with her equally tall sister Dorothy (Jane Lynch), even when she finds out that Dorothy has managed to get pregnant just months after marrying, which unintentionally rubs Julia’s inability to conceive in her face. Julia’s other BFF is Avis (Deborah Rush), a pen pal she writes to but doesn’t meet for eight years, and it’s probably the warmest friendship of the whole film. So on balance, the Julie portion of the film tries to sort women into rival types, while the Julia section resorts to a few stereotypes but does a better job of showing that women can support each other, even when their personalities are different.

3) Female ambition is only allowed in very specific areas.

The biggest problem I have with this film from a feminist perspective is its critique of female ambition. It seems to want women to stay only in certain roles, while any woman who dares to harbour ambition in more male-dominated industries is subtly shamed for it. We’re meant to root for Julia and Simca as they struggle to find a publisher for this cookbook they’ve spent years writing; but when Julie’s friend announces that she’s just closed a real estate deal for millions of dollars, she’s portrayed as a cold corporate bitch. Ditto for the one who just got a big promotion. If a woman is aiming high in a traditionally female field — i.e. writing cookbooks for housewives — that’s to be applauded, as is trying to get a book deal from your home cooking blog. But just wanting to make a lot of money — or, say, run a high end French cooking school — is unfeminine and a sign that you’re not to be trusted.

Even Julie is criticized for getting ‘too into’ the project she set up for herself. When Julia Child’s publisher cancels their dinner last-minute, Julie is devastated, partly because she thought she might finally get the publishing deal she’s wanted for years, but also because she’d told her readers that there was going to be a big surprise. Instead of empathising, her husband basically tells her no one really cares what she’s doing and she should get over herself, and then storms out and makes her think he’s left her — all for being passionate and committed to a project that makes her happy while also challenging her. Look, movie version of Eric, the whole obsession with Julia Child would get old, I grant you; but at least she’s happy and you’re getting fancy French dinners cooked for you every night, so maybe you should just shut up and eat the damn butter.

Not Paul

Columbia Pictures

4) It shows women can enjoy cooking purely for themselves.

One of my favourite things about this movie is that it reminds us that women can enjoy cooking for their own pleasure. Cooking — home cooking in particular — is usually seen either as something women are supposed to want to do to make other people happy, or as a chore that women are forced to do. In this movie, it’s something they choose to do because it makes them feel challenged and fulfilled.

Julia signs herself up for cooking lessons because she wants to, not because Paul (who is something of a total babe, by the way, much better than Julie’s ungrateful husband) wants or expects her to. Similarly, Julie sees cooking as her escape from her career frustrations, and sets herself the challenge because she wants to. Throughout the film we watch the women’s delight as they master each meal; notably it’s their own delight and enjoyment of the food — the way it looks as well as the way it tastes — and not others’ that makes them happiest. For example, when Julie pulls her duck pie thing out of the oven at the end, and calls Paul over to show him what she calls the most perfect pie in the world; or when Julia chops her onions faster than everyone else; or when Julie takes a bite of the food she’s prepared for the critics and ‘Mmms…’ at her own dish.

While I am frustrated by the implication that women should be satisfied being home cooks rather than chefs, and that reaching beyond that counts as unfeminine ambition, I also love how the movie uplifts the image of home cooking as a creative and fun process that can be worthwhile purely because it makes the cook happy, rather than because they have an obligation or desire to please the people who eat it.

Perfection

Columbia Pictures

Verdict

Four

Overall, this movie does a beautiful job of showing two women challenging themselves purely because they have decided that they want to. The line the movies draws between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ female ambition leaves a bitter taste, as do the reductive been-there-over-it bitchy female friendships in Julie’s storyline, and the head of the French cooking school. Fortunately Julia’s part of the plot goes some way towards showing the potential for positive relationships between women, and ultimately, both of the characters find success in something they are passionate about and challenged by, not because it makes other people happy but because they want to do it.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Biopics, Book adaptations, Comedies, Dramas, Period films, Romantic Comedy

13 Going On 30 (2004)

13 Going On 30 shocked

Columbia Pictures

Fair warning: contains references to the ending that may enable the canny rom com connoisseurs out there to deduce spoilers

Plot

All Jenna (Christa B. Allen) really wants for her thirteenth birthday is to shed her geeky image, get in with the popular girls at school (known as the ‘Six Chicks’) and hopefully get a kiss from her crush. When she invites them all to her party, along with best friend and neighbour Matty (Sean Marquette), things don’t go well, and the girls leave her in the wardrobe to go and find some booze. Those wild eighties kids.

When Matty tries to help, Jenna is furious, pushing him away and wishing she was ‘thirty, flirty and thriving’ like the women in glamorous magazine Poise. Suddenly, thanks to some magic dust (no, that’s not a drug reference), she finds herself transported into the body and life of her thirty year old self (Jennifer Garner). Just go with it.

Once accustomed to novelties like mobile phones, boobs and cocktails, Jenna loves her stylish and fun new life as editor of Poise. It turns out that ‘Tom-Tom’, who was the leader of the Six Chicks when they were thirteen, has changed her name back to the far more sensible Lucy (Judy Greer), and is now Jenna’s best friend and co-editor. While Jenna is thrilled to find that she actually became a member of the group, upon tracking down Matt (Mark Ruffalo she learns that they fell out after her thirteenth birthday party, and that he is now engaged.

As time passes, Jenna realises that for all the perks that come with being an adult (such as limitless junk food and credit cards), she barely recognises the mean person she’s become, and that maybe her thirteen year old self’s priorities were somewhat out of whack. Behind the daft plot lies an endearing story about appreciating what you have, being yourself and not growing up too quickly.

Leading Ladies

Jennifer Garner shines as Jenna in her thirty-year-old form, nailing the mixture of naivety, blissful ignorance and sweetness that make the character so likeable in spite of her superficial teenage ambitions. Judy Greer is funny and hateable as sycophantic and conniving Lucy, while Kathy Baker appears as Jenna’s mother, dispensing support and pearls of wisdom from time to time.

How are women represented?

Fortunately, this film generally avoids the obvious problems that could accompany a plot where adults are interacting with a thirteen year old who appears to be a fully grown woman. Much of the joy of the film comes from Jenna’s wide-eyed and innocent perspective on adult life, which is a refreshing reminder of the fun and hard sides of being grown up. This young perspective makes for a rom com that is endearing rather than sleazy and which carries a strong message about personal growth and understanding.

However, the film’s portrayal of women draws on cultural ideas that offer some mixed messages. Furthermore, despite its moral of self-fulfilment and self-confidence, by the end it has given in to the usual trappings of the rom com genre, in that end the heroine’s romance is portrayed as the most important element of her life.

A quick look at how the female characters behave reveals some disturbing stereotypes. Lucy and the Six Chicks manipulate Jenna into doing their homework for them, and then humiliate her by tricking her into sitting alone and blindfolded in the wardrobe, waiting for her crush to kiss her. Let’s address how disturbing the concept of ‘Seven Minutes in Heaven’ is. The girl goes and waits, blindfolded, in a confined space, and then a boy she can’t see comes in and is ‘allowed to do anything he wants to you’. Not only is this incredibly creepy, but it defines women as the passive object in male-female relationships. To return to portrayal of women, Tom-Tom/Lucy grows up to be a conniving and two-faced double crosser, who tries to jeopardise the friendship between Jenna and Matt out of jealousy over Jenna’s career. Not such a great image of women. Then there’s Jenna’s initial response to her adult life, which is to go shopping, throw on a ton of make-up, moon over boys, and watch sappy films while eating junk food. There’s nothing innately wrong with any of this, but it is a revealing look at what popular culture believes teenage girls want and think about, and what they would do when put in charge of their own lives.

Despite Lucy’s dubious qualities as a friend, the film certainly portrays relationships between women as enriching and supportive. Although she already has Matt, young Jenna aspires to belong to a group of girls; although this is partly to do with their popularity, it recognises that there is something about female friendships that is particularly desirable. As a thirty year old, Jenna turns to Becky and her friends for support, and the sleepover scene where they dance together in their pyjamas while singing ‘Love is a Battlefield’ into hairbrushes (because that’s what girls do when we get together) again shows female friendships as places where individuals find affection, enjoyment and support. Jenna’s relationship with her mother, which appears sporadically throughout the film, also emphasises a particular understanding between women; having just arrived in her new older body, Jenna is desperate to speak to her mother, and she turns to her for advice after recognising that she’s royally screwed up.

This referential view of the bonds between women draws on a perspective that has replaced more traditional and outspoken notions of feminism among some women. While they are not comfortable with describing themselves as feminists, believing this to refer to man-hating, bra-burning spinsters, these women, including famous names like Jennifer Lopez, Charlene Spiterri and Janet Street Porter, identify their friendships with other women as integral sources of comfort and fulfilment. From this comes an understanding as to how to behave towards other women: Jenna is horrified when she finds that she has slept with a colleague’s husband because of the hurt she has done to another woman, even though she has no personal relationship (that she can remember) with the injured wife.

