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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Good Girl, Secretary, Amy’s Orgasm, and Mostly Martha (review)

Girl Talk

“Life is boring. I hate my job. I despise my husband. And if I can just make it through the next 50 years of this, I’ll have death to look forward to.”

That’s probably the mantra that runs through the head of Justine Last, a blue-smock-wearing discount store employee and wife to inveterate pot smoker Phil. To make matters worse, she lives in Middle of Nowhere, Texas, where the Chuck E. Cheese is the most prominent local landmark. The baby that might relieve the monotony for a while refuses to conceive itself, possibly because of Phil’s nonstop toking. Meanwhile, the dork security guard at the store keeps inviting her to Bible class, and invites her to burn in hell when she refuses. It’s enough to make a girl climb a clocktower naked with a high-powered rifle. What’s to lose?

The ironically titled The Good Girl asks us to consider the question: What makes a girl “good”? Is it behaving like the traditional selfless and demure lady, always making sure everyone else around you is happy (even if they make you miserable) and putting your own needs and desires last? Or is it okay to be a little selfish, to take a reckless chance on life, to look out for one’s own happiness for a change?
Director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White (who also plays the dork security guard) stack the deck against poor Justine: The reckless chance she takes is with a coworker at the Retail Rodeo, a young loner who calls himself Holden, and there’s nothing ironic in his self-appellation. He’s a mess, a seriously mentally ill mess, which tends to color the eventual choice Justine will have to make between Holden and her husband — sure, she’s having great sex, probably for the first time in her life, but the kid is crazy. It makes her ultimate decision about which direction the rest of her life will take too easy for it really to make much of a statement about the goodness of girls.

Still, Jennifer Aniston (Rock Star) as Justine and Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko) as Holden are electrifying to watch. Her Justine shuffles around, deadened to the world, which has got to be difficult to fake when you’re married to Brad Pitt and when you’re getting to fool around with Jake Gyllenhaal as your job. If Gyllenhaal’s not careful, he’s going to end up playing the serious, neurotic, sunken-eyed yet oddly compelling disaffected youthful nutjob for the rest of his life — it’s not old yet, and ya still can’t take your eyes off him when he’s onscreen, but do a comedy next time, Jake. (Though, please, not another Bubble Boy.)

See it for the performances, including those by the inestimable John C. Reilly (The Perfect Storm) as Phil, the ingenious Tim Blake Nelson (Minority Report) as Phil’s pal Bubba, and the so-underrated-she’s-not-rated-at-all Zooey Deschanel (Big Trouble) as Justine’s work buddy. See it, but don’t expect too much enlightenment as to What Women Really Want.

Justine may have issues, but they’re nothing compared to Lee Holloway’s. She’s such a mess, her issues have issues. Lee hurts so much on the inside — partly due to witnessing the abusive relationship of her parents — that she cuts herself in an attempt to let the pain out. It doesn’t really help, of course, and now she’s just returned home from a stretch at a mental institution after a suicide try. She’s trying to go straight, and so she applies for a job as a secretary, hoping to get her life on track. And though she has no work experience at all, E. Edward Grey, Esq., recognizes something in her and hires her on the spot.

Secretary is a love story in very much the same way that Schindler’s List is a comedy.

What Grey (James Spader: Supernova) sees in Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal: 40 Days and 40 Nights, Jake’s sister) is a desire for physical pain and a need to be controlled, and he appreciates this very much because he is the kind of man who needs to demean and dominate women in order to get it up. This could have been a pretty wicked black comedy about the sadistic relationship between professional men and their secretaries — “Hon, could you bring me a cup of coffee?” takes on a whole new urgency when you know you’re going to get a literal spanking if you screw it up. Instead, it is an extremely disturbing — and not in a good way — tale about the “good” side of physically and mentally abusive romantic relationships.

