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Who Killed The Woman's Picture?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire January 29, 2014 at 9:41AM

Are romantic comedies dying because they're lousy, or because male-driven popular and critical culture ignores them?
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In Her Shoes

During the Sundance Film Festival, Buzzfeed's Kate Aurthur caused a minor stir by suggesting that the widespread critical love for the festival opener, Whiplash, might have something to do with the fact that most of the critics expressing said love were men. Given that the movie is about the relationship between an obsessive music conservatory drummer (Miles Teller) and his drill-instructor-like teacher (J.K. Simmons), who uses homophobic taunts and other verbal abuse to beat his students into submission, it doesn't seem like an outlandish suggestion. The only significant female character in the film is a girl whom Teller briefly dates and then dumps, deciding that he doesn't have room in his life for both a girlfriend and his music. There's one female musician (with no dialogue) in Teller's first student ensemble, whom Simmons' character suggests got her first-chair position because she was "cute"; after that, the band around him is all-male until the final scene, when we catch a fleeting glimpse of a female trombone player.

But in a joint conversation between Variety's critics wrapping up the festival, Scott Foundas fired back at Aurthur's tweet:

I was particularly intrigued when Hellion came on the screen after being introduced by the petite, soft-spoken [Kat] Candler, and turned out to be set in this hyper-masculine world of angry, delinquent teenage boys, their distant or absent fathers, and the adrenaline-fueled sport of competitive motocross racing. It also has a great, thrashing heavy-metal soundtrack that includes cuts by Slayer and Metallica. I wonder what the BuzzFeed writer Kate Aurthur -- who used her Twitter feed to accuse you, me and Justin of liking the equally hyper-masculine Whiplash because we’re men -- made of that one. Or the fact that the U.S. dramatic competition jury, which awarded Whiplash its top prize, included two women: the critic Dana Stevens and the filmmaker Lone Scherfig.

I can imagine a few things Aurthur might make of that, including that Hellion doesn't inhabit its male-dominated world with anything like Whiplash's enthusiasm; at one point, Candler shows her would-be teenage tough guy cranking Metallica's "Battery" and bouncing on the living-room couch, his bravado at odds with his childish enthusiasm. Or that given the overwhelmingly male-dominated world of film criticism, it strains credulity to imply that gender has nothing to do with which films are praised and which are ignored.

In his Here & Now & Then column at SundanceNow, Michael Koresky writes about "the slow death of the 'women's picture'" citing the not-so-long ago year of 2005 in contrast to the present day. 

Once, not long ago, there was handwringing about the lack of "good roles" for women, but these days we’re bombarded with discouraging statistics showing that there are hardly any American movies that center on female characters at all. A less discussed reason for this sad trend is the long-standing disinterest in female-centered movies by critics, an apathy that has grown ever more pronounced over the last decade. Cinephilia has never been an exclusively male phenomenon, though (mostly male) critics' long-standing tendency to focus on "dark," hairy-chested narratives (father-son films, war stories, gangland sagas, great-man biopics) has become even more pronounced in recent years. As movie tastemaking gradually moved online, film criticism, in all its high and low forms, became ever more a boys' club.

Meanwhile, at The Atlantic, Alexander Huls argues that the cinematic romance is alive and well, citing such recent exemplars as The Spectacular Now, The Broken Circle Breakdown and Enough Said. But he draws a distinction between those movies and the traditional rom-com:

These films were rich with genuine, sincere ardor, and while they bore all the artistry and seriousness many expect from foreign and independent films, they still captured some of the core elements of what draws many of us to romantic comedies.... What distinguished these films as something better than romantic comedies, however, was their unwillingness to sacrifice the realistic nuances and complexities of relationships. If romantic comedies are fantasies, then this wave of cinematic romances were more like mirrors.

In other words, they're like romantic comedies, but good. 

By my lights, Enough Said, which features sitcom star Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a plot right out of a Shakespearean farce, actually is a romantic comedy, and that the inclusion of "realistic nuance" doesn't push it outside the boundaries of the genre. If you exclude movies with emotionally complex characters from your definition, it can't be a surprise the genre starts to seem pretty wan. 

Huls writes with insight about the movies he favors, but it's not clear how the romantic comedy got roped into this, or, especially, which contemporary rom-coms he's building his argument on. He cites the box-office failures of Admission, Austenland, and Baggage Claim to buttress the idea that the genre's box-office fortunes have dimmed. Not mentioned: last year's Pitch Perfect or this year's Frozen, both of which have plenty of rom-com in their cinematic DNA. The fact that female-driven movies of any kind are increasingly thin on the ground seems as good a reason as the merits of any particular film for the romantic comedy's declining health.

After Koresky's trip to 2005 takes him past the forgotten Prime (Uma Thurman unknowingly dates the son of therapist Meryl Streep) and Junebug -- now remembered, when it is, as Amy Adams' breakthrough film -- he pulls up at In Her Shoes, Curtis Hanson's adaptation of Jennifer Weiner's novel about a pair of mismatched sisters. (Weiner, of course, has her own problems with how literary culture treats popular, female-focused novels.)

In Her Shoes resorts to tidy resolutions and often functions in a broad register (especially once Maggie reunites with her long-lost grandmother, unsentimentally played by MacLaine). But it's a fallacy that, merely by virtue of its genre, such a film is less valuable than Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane, or Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, concurrent male-oriented weepies about broken families that were taken far more seriously by critics and audiences. 

My gut reaction to that paragraph is that Broken Flowers, Keane and The Squid and the Whale were taken more seriously by critics because they're more serious, more interesting movies. Even Koresky, who cites Hanson's "smooth professionalism" and the way the actors "help articulate the knottier emotional issues" seems to regard as more well-executed than inspired. But then, I'm a man, and while Broken Flowers struck me as lovely but slight and Keane furiously well-acted but stylistically overdetermined, The Squid and the Whale hit me right where I live. Although Baumbach's semi-autobiographical tale is about a teenage boy (Jesse Eisenberg) breaking free from his overbearing novelist father (Jeff Daniels), I came away in part envying the intellectual milieu in which his character was raised: Daddy issues, indeed. Whiplash, on the other hand, left me somewhat cold, as did Zach Braff's Wish I Was Here, a more straightforward attempt at wringing tears from father-son strife. 

There's no pinning down the link between the movies critics love and the ones that get made, any more than there is the relationship between an individual critic's gender and the movies he or she responds to. But it's certainly part of the equation, and one of criticism's jobs is endlessly questioning how and when it plays a role.

This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival


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