Although this message of female solidarity is ostensibly positive, since it recognises that women are capable of offering each other support and kindness, it is also reductive, prescribing all women with the stereotypical nurturing and emotive personality traits. Furthermore, it doesn’t suggest how a woman might behave and be seen in a relationship with a man, thereby permitting the continued promotion of stereotypical gender roles. It is therefore not surprising that the film ultimately reduces Jenna to the role of typical rom com heroine; she chooses Matty rather than the girls, suggesting that an audience should care more about how her romance fares than her friendship.

This dynamic also plays out in her professional life at Poise, which Jenna is shown to enjoy: we see her working long hours, trying to improve her skills, and giving a passionate presentation about her new ideas for the magazine. However, when the film reveals how Jenna’s life turned out, this element is totally ignored, and we are only shown the details of her love life, implying that this is all the audience really wants to know about. Despite the film’s emphasis on a young woman’s personal development, by the end it is identifying as a love story. While everyone loves a love story, and this is a particularly sincere and believable example, it’s a shame that a film which offered such an endearing and well-developed protagonist ultimately chooses to focus on her as a love interest rather than an interesting personality in her own right.

Verdict

Two

By examining the adult world from the perspective of a thirteen year old, 13 Going On 30 offers a fresh look at the dilemmas and perks that come with being a grown up. While this concept could have been disastrous, the plot generally avoids being creepy, and makes for a sweet romance and a memorable heroine. The emphasis on Jenna’s female relationships identifies women as a vital source of support, advice and friendship for each other. Jenna is portrayed throughout as someone who, despite some poor judgements, is caring and sensitive, but also capable, hard-working and intelligent. However, despite the initial focus on Jenna’s learning curve, the film ultimately centres on the romance plot. This is fine, but disappointing in a rom com that seemed to promise a personal development plot. Furthermore, the female friendships Jenna seeks turn out to be less fulfilling than her relationship with Matt, and Lucy becomes a jealous, back-stabbing stereotype. 13 Going On 30 offers a fresh new premise but fails to live up to its potential. Gather some friends, bring on the junk food and enjoy, but take the representation of women as a work in progress.

How did you perceive Jenna’s female friendships? What are your views on this new ‘alternative’ to feminism? Did you think women in the film were reduced to stereotypes? How badly did you want your own dream house? Seriously, the cotton wool bath bubbles blew my mind. If you have a response to these or any other points raised, don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments section.

If you have a moment, and you’ve liked what you’ve read, please share this post with friends, family and casual acquaintances, and don’t forget to like the blog. You can also tweet thoughts and film suggestions to @LTTL15 or email LTTL15@outlook.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Romantic Comedy, Uncategorized

Jerry Maguire (1996)

Click picture for trailer: Tom Cruise and Renee Zellwegger complete each other in Jerry Maguire

Warning: contains spoilers, sarcasm and a healthy amount of indignation

Plot

Smarmy sports agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) undergoes a crisis of conscience when one of his clients is injured, leading him to write a heartfelt ‘mission statement’ calling for fewer clients, less money and more love. Fired by his horrified company, Jerry’s only remaining client is Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Junior), a skilled American football player who is often overlooked due to his melodramatic fits of rage. This lack of business is perhaps a blessing, given that the only one of his colleagues to follow him into unemployment is accountant Dorothy (Renee Zellwegger), a single mother who lives with her young son Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki) and straight-talking, man-mistrusting sister Laurel (Bonnie Hunt). Ditched by his fiancé Avery (Kelly Preston) and facing dire financial straits, Jerry attempts to make the best of things by starting an ill-advised relationship with Dorothy, which is ostensibly based on the fact he doesn’t like to let people down. Cue a lot of cheesy lines, predictable ‘twists’ and a totally ill-advised will-they-won’t-they plot.

Leading ladies

Renee Zellwegger, is accountant Dorothy, a woman naive enough to marry Maguire, smart enough to break up with him, and naive enough to take him back. The lucky lady who escapes this fate is Avery, Maguire’s kinky, slightly loopy ex-fiancée, played by Kelly Preston, who dares to disagree with his quitting his job without telling her, and to value her own career over massaging his ego. Oh these modern women. Speaking of whom, Bonnie Hunt plays Dorothy’s ‘disapproving sister Laurel’, the woman who dares to suggest that a late night visit from your new boss might be less than innocent.

