The Reelist: Funny Ladies
What's exciting about this weekend's releases is that there are two—two!—films that are the products of unique female minds: Nora Ephron's Julie and Julia and Charlene Yi's Paper Heart. The latter film is particularly intriguing: it's a documentary/fiction hybrid following "Charlene" across the country, trying to figure out if love exists. As she navigates other people's visions of love—and her budding romance with Michael Cera—she may just have empirical proof about its existence, and the film is currently at a strong 75% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
Building on the funny-lady films by Ephron and Yi, we wanted to talk about similar projects in this week's Reelist—The Heartbreak Kid, Heartburn, Fatso, Sweetie, and Walking and Talking are all written by and/or directed by women, including several writer/director passion projects. What the films have in common is that they're all utterly unique. In a world where chick flicks err towards being condescending, misanthropic, and mostly about the race to the church (The Ugly Truth being a maddening exhibit A), these women all had the chance to put their idiosyncratic stamp on topics from, well, marriage and divorce to overeating, sisterhood and friendship. You won't find formulas in these films.
Perhaps it says something on the state of women in movies that out of the talents profiled in this piece, three are still making films, however infrequently: one a certified auteur/genius (Jane Campion) who just took a six-year break (Bright Star is due in September), and one a powerful woman in Hollywood with the clout to write and direct A-list projects (Nora Ephron, whose Julie and Julia feels like a hit). The third is one we wish would work more, given her talent (Nicole Holofcener, who does have Please Give with Rebecca Hall and Catherine Keener due out in the future), but it's fairly clear that films aren't paying the bills. Elaine May's films are way too hard to find on DVD, and Anne Bancroft went back to acting after this project. Besides Paper Heart, where are the other women making films as skewed and interesting as these?
Dir. Elaine May (1972)
Originally, we wanted to put A New Leaf in here, but unfortunately, that film's not available on DVD yet. Which is too bad, since it sounds fun: Walter Matthau is a dissolute heir who's run out of money, and May plays his meek mark, a rich girl whom he charms into a quickie marriage. (The film, in fact, was recut by legendary producer Robert Evans and taken away from May. It still received hilarious reviews.)
The Heartbreak Kid, which you may remember from the recent Ben Stiller remake a couple of years ago, is a May film adapted from a Neil Simon script that serves a love triangle: neurotic New York Jew Lenny (Charles Grodin) marries the crazy Lila (Jeannie Berlin) and falls in love with WASP Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) during their honeymoon. It's a farcical set-up complete with female characters who have many layers, and it's a very funny film.
Dir. Anne Bancroft (1980)
Considering the fact that the late Mrs. Robinson was married to Mel Brooks for 41 years, of course she's a funny lady. And in her sole effort as a writer/director, she takes on a relevant topic: overeating. The results were winning enough to get cited in a Gilmore Girls episode (which is where we first heard about the cult classic). The film is a romance, in some ways, following Dominick DiNapoli (Dom DeLuise), the lonely "fatso" of the title, who is in love with food. After his brother dies, he tries to mend his ways by joining a support group called "Chubby Checkers," but really, it's the love of a good woman, Lydia (Candice Azzara), that finally gets him to change his ways.
Dir. Mike Nichols (1986)
In Nora Ephron's fascinating career, the journalist/writer-turned-screenwriter/director has always been a star, for sure: she was nominated for an Academy Award for her first produced (and credited) screenplay, Silkwood, in 1983. Heartburn is an adaptation of her best-selling roman à clef about her marriage to (and subsequent stormy divorce from) Washington Post writer Carl Bernstein. (As a precursor to Julie & Julia, the book also contains a lot of recipes.) Directed by Mike Nichols (who was Elaine May's comedy partner, of course, and has made a career of boosting smart women), the picture follows Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson as they meet and click and spar; Ephron's flair for comedy is inherent in the dialogue, and it's refreshingly intelligent.
Dir. Jane Campion (1989)
There's something about the Australians: they're very much able to put a layer of absurdity over the dark realities of life. Their comedies tend to be both funny and strange, with a depressing tint, and Sweetie would go nicely on a triple feature with Muriel's Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It's an odd-couple story of two sisters, Kay and Dawn, aka "Sweetie," who wrangle in Australia. More quirky than her later works, Campion's debut feature has a twisty plot, and what enchants is the magical, strange world that she creates: dancing cowboys, off-screen choruses of song, and black and white interludes. It's a fascinating debut for one of cinema's great eyes, and it makes you wish that Campion would try her hand at something along the lines of a Muriel's Wedding along with her more dramatic flicks.
Dir. Nicole Holofcener (1996)
It's heartbreaking that Holofcener doesn't make more films. She should! (Similar to other female directors with splashy debuts and slow output like Lisa Cholodenko, Jamie Babbit, and Kimberly Peirce, Holofcener has consistently worked in TV. We chalk this up to Hollywood, yes? