girl power on the fringes of legality

The Post Exchange on FOB Warhorse has given up. There’s still a copy of the first season of MacMillan & Wife, for some reason, and a number of copies of Spider-Man 3, but basically the DVD racks are empty — they’ve stopped re-stocking. The reason is obvious — the “hajji shops” right across the way, the quasi-legal bazaar where locals sell pirated DVDs of popular movies as well as complete runs of nearly every worthwhile TV show ever. Spider-Man 3 at those booths may not have the extra features that a legit DVD does, and occasionally the picture wobbles and you see the edges of the screen when the guy in the theatre falls asleep, but fuck, it’s three bucks. You can get the entire run of Seinfeld or The Sopranos for ten.

I’ve tried to stay on the legal, nice-image-quality side of the divide for most of my tenure here in Iraq, ordering frequently from Amazon and occasionally stooping as low as the ESPN show Tilt when there was nothing else available in the P/X. But in the past couple of months I’ve simply given up. Amazon can’t deliver the instant satisfaction that local borrowing and swapping can, and in that milieu the pirated copies are too ubiquitous to be completely avoided. Also, it’s simply impossible to keep up with certain current shows without resorting to piracy. (These recent broadcasts are often some of the best-quality videos, since they’re ripped directly from DVR.)

So I took a couple of DVDs out of the shared platoon binder yesterday, including one of the “8-in-1” special discs. These are theoretically collections of films on a certain theme; this one was supposed to be “crime” movies, but in fact included the Sandra Bullock wacky-witchcraft picture Practical Magic, so I’m not sure the guys making these discs really give a damn what films end up grouped together.

One of the pictures could certainly be described as a crime story, at least in a technical sense — 2005’s Pretty Persuasion features plenty of criminal acts, though none of them adds up to anything tremendously dangerous, minus one suicide. Unlike the indie favorite Brick, a high school faux-noir from the same year, Pretty never delves into really deep criminal waters, like murder and drug trafficking. But that’s not to say that Evan Rachel Wood’s Kimberley Joyce isn’t doing her damnedest to fatale everyone and everything in sight. The daughter of an electronics salesman (James Woods in full-on rage mode, which works pretty well) attending an elite Beverly Hills private school, aggressively sexual, artistic, and fascinated by fame and the media, Kimberley is at the nexus of a whole panoply of contradictions in American culture, and credit has to be given to writer Skander Halim — he’s bitten off quite a large chunk of our social madness, and he works very hard at passing it all through the colon of satire.

The film starts off terribly, to be frank — its Mean Girls-style introduction of various cliques seems well-written and witty, but the delivery is too slow-paced, and shot in far too conservative a fashion, to engage us. (I’m inclined to lay the blame primarily on director Marcos Siega.) Once the plot kicks in, though, and we start jumping back and forth in time to put together the pieces of an Oleanna-style sexual harassment case, things pick up a bit. The brilliant Ron Livingston, as an English teacher and drama coach whose occasionally inappropriate interactions with his students give Kimberley a perfect opening to create a public scandal, makes the most of some improbable setups — accidentally causing a student to masturbate in front of her drama class, acting out a fantasy about his students with his wife. He gives these scenes just enough credibility, with his understated, guy-next-door persona, to let the audience swallow the bait, which allows Halim to get some interesting hooks down our throats.

The screenwriter is clearly interested in exploring the contradictions in, and the punishing nature of, American social mores, and how they tend to shape us into amoral creatures. Kimberley, like most young people, is learning to shift instantaneously, chameleonically, between racism and political correctness (revealed to be two different kinds of stereotyping), between a shameless and pornographic sexuality and a hypocritical standard of female chastity and innocence, between artistic expression and the salesmanship necessary to get that art seen, between class warfare from above and class insurgency from below. When she emerges as a ruthless manipulator, Richard III in a gray wool skirt, it can hardly surprise us. This is what our unresolved and flatly contradictory social messages have made her.

The counterpoint to Kimberley’s development as sociopathic operator is the story of Randa, an Arab immigrant whose hijab and sexual conservatism serve as a constant reminder that there do exist other moral codes which, if unattractive to us in some ways, are at least consistent and, in some ways, more humane than our own. Kimberley first befriends Randa and then, in the film’s least convincing moment, destroys her, but it’s clear from Jump Street that she’s never going to think she has anything to learn from her. I found this interesting in the extreme, because Randa is the only really moral character in the film, and she stands in, allegorically, for both Islam and the part of the world that is attracted to American wealth but ultimate repulsed by American immorality. Since the beginning of the “War on Terror,” Christian extremists in this country have been hinting that Islam is irredeemably evil, and recently atheist activists have jumped on the bandwagon; these two groups agree on nothing, but they agree that whatever America is (a gun-wielding Christian nation, a secular pleasure-dome of freedom), Islam is its mortal enemy. In subtle ways, this article of faith has become the one universal in the American public debate. Yet I can’t help feeling that by failing, consistently, to understand the people who refuse to become a part of the Western cultural empire, we’ve failed to examine our own uglier side. So props to Halim for attacking the problem with such enthusiasm and courage — his satire is not as perfect or as funny as its obvious model, Alexander Payne’s Election, but in some ways its aims are bigger and more important.

Jenny McCarthy has existed on the periphery of my consciousness for more than a decade; the Playboy model and comedienne keeps popping up on MTV and guest-starring in single episodes of reputable shows. I always sort of liked her for her apparent one-of-the-guys straightforwardness, but I’d never really given her much thought. So when Dirty Love, a, um, romantic-grossout-comedy that she wrote for herself, also appeared on the dubiously-named “8-in-1 Crime” DVD, I thought I’d catch up, despite its 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Man I hate Rotten Tomatoes. I think it’s a terrible invention — it and its equally foul brother, MetaCritic. Is there any worse idea than pooling all the reviews of a film in a single place and giving a conclusive, single-number rating for a film? First of all, for those of us who don’t necessarily review (or see) a movie in the opening week, it poisons the well, kind of like election coverage that reports wins and losses on the East Coast before the West Coast has had a chance to vote. Second of all, it tends to let people who don’t want to do a lot of thinking, or reading, make snap judgements about a film, and then hold up the scientific-seeming (and certainly unarguable) numerical rating as a reason not to see something. This is especially annoying when you’re trying to get a group of people together to go see a movie in the theater. Third, the averaged opinions of a large number of idiots and a small number of people who know what they’re talking about will be, on average, idiotic. (Rotten Tomatoes does attempt to mitigate this somewhat with its “cream of the crop” section, but it doesn’t help that much, because half of those critics are beholden to certain inexcusable dogmas of middlebrow cinema myth, such as the notion that Al Pacino is a good actor.)

Here’s a sample of critical opinion on Dirty Love, from the normally mild Stephen Holden:

Even by the standards of its bottom-feeding genre, “Dirty Love” clings to the gutter like a rat in garbage. Ms. McCarthy compensates for her utter lack of comedic skills by making clown faces and emitting earsplitting omigod’s after each humiliation. Think of her as the MTV-schooled version of Anna Nicole Smith: a self-abasing exhibitionist who would do absolutely anything to be noticed.

Wow. Tough words from a guy who gave Find Me Guilty 4.5 out of 5.

Anyway, let me not try to defend Ms. McCarthy, exactly. Several minutes into this film, immediately after discovering that her boyfriend has been cheating on her, she stumbles out onto the street in front of his apartment and screams, in the most horrible voice possible, “OH MY GOD!!!” Then she does it fifteen or sixteen more times. Sometimes she rattles the security grille on a nearby storefront; sometimes she throws herself to the ground, sometimes she accosts passersby. And always with the same, as Mr. Holden says, “earsplitting” shriek of frustration.

This is one of those moments that’s just going to separate audiences. Curdle them, even. Like the manic mugging of Jerry Lewis or the agonizing Marxist lecturing of Jean-Luc Godard, either this turns you on or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, it REALLY doesn’t. It didn’t work for me, exactly, as a believable or enjoyable bit of “acting,” but it did clearly eliminate typical rom-com, or even normal comedic, performance as a mode for this film. And once I switched that off, and got into McCarthy’s peculiar, over-the-top, Lucille-Ball-with-fart-jokes method of madness, I had a pretty damned good time.

