When Love Doesn’t Stink
I rag on romantic comedies a lot, but I don’t understand moviegoers who complain glumly that “it’s not like there was any suspense about whether they’d get together.” Romantic comedies aren’t supposed to be about suspense. Will Reese Witherspoon end up with Josh Lucas? Duh — of course she will. If a movie gives us two people who are perfect for each other and they don’t end up together, it sure as hell had better be because her husband — who would be incapacitated by heartbreak if she left him for the great love of her life — is, like, head of all resistance in Europe and the fate of the entire free world depends on him keeping it together.
No, romantic comedies are about whether we care that he and she get together, and that’s where most of them fail — we don’t want to spend time with these horrible people and, frankly, they deserve each other, the louses, and please let us be out of town on vital business (like leading all resistance in Europe) the weekend of their wedding. But when rom-coms works, when we really, genuinely care about the guys and gals in the throes of agonizing romance, it’s like being at the wedding of your bestest friend and not having to shout out a protest when the minister asks if anyone here has any reason…
Feeling chummy with everyone onscreen can make up for a lot of the crap that comes along with them. Take Sweet Home Alabama. It’s an absurd, fairy tale-esque bit of fluff about a Southern gal, Melanie Carmichael, who escaped a life of endless pregnancy surrounded by pickup trucks and coon dogs. And she escaped to fabulous New York City, where, with apparently no training in the field, she became a famous and fabulous fashion designer in the space of a couple of years. And she has a fabulous apartment and a fabulous, rich fiancé, the mayor’s son, no less, and both a fabulous English girlfriend and a fabulous gay pal. Her life is perfect, and a quick trip home to Mosquito Bayou or somesuch place to clear up some unfinished business reminds her, by contrast, how perfect her life is: there are no drunken rednecks in New York, nor are there embarrassing reenactments of Civil War battles in which Daddy takes a part, nor are there layabout exes to face.
It’s a teenager’s dreamy fantasy of Life in the Big City, of being a smashingly successful girl, and it’s ridiculous. But it’s entirely watchable and highly enjoyable thanks to Reese Witherspoon, and we should all prostrate ourselves before her as befits the goddess she is. With impeccable timing and a smoothly sophisticated Southern charm that subtly puts paid to the overwrought Southern stereotypes surrounding her, Witherspoon (The Importance of Being Earnest, Legally Blonde) effortlessly evokes the grand movie comediennes of old: Melanie’s imperfections — and she’s got plenty — only serve to make her more agreeable, like a Katherine Hepburn heroine, creating her own comeuppance with her delightful sass. Lots of someone elses would have made her unpleasantly petulant and arrogant — Witherspoon is just as genuinely sweet as she is steely.
Will down-home Jake, a blast from her past, make her reconsider her entire fabulous life in New York? Of course he will. Josh Lucas (A Beautiful Mind, The Deep End), who’s like Matthew McConaughey without the skeeve factor, mixes healthy doses of rascalism into Jake’s basic good-guyness, practically daring you to hate him, at least at first. And even though we see from the beginning exactly where the slow revelation of his big secret — the one that will make him Just Perfect for Melanie — will take us, the ride getting there is still fun.
Brown Sugar isn’t laden with a lot of excess baggage, so there’s absolutely no reason that enjoying it has to be justified in any way. More romantic drama than romantic comedy — though there are certainly some good laughs to be had — this cheery, down-to-earth film is warm with the cozy feeling of relaxing around old friends. Dre (Taye Diggs: The Way of the Gun, Go) and Sidney (Sanaa Lathan: Catfish in Black Bean Sauce) have been best friends since childhood, when hip-hop was being born on their Bronx streetcorners. Now he’s a hotshot hip-hop record producer and she’s a hotshot hip-hop critic and journalist — and, unlike in Melanie Carmichael’s New York, where success comes with a remove from reality, Dre and Sidney’s New York is full of creative, talented, thriving people who are not full of themselves, people around whom the air is nourishing, not life-sapping, like Dre’s new client, irresistible rapper Chris V. (Mos Def: Showtime), and Sid’s cousin Francine (Queen Latifah: The Country Bears), ever a voice of sarcastic reason.
Sidney returns from a years’ long stint in L.A., for a new magazine job and to finish her book, a personal biography of hip-hop, and naturally her relationship with Dre settles back into a familiar, friendly, comfortable intimacy, like that of a particularly close brother and sister. Dre is about to marry, and Sid’s got a new boyfriend, and everything is just hunky-dory. Except, of course, for the fact that, obviously, Dre and Sid are destined to be together. Do they end up together? Duh. Doesn’t matter — you already knew that. This knowledge detracts not one bit to one’s enjoyment of the film.
In the big picture, Brown Sugar is nothing we haven’t seen before, but just because you’ve been to a dozen parties at your friends’ houses doesn’t mean you don’t welcome another one. And this joyous, ardent celebration of romance and friendship and the meeting of the two is like hanging out with friends you adore, smart guys and gals who are funny and confident (except about romance, of course) and clever, who are always there for a hug or words of moral support. They’re the people you love in spite of their little idiosyncrasies, like Sid’s obsession with connecting hip-hop to every facet of her life, which she does in voiceover narration. The hip-hop metaphor may be just a tad strained, but perhaps only because I’m not a fan of the genre myself. Certainly I could wax rhapsodic about how my geek friends and I grew up with Star Trek — those heady early years of syndicated reruns of TOS, the adolescent excitement surrounding the premiere TNG, the coming of age with DS9 — in a way that others might find silly. I’d like to think my pal Sid would tolerate that just as I endure, with a smile, her fixation on hip-hop.
If ever a flick demonstrated that romantic comedies are not about suspense, it’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I mean, look: it tells you right there in the title that the heroine gets married in the end, so even though she starts out the movie as “frumpy girl,” as she calls herself, we know she gets hitched to Mr. Right. There isn’t even another poor sap competing with Mr. Right for her affection — he has absolutely no rival whatsoever for the hand of our heroine. Doesn’t matter. Don’t care. Delightful movie.
You wanna talk about liking the characters onscreen? If there’s one reason why Wedding has become The Little Movie That Could, it’s Nia Vardalos, its writer and star. Cuz you know why? The vast majority of American women do not look like Reese Witherspoon or Sanaa Lathan — we look like Vardalos’ Toula Portokalos in her “frumpy girl” stage, still in the chrysalis. And we like seeing some validation of what we’ve always suspected: that we don’t actually need to be a size 2 supermodel to be worthy of a guy like John Corbett. His Ian Miller, the handsome schoolteacher with the winning smile, is a nice, decent guy who notices her even when she’s still frumpy, before she brushes her hair and buys some new clothes and suddenly discovers that she’s pretty, and so we really like him, too.
And we like Toula’s big Greek family, even when her dad, Gus (Michael Constantine), is lamenting, in his old-world-sexist way, ever letting his daughter take college classes rather than work in the family restaurant — she’s 30 years old, for pete’s sake — because look where it led her: to a boy who isn’t Greek. It’s a disgrace, is what it is — there’s no point in educating girls because they only let you down in the end. There isn’t even any suspense in whether her dad will come around in the end of welcome Ian into the family, because her mom, Maria (Lainie Kazan: The Crew) and her aunt Voula (Andrea Martin) are quietly manipulating dad, twisting him to their wishes, which is for Toula to be happy. Of course he’ll have a change of heart.
Don’t care that we know. Doesn’t matter. Delightful people, even if you’ve got your own big fat ethnic family that drives you crazy and is constantly trying to feed you.