AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, August 21, 2009 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Time-traveling husbands are implausible, but aliens who like cat food aren’t? Plus: Roger Friedman just now noticed how Hollywood hates women?

GIRL MOVIES DON’T MAKE NO SENSE. Last weekend, two films with fantastical premises opened on the same day. One, The Time Traveler’s Wife, is about a man who jumps around in time uncontrollably because of a genetic disorder. The other, District 9, is about a bigoted corporate bureaucrat who gets a new perspective on the extraterrestrial refugees his job requires him to deal with. Both films are, clearly, metaphorical parables for real-life concerns: their foundations are obviously not meant to be taken as scientifically rock-solid… as, indeed, is hardly ever the case with science fiction. Science fiction is never about the future, or about distant planets: SF is always allegory about here and now.

So why did it behoove so many film critics to point out the inherent implausibility of one film, but not the other?

If you’ve guessed that it’s the movie aimed at women, the movie in which the science fiction is a metaphor for exploring women’s fears of male abandonment even within the confines of a committed and loving relationship — as well as the necessity of coping with that abandonment — that (mostly male) critics feel the need to qualify as implausible, you’d be right.

In his review of Wife at Film.com, Eric Snider writes:

The film deals with the goofiness inherent in this situation, not to mention the awkwardness of a naked time-traveling man appearing to a young girl, by not trying to make it appear plausible or scientific — in other words, by not dealing with it. Schwentke knows there’s nothing he can do to change your mind if you don’t accept the basic premise. The idea is that while the specifics of the story are fanciful, the underlying emotions are not. If you can buy the supernatural element, everything else should fall into place.

(I’m picking on my friend Snider here, because I know he can take it.)

Now, this is a positive review: Snider likes the movie. But the caveats in which he couches his own positive reaction are not at all dissimilar from what other (male) critics have written. According to some very prominent critics, Wife is: “ridiculous” (Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle), “blatantly absurd” (Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times), “more than a little nuts” (Ty Burr in the Boston Globe), and “may not make a lick of sense” (Justin Chang in Variety).

Again, those are from positive reviews. And they come even though — according to an actual physicist! — Wife offers one of the more plausible depictions of time travel in pop culture.

Wife’s premise is certainly no less plausible, from a scientific standpoint, than the notion that an alien species not too terribly advanced beyond humans would accidentally stumble across our planet… and that our environment would be suitable for their biology. The chances of either occurring are likely to be enormous — that both should occur is preposterous. But try to find any reviews that contain anything like this:

The film deals with the goofiness inherent in this situation, not to mention the incredibility of the products of an entirely alien process of evolution who can digest cat food, by not trying to make it appear plausible or scientific — in other words, by not dealing with it. Blomkamp knows there’s nothing he can do to change your mind if you don’t accept the basic premise. The idea is that while the specifics of the story are fanciful, the underlying emotions are not. If you can buy the supernatural element, everything else should fall into place.

Instead, you’ll find D9 described with words such as “creative,” “original,” “inventive,” “delicious,” and “clever.” Arguably, all those words apply to Wife as well… in fact, some of them may apply even better to Wife — we’ve never seen a time-travel concept like Wife’s before, but many of the basic concepts of D9 are very familiar indeed… so much so that how D9 triumphs over some basic familiarities is part of what makes it such a great movie.

To my mind, D9 is unquestionably the superior film (though I do like Wife, too). And if I want to be generous to my fellow critics, perhaps the explanation for the apparent disparity in how the two films are being treated can be found here: the qualifiers about implausibility may merely be those critics trying to figure out why they cannot be as enthusiastic as Wife as they can be about D9.

But the fact is, though, that plausibility is hardly ever a factor when it comes to “boys’ movies.” Critics don’t question the likelihood of zombies actually rising from their graves when evaluating a zombie movie. As far as I know, no critic questioned the plausibility of a millionaire playboy turning masked vigilante when we were all praising The Dark Knight to high heaven last year. So why all the handwringing over The Time Traveler’s Wife? Is it that Wife isn’t a great movie, merely a pretty good one? Or is it that men are less willing to suspend their disbelief when approaching a movie that’s about emotions instead of explosions?

It does fall uncomfortably close to the stereotypes that women have had to cope with since forever, though: Women are irrational. Women are emotional. So why should we expect a movie for women to be anything other than irrational and emotional?

Here’s a newsflash: District 9 is just as irrational and just as emotional. But it’s irrational and emotional about things that men are so used to being irrational and emotional about that they don’t even see it.

YA THINK? Roger Friedman at Showbiz411.com believes he’s uncovered a scandal of Hollywood proportions:

We may be in trouble, folks. Even though the Academy has opened up Best Picture to 10 nominees, there seems to be a shortage of choices in another category.

There’s an alarming scarcity in the Best Actress division. Not only has this been a pretty terrible year for movies in general, it’s been worse for women. For some reason, no one’s written them any good leading roles. There are plenty in the Supporting Actress category, but very few and far between in lead.

This is nothing new. We face this issue every damn year. There are never enough smart, complex leading roles for women. Never. As a critic, I struggle every year to come up with a short list of leading performances by women worthy of highlighting. And I always face the opposite problem with leading performances by men: I have to knock many guys off the list because there’s just too many of them to honor.

This may be the most adorable thing Friedman writes here: “For some reason, no one’s written them any good leading roles.” As if Hollywood’s disdain for women is a new thing, and suddenly sprang up out of nowhere.

OPENING THIS WEEK. I’ve bitched before about Quentin Tarantino’s fear of women — which he has typically expressed via female characters so over-the-top violent that they can only be seen as an manifestation of gender terror. But in Inglourious Basterds, he gives us pretty complex depictions of strong, competent women: yes, more than one — there’s none of that token-female nonsense here. Diane Kruger’s turncoat German actress and Mélanie Laurent’s vengeance-fired cinema owner are as different from each other as they are from the men around them… and a lot of fun to watch, too.

Post Grad revolves around Alexis Bledel’s quarter-life crisis — she’s just left college and finds herself at odds with adult life: too bad it’s not very good. And there’s barely a female character to speak of in the kiddie flick Shorts beyond the pint-sized (male) hero’s mom and the little girl “villain” who, of course, secretly loves him. *sigh*

As usual, women fare much better in this week’s new indies and foreign films. See the AWFJ’s rundown of this week’s openers for more info.

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  • Trevor Baillie

    Last night I had the choice of going to Julie and Julia or The Time Traveler’s Wife. I chose Julie and Julia and I now realize that it was because I didn’t think I could face the female lead’s pain in The Time Traveler’s Wife (the first movie I saw in a theatre was the original Shaggy Dog and I cried).

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    Wasn’t Kat Dennings supposed to be in Shorts? I assume she’s too young to be the hero’s mom and too old to be his love interest, so I’d be interested to know who she’s playing as she is awesome.