By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist April 24, 2014 at 1:07PM
This weekend, "The Other Woman," directed by Nick Cassavetes and starring Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann and Kate Upton, comes to theaters. With a plot like a played-for-laughs "Les Diaboliques" (1955)—hey, wasn't that "Diabolique" (1996)?—or an aged-down "First Wives Club," or an aged-up "John Tucker Must Die," it's safe to say that it perhaps is not the most original story in the world. A woman discovers her dreamy boyfriend is actually married, and furthermore, is cheating on both her, and his wife, with other women too, and so teams up with the cuckolded wife (can wives even be cuckolded?) to exact revenge on the cheatin' lyin' no-good three-timin' SOB (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
Producers, despite the hat-tip to dragged-along boyfriends and husbands in the comely shape of Kate Upton running in slow motion in a bikini, are clearly hoping to attract female viewers who are so underserved elsewhere, or so undiscriminating, that they presumably won't examine too closely the shellac-thin glaze of female solidarity that coats the surface of this premise. After all, "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat" may have taught us that it is possible to have financially successful, funny, female-led comedies that are about something other than women relating to each other through men, but not everything can be "Bridesmaids" or "The Heat," can it?
Well, actually why can't it? "The Other Woman" may have some decent gags, and Mann and Diaz are both strong comic performers who can manage that difficult trick of appearing cute and aspirational even while self-deprecatingly face-planting in the shrubbery, but can that really distract us all from the fact that it's a tired plotline that fits as neatly in the 1950s as it does today? Should it? In an effort to offer an alternative to anyone bothered by this sort of thing, and in an effort to convince ourselves that, appearances to the contrary, there is actually a wealth of richer, more interesting women-fronted comedies out there (well, okay maybe not a wealth, but some), we delved into territories outside the current Hollywood machine, to see what we could turn up. Here are five films, each featuring at least two female co-leads, that you might not have seen, to provide an alternative to "The Other Woman" which before you even go in is pretty much a film you kinda have already seen.
The European Hit:“Bagdad Cafe” (1987)
It’s rare that you revisit a film of which you have very warm memories and find that, if anything, you’ve underestimated it. But a recent rewatch of “Bagdad Cafe,” the English-language debut of German-born director Percy Adlon (“Rosalie Goes Shopping,” “Salmonberries”) had just that effect—this offbeat, beguiling film is a rare gem, or more appropriately maybe, a cactus flower blooming where little else grows. Ostensibly a culture-clash comedy of manners when stout, Bavarian Jasmin (Adlon regular Marianne Sägebrecht), having argued with her husband on holiday, trails alone into a run-down gas station/café/motel run by Brenda (CCH Pounder) and proceeds to gently, irrevocably change everyone’s life, her own included, for the better, really it’s an anthemic portrait of the transformative power of friendship—one that in this case is the more satisfying and resonant for being so hard-won.
Shot through with an undercurrent of sadness and hardscrabble desperation, the tiny community of Bagdad, which basically consists of the suspicious, quick-tempered Brenda (who has just thrown out her lazy husband), her pretty, flirty teenage daughter, piano prodigy son with a baby of his own, and the regular patrons (including an against-type Jack Palance revealing comic chops years before “City Slickers”) is initially wary, if not downright rude toward the comically overdressed, tweedy Jasmin (her make-under transformation is a gradual throughline). But as she tentatively discovers her real self in this, the unlikeliest of places, she becomes the heart and the hearth of the Bagdad Cafe, the place toward which everyone gathers closer to warm their hands. In fact, while the premise and even the shooting style is quirky and played for maximum comic effect (viz the silhouette of Jasmin in her feathered Bavarian hat scrubbing down the side of a water tower) there is no mistaking that Adlon and his actors are brimful of love for these characters, and never allow them to become grotesques.
Bursting with life, and rich with incident as it is, however the truly great moments are tiny, like Brenda’s wide smile when she first plays assistant to Jasmin’s magic act—maybe the first smile we’ve seen her give—or Jasmin delicately revealing a nipple to Palance as she sits for a painting. Funny, touching and almost absurdly charming, there is a romance subplot, but the real falling-in-love happens between the two central friends. And in case we're in any doubt where the film's, and Jasmin's, heart lies, we get this perfect moment: in answer to an offer of marriage from a man who adores her, which will solve her visa problems too, Jasmin's response is a small smile and “I’ll talk it over with Miss Brenda.” That is some BFF stuff right there.
The Ensemble Indie: “Clockwatchers” (1997)
Overshadowed in the recent reclamation stakes by the similarly-themed “Office Space,” the directorial debut of Jill Sprecher (who’d go on to make the also underrated “Thirteen Conversations about One Thing”) is this minor-key story of four women working in the same faceless company as the lowest of bottom-rung bottom-feeders: temps. Without offering the catharsis of revenge on offer in “Office Space,” “Clockwatchers” is an altogether more pessimistic affair, but no less funny for it, and perhaps a bit more truthful.
Something of a superhero team-up of female indie actors (this list could have been made up entirely of films starring members of this cast), the laconic but sharp-fanged workplace comedy stars Toni Colette, a couple years after her breakthrough as Muriel in “Muriel’s Wedding” playing Iris, similarly a mousy introvert transformed by friendship with a brasher, brittler woman. That cynical, staccato presence is Margaret, played by Parker Posey, whose witchiness is tempered here by a wide streak of real sadness that makes this one of Posey’s best roles, and largely her film. Indie film royalty Lisa Kudrow plays Paula, who boasts an ever-changing hairstyle and dreams of being “discovered”; while prolific film and TV actress Alanna Ubach rounds out the quartet as Jane, the “good girl” biding her time until her fiance, who is probably already cheating on her, marries her and whisks her, and her OCD away, in his sports car.
The foursome become lunch buddies, loosely allying behind Margaret, who uses the smarts and wit that the company fails to exploit, to find little ways of undermining or sabotaging it, until an accusation of theft threatens to break the fragile bond apart. However the real pleasure of the film is not in its plotting, but in the well-observed insights into life on the corporate hamster wheel—often laced with a real sense of anger and injustice—the quotidien misogyny the women face, the drudgery and the petty tyrannies of those a micrometer higher up the food chain anxious to flex their tiny little bit of power on the only people more disenfranchised than they. It’s the mind-numbing, all conquering power of gray partitions and the gray men that patrol them that preaches an irresistible conformity, so much so that although events conspire to end the blossoming friendship between Margaret and Iris in a cloud of suspicion and betrayal, it’s hard to read Margaret’s exit from this bland vision of hell as anything other than an escape. “Clockwatchers” may feature four women specifically, but it is really a rallying cry for anyone who’s ever been undervalued at work, or felt crushed beneath the weight of a corporate hierarchy pressing down on them from above.