That’s right: the key to being happy, if you’re a gal of a suicidal bent, a gal whose one role model for adult relationships is seeing your dad smack your mom around, is to find a guy who will treat you like you’re worthless, like you’re lower than scum, like you deserve to be smacked around. Secretary won a Special Jury Prize for Originality at Sundance, but there’s unfortunately little original about the attitudes behind the film. Director Steven Shainberg has waxed rhapsodic about how Lee “discovers something beautiful and wonderful in the office” and how “sexy and intimate but also innocent and funny” his film is, but this is also a guy who has talked about “firing” a girlfriend. This is not someone from whom beneficial advice will be forthcoming. There is nothing beautiful or wonderful about needing to be beaten to feel alive, or worse, wanted, and there is nothing innocent or funny about a man who needs to beat a woman to get aroused. Shainberg seems to think that this disgusting film is about valid issues of power and control and submission and desire in healthy romantic relationships. It isn’t. And it worries me that two women were involved in its creation: Shainberg’s coscreenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson, and writer Mary Gaitskill, upon whose short story the film is based.

I guess it can hardly be surprising, though — plenty of women are willing to be treated like dirt by the men who profess to love them for the cycle of violence to be perpetuated. It’s really fairly shocking, however, to see a nonpornographic movie feed that cycle.

Despite its title, Amy’s Orgasm is not a porno, though it is as tedious as one. This is yet another cutesy flick about women who do nothing but bitch about what a mess their romantic lives are, complain about how fat they are when they are nothing of the sort, and whine incessantly about never-ending misery while wearing designer clothes and driving expensive cars.

Shut. The. Fuck. Up.

Amy (writer/director Julie Davis) is a romantic-self-help author who — shockingly — knows nada about romance herself. The public — the female public — adores her, for her message that “You don’t need a man to be complete.” And yet, so ironically that it’s not ironic, she needs a man to be complete. This is because she has no inner life and obviously thinks and talks about nothing but herself. She’s got all the “secrets” of womanhood, though, and she’s not afraid to reveal them. Like, for instance, “We all hate each other.” Not actually true — some of us hate only women like Amy.

Amy has a lot in common with Lee Holloway, come to think of it. She must, because she falls for shock-radio-jock Matthew Starr (Nick Chinlund: Con Air)– Wait. Matthew Starr? As in The Powers Of? His powers involve awakening her sexually, though we can’t see why. His on-air schtick is basically asking bimbos to show him their fake boobs, and while Amy says she’s turned off by his piggish behavior, there’s Just Something About Him. Like Lee, Amy clearly gets turned on by jerks.

“I’m such an asshole,” Amy whines to a friend at one point. “And exhausting,” the friend agrees.

Yes, Amy, you are.

Martha Klein, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of woman I can identify with, and one with whom I bet I’d be great friends, which is why her story engrossed me so. She’s a mess, too, like most of us are, but she’s not so annoyingly self-aware (and willing to talk about it) as Amy. Martha issues manifest themselves through the natural course of the rest of her life, the life she has time to live because she doesn’t waste it complaining about how awful absolutely everything is.

If Martha (the luminous yet completely down-to-earth Martina Gedeck) has one major problem, it’s that she doesn’t like to compromise. As a professional chef, she is precise and perfectionist, given to dramatic demonstrations to ignorant restaurant patrons who don’t know how a steak should be cooked and to bristling when she is forced to share her kitchen with Mario (the delightful Sergio Castellitto: Portraits Chinois), a newcomer. As an aunt, she is unable to find a groove with Lina (Maxime Foerste), her sister’s 8-year-old and Martha’s ward since the recent death of the girl’s mother. Martha clashes with Sergio at work and with Lina at home… and it’s only when Sergio and Lina begin to conspire against her that Martha learns, grudgingly at first, how to give in and open herself up to others.

Mostly Martha, written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, is the most romantic of all four of these films: the big love scene involves only a kiss, one we’ve been waiting for the whole film. But it’s also genuinely touching because it’s realistic about all kinds of love — that it’s not magical but hard; that it won’t transform your life but just become, hopefully, another happy aspect of it; that your happiness is your own responsibility.

And with all the wonderful food onscreen — not since Big Night, etcetera, etcetera — Mostly Martha recognizes that all the passions and all the appetites are manifestations of the same lust for life, and we should be willing to indulge them all. Not once does the slender Martha bitch about how fat she is, and you should see what she eats.

The Good Girl
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for sexuality, some language and drug content
official site | IMDB

Secretary
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders, and language
official site | IMDB

Amy’s Orgasm
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
not rated
official site | IMDB

Mostly Martha
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG for for thematic material and mild language
official site | IMDB



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