Starring Katherine Heigl, James Marsden
Directed by Anne Fletcher
To begin with — I hate the word “chick.”
Oh, the word by itself is not bad and is even bearable when used as a noun (as in cute chick or groovy chick). But used as an adjective, as in “chick lit” or “chick flick,” it kinda blows.
Not only does it not take into account the things this chick likes (the Star Wars trilogy were my ultimate chick flicks as a kid — Princess Leia rocked, despite the gold bikini), but it’s also a big flashing red sign that says, “This way lies the vapid concerns of women. Feel no need to take them seriously.”
Despite films like My Best Friend’s Wedding, in which Julia Roberts does not get the guy, or the recent Enchanted, which attempted to expose the romantic comedy fairy tale to the harsh light of (live action) day, the genre still insists that every girl’s dream is a “meet cute” that results in a series of mind-numbingly contrived misunderstandings and, ultimately, a wedding.
Despite all of this, Friday night found me and three of my girlfriends at the Regal in Mount Pleasant for opening night of 27 Dresses. As the mother of two small children, I don’t really get out much. So when the opportunity to see a movie presents itself, especially a movie that doesn’t involve Zac Efron, talking vegetables, or singing chipmunks, I always jump at it.
And in this case, the movie seemed harmless — James Marsden is incredibly easy on the eyes and I have a bit of a girl crush on Katherine Heigl (anybody who can be that pretty and still be that dorky is a girl after my own heart).
How bad could it be?
My movie companions, all friends from work, were not as optimistic. To say that they had low expectations for this film is a gross understatement. It’s not just that 27 Dresses is not the kind of movie they’d see of their own volition (there was much love for zombies and aliens and hobbits in our group). It’s also that, like me and, I imagine, lots of women, they reject the notion that human validity for women comes only through heterosexual marriage.
And marriage is what 27 Dresses offers us as the ultimate fulfillment of female life. The movie gives us two options of adult womanhood: You can either be a mousy, insecure, wedding-obsessed workaholic or a trampy, irresponsible liar/drunk (who’s only that way to cover up how sad she is because she doesn’t have a man).
As soon as we see Marsden watching quizzically as Heigl does a quick-change in the back of a taxi as she races back and forth between two weddings, we know immediately that this movie’s going to end with an absolutely stunning Heigl walking down an aisle to a waiting, smitten Marsden. And during the admittedly entertaining scene in which Heigl models her 27 bridesmaid dresses for Marsden, it’s not difficult to imagine that those dresses will play an important role later in the film. 27 Dresses, while perfectly harmless, offers no surprises and does little to move the romantic comedy genre forward.
The audience at the Regal didn’t seem to care, though. 27 Dresses was showing in two theaters, both of them completely full of groups of women (and the occasional guy) laughing loudly and having a generally good time. While my friends and I refused to give into Marsden’s grin or Heigl’s charm, the rest of the women in the theater seemed all too happy to play along.
But why? In a recent New Yorker piece, David Denby writes that the romantic comedy is “entertainment in the service of the biological imperative” and I think he’s probably right about that. The best romantic comedies, When Harry Met Sally, Four Weddings and A Funeral, Bringing Up Baby, Philadelphia Story, and even those that are B-list at best, like Love Actually, dramatize for us the basic human need to connect intimately with another. Of course we would, and should, find such stories compelling.
If we really want to see these kinds of stories done well, we need to skip the chick flick and look to films like 40 Year Old Virgin and Superbad, precisely because they aren’t actually about romance, about boy meets girl.
They are about the messy angst of relationships, the mental and emotional and physical gymnastics we put ourselves through if even the slightest possibility of some connection presents itself. The eventual end — a great first date, a fairytale wedding, a messy divorce — is almost beside the point when compared with the drama of getting yourself ready to be available.
Why do these movies do romance better than the chick flick? Because they are about guys instead of girls. When boys are the protagonists, the romantic comedy genre is loosened up. Marriage isn’t the inevitable end in these movies because no one will believe that an attractive 30-year-old man would spend his adult life waiting for the right woman to come along to make him an honest man. Think about the end of 40 Year Old Virgin — it’s as if the wedding was so cliché that the writers had to insert a surreal dance number to restore balance.
But if it’s not a wedding that the male protagonists want, then what is it? Well, that becomes the question, doesn’t it? They want to feel loved and appreciated. They want meaningless sex and lots of beer. They want everything to stay the same so they don’t have to face their terrifying futures. They want desperately for everything to change. They want to climb mountains and conquer the world. They want to stay in their underwear all day and surf the net for porn. The men in these movies are funny, irresponsible, witty, underachieving, sincere, silly, sweet slackers who some times turn out to be really good guys.
Are they the guy I’d want my son to turn out to be? In many cases, no. Do I think these movies get women? Not really. But unlike Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses (or in Knocked Up or on Grey’s Anatomy), at least the guys in these movies get to be real human beings instead of a shadow of person whose only dream is to catch the bouquet at a wedding reception.