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Women with Guns: Thelma & Louise On Its 20th Anniversary vs. Hit TNT Series Rizzoli & Isles

by Matthew Brennan
August 1, 2011 6:12 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Thelma & Louise, Matthew Brennan's latest “Now and Then” compares and contrasts Ridley Scott and Callie Khouri's groundbreaking road trip and TNT's police procedural/buddy series Rizzoli & Isles.

Louise (Susan Sarandon) pulls no punches, but she’s fastidious, too. She pins her hair back tight and tugs her jacket on as snugly as she can; her kitchen is spotless enough to be a makeshift hospital room. Thelma (Geena Davis), on the other hand, is slovenly, loud. She skitters around in a floral housedress, surrounded by so many coupons, newspaper clippings, telephone bills, and other ephemera you’d be hard pressed to tell kitchen from master bedroom. She’s also charmingly nonchalant, dropping a silver gun in her purse like an extra shade of lipstick. In Thelma & Louise , a real pistol crack of a feminist caper, the gun’s the thing.

Thompson on Hollywood


Indeed, when a slithering cowboy named Harlan rapes Thelma in the parking lot of a roadside honky-tonk, the gun, which she’s passed off to Louise in the interim, proves pivotal. His invective is so virulent that the spit swings down in great gobs from his mouth — a primal hatred he turns on Louise when she arrives, weapon drawn. “We’re just havin’ a little fun,” he leers.

Sounds like you have a real fucked up idea of fun!” she replies. And then, her voice cracking slightly as the emotion rises up inside her: “In the future, when a woman's crying like that, she isn't having any fun!”

What he says next is so despicable it’s not worth printing, but needless to say it’s all the justification she needs. She shoots him dead, and her fierce retort when Thelma suggests they go to the police gets at the heart of why the movie remains so powerfully perceptive two decades on. “About a hundred goddamn people saw you dancin’ cheek to cheek with him all night!” she yells. “Like they’re going to believe that [you were raped]! We don’t live in that kind of a world, Thelma!”

Thelma & Louise is risky, hard-nosed, and freewheeling, passing through desert landscapes and low-slung towns on the way to freedom. Brilliantly, Sarandon plays Louise high-strung and nervous, dragging on every cigarette as though it’ll be her last; Davis elevates Thelma above a funny femme fatale with the merest inflection. “Somethin’s crossed over in me,” she tells Louise, her voice flickering between exhilaration for her new life and regret for wasting her old one. “I can’t go back. I couldn’t live.”

The world we do live in falls short — unfortunately, it’s still one where an attractive woman who has one too many drinks and dances cheek to cheek “had it coming to her.” Our heroines rightly give ’em hell anyway: a sleazy truck driver learns his lesson, Brad Pitt obliges us with some male objectification by baring his backside, and the police see that happiness is more than a little tract house on the prairie. I’ve always felt ambivalent about Thelma & Louise, uncertain whether it’s unquestionably happy or unbearably sad. I’ve never had the same ambivalence about Thelma and Louise themselves, because in the end their facility with a gun is less important than seeing their hands clasped together in a kind of communion, grabbing control of their destiny. Sink or swim, they’re in this thing together.

If Thelma & Louise is full of heartburn, then Rizzoli & Isles, TNT’s hit dramedy about two friends who crack cases for the Boston P.D., is unfailingly mild: mildly amusing, mildly compelling, mildly feminist. Currently airing its second season on Mondays at 10 p.m., it’s a series with potential. By the end of the first two episodes it had, almost unaccountably, drawn me in — the narrative hangs together with the pleasant somnolence of an episode of House, never twisty enough to require full attention but never simple enough to rely wholly on the characters for propulsion.

And boy, is that happy news, because we’re talking here about writing with all the personality of a Chia pet: “There’s something good about ugly scars [because] you can’t pretend it didn’t happen” is the sort of thing that’s standard issue. Whereas Thelma & Louise soars and scats its way west, Rizzoli & Isles sounds like it’s still missing the high notes, especially as it gets up to speed. One reason the rollicking adoption-scam yarn of the second episode came as a nice surprise may have been that the painful exposition of the premiere had already to put me to sleep. The long-term problem, though, is how forcefully “quirky” the series wants its characters to be.

As Det. Jane Rizzoli, the damaged tomboy who took a bullet to save three colleagues in the Season One finale, Angie Harmon handles this with aplomb. Jane is plucked clean from a bad facsimile of the Cagney & Lacey playbook, but Harmon is impressively funny, especially in the exchanges with her overbearing mother (the decisively witty Lorraine Bracco). They both know how to hit the laugh lines with just the right off-centeredness, like drummers keeping a blues beat. Even in the more weighty moments, when the show tends to go downhill fast, Harmon holds her own — something about her scratchy voice, a full octave below sunny, makes the woodenness of the writing seem like a tough-gal defense mechanism.

Poor Sasha Alexander, however, can’t cut the mustard as Dr. Maura Isles, a medical examiner with enough personality tics to fill a one-woman show. (She owns a tortoise, for crying out loud.) Isles, if she’s to work at all, requires something a little looser than what Alexander can bring to the role — Diane Keaton in the days of Annie Hall might have done it right, mixing intelligence and sly goofiness in an “absent-minded professor” sort of way. But that’s a big “if”: Isles has the infuriating habit of diagnosing everyone she encounters, busting out prickly evaluations straight from the Merck Manual.

This is supposed to be endearingly grating, though you probably won’t be surprised to hear that it’s just plain grating — perhaps an unintended consequence of hewing so closely to the whole “spiky savant” trend on TV. Rizzoli & Isles falls more on the endearing side for now, but when one of your main characters is annoying and unoriginal it’s time to tread carefully. You’re on a slippery slope.

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