Bechdel Test

Fails: although the film has four relatively prominent female characters, none of them manage to discuss anything other than a man.

How are women represented?

It is pretty hard to recall the name of anyone in this film that isn’t Jerry Maguire. This is another example of Hollywood’s favourite sort of tale, about the plights and problems that face a wealthy, straight, good-looking, well-educated white man. As such, any character who does not fit this role is cheerfully stereotyped and side-lined so we can focus on the real challenges of the world.

Main female lead Dorothy has no real substance beyond being a hopeless romantic. This is clear from the first time we see her, when she nearly falls out of her seat trying to overhear Maguire describing his proposal to Avery to another passenger on a plane, because a single woman, and particularly one with a small, irritating child in tow, has nothing else on her mind than marriage. She then quits her job at the sports agency to follow a man she doesn’t know into a new business with no money or clients, simply because he deigns to remember her name and the poster she has up in her cubicle. She also puts up with being repeatedly groped and grabbed by a drunken Maguire, because hey, he looks like a suspiciously taller version of Tom Cruise, so he can do whatever he likes, right?

Dorothy continues to overlook the fact she has to support herself and a young child, only choosing to leave her job when she realises that she is draining money from Maguire’s failing company. Having found herself a better (read: actually) paid job, she immediately gives up on this when her new boyfriend/former boss Maguire panics at the thought that the relationship might fizzle out, and proposes on her front lawn. Eventually, she catches up with what the audience realised thirty three minutes previously, namely that this relationship is totally implausible and based on mutual insecurities, and, in a rare moment of clarity, integrity and will power, breaks up with him. Then he bursts into her living room, says he misses her, and they get back together. Because a wildly romantic speech made by a desperate and lonely man solves all relationship problems. Of course, we know that rom coms are supposed to present an idealised view of romance, love and all that mush, but the real love story here is between Maguire and himself. Dorothy contains no substance, serving only as the martyred single mother and hopeless romantic desperately trying to snare Mr Right Now, however wrong he might be.

Surprisingly, Dorothy is one of the two woman that Jerry Maguire actually wants us to like, the other being Marcee Tidwell, Rod’s smart, cutting and supportive wife. The message Jerry Maguire sends to women is that you’re either a devoted wife, or you’re a bitter old hag who wants to be a devoted wife but is too untrusting and selfish to achieve this goal. The divorced women’s group, who dare to criticise men and suggest women might want to live without them, are played as a joke, a bunch of loud, gossipy women trying to hide their loneliness behind anger. Because all women really want is to just get married.

Avery is treated even more coarsely, becoming a petty, slightly manic backstabber when she refuses to sacrifice her career to support Jerry. The only really compelling character in the film is Laurel, who is blunt, thoughtful, practical and protective of her blindsided younger sister. However, because the film identifies these strong qualities as masculine, she is not perceived as a romantic interest but as a loyal supportive character for the typically feminine Dorothy. As Laurel’s steely traits identify her as disconnected from traditional notions of femininity, her suggestion that sleeping with your new boss might be a mistake is perceived as atypical of women, a slightly quirky character trait peculiar to her, because of course ‘proper’ women all want to sleep with men, however unwise the situation might make this. Despite being the only character with an obvious grasp on the stupidity of the situation, she is then shown smoking alone in the dark kitchen, looking wistful as she eats Dorothy’s restaurant leftovers while her sister has loud, giggly sex with a totally unsuitable man. She appears pleased to hear that Dorothy is having fun, stifling a chuckle and she roots through the cold food. From this scene we are can deduce that Laurel, despite her strong will, common sense and intelligence, ultimately accepts that she and Dorothy are incapable of being happy without a man, and that a totally unsuitable man is better than none at all.

Verdict

Image

As the title infers, there is really only one character that matters in this film, to the point that everyone not named Jerry is either there to support him or oppose him. We’re meant to identify with Dorothy’s whimsical quest for romance, and with Marcee’s devotion to her husband, and to criticise the divorced women’s group and Avery as selfish man-hating harpies, and the steely reserve of Laurel as masculine and therefore unappealing in a woman. Unusually for a film that can be categorised as, among other things, a rom com, Jerry Maguire focuses primarily on the directives and needs of a man, and through this focus reinforces a narrow and stereotypical view of women.

Do you agree that Jerry Maguire offers us a poor portrayal of women, or was it right on the money in your mind? Comment below, share your views on the Facebook page and tweet @LTTL15, and remember to follow the blog for more analysis, ranting and reviews. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Romantic Comedy