There’s really nothing to this sweet little comedy: McCarthy plays Rebecca Sommers, a hot chick whose male-model boyfriend cheats on her (this guy is so vacuous that when she catches him in the act, the top half of his body expresses surprise and regret, while the bottom half keeps pumping away). The betrayal leads her to spiral downward in a series of increasingly awful attempts to date new people before she discovers that love’s been right under her nose all along. It’s a stream that’s been so thoroughly prospected not even gold dust remains, but McCarthy never tries to subvert the time-tested message that a good guy is better than a hot guy and love will find you when you’re ready. Instead she goes for two broad comic strategies: straight surrealism, and a witty send-up of the whole notion of a “hot chick” per se.

The surrealist strand is probably best exemplified by the scene most often cited by disgusted reviewers, in which she goes home with a random guy, only to discover that his fetish is having a fish shoved up his ass. Okay, not that funny, although the performer certainly goes after lines like “Touch my bass!” with impressive exertion. No, what’s funny is when, two scenes later, humiliated and disgusted with herself, she finally crawls into the shower to wash away the memories — and her body is covered with fish-shaped bruises. I cracked up — not only because of the sheer visual silliness, but because the obvious gag had been redeemed as a set-up for a more subtle gag, which I appreciated.

The undermining of “hotness,” and the reclaiming of the gross-out aesthetic for women, goes on throughout the film. Throughout the film, McCarthy interrogates the process by which she and her girlfriends achieve hotness, spending inordinate amounts of time on things like waxing, facial masks, hair, etc. She goes to some phenomenal lengths to neutralize her own sexual allure — my personal favorite is an extended bit in which her date, a Woody Allen doppelganger, vomits into her cleavage at a fashion show. She runs out of the club and has a complete shit-fit on the sidewalk outside, during which her breast falls out of her dress. When she notices (the Carmen Electra character helpfully points out, “Girl, your big ole titty’s hangin’ out!”), she just gives in to the situation, takes out her other vomit-covered breast, and shakes them furiously in the faces of all the looky-loos, shrieking at them in contempt and irritation, “They’re just fucking gobs of FAT!” This is not, trust me, sexy. And it’s the only time you see those famous boobs, or any boobs, which is quite an accomplishment in this kind of film.

The centerpiece of the film, its most ambitious sequence technically as well as it most potentially offensive or off-putting, fuses the fantastic and the feminist. Rebecca goes to the supermarket to buy tampons, but discovers that she only has enough money for (gigantic) generic-brand pads. Suddenly, she begins spotting — on the supermarket linoleum. There is immediately, and nightmarishly, a call for “cleanup on Two!” Rebecca dashes pell-mell through the supermarket, trying alternately to hide and stanch her torrent of blood while negotiating an obstacle course between her and the checkout line. At one point, a vast puddle of menstrual blood at her feet, Rebecca tears open the package and desperately tries to mop up the blood with pads, the intercom calling out helpfully, “Cleanup on three, Irv.” “It’s all right, Irv!” she calls back. “I’ve got it!” But clearly she doesn’t.

(By the way, the maxi-pads, like the fish, get a call-back later in the film.)

The humiliation of being betrayed by one’s body is a constant ghost theme of the film; in one of my favorite moments, Rebecca’s friend Carrie, an aspiring actress who’s a little too old for it, glances uncomfortably at a couple of younger women in the gym, then pinches at her own negligible belly fat. McCarthy gleeful dismantles the myth of the sex kitten throughout the film, suggesting that trying to be that woman is (a) a lot of hard work, and (b) a pointless game of waiting for the inevitable moment when your sexual vehicle fails you, at which point people will laugh at you. That McCarthy is a well-known sex symbol adds weight to her claim, and the fact that she replaces the “hot chick” with her idiosyncratically clownish yet strangely charming persona makes the film both more personal and more difficult than it needs to be. But I appreciated this odd and often unfunny assault on the senses much more than, say, Caddyshack, which I also revisited this week, and whose tame class stereotypes and poop-in-the-pool gag never worked for me, but whose average-guy-tries-to-get-laid-and-make-some-money themes are, I suppose, unchallenging and comfortable.

Update: I found a review at that says almost exactly what I say here, only funnier. So you just wasted two or three minutes. Sorry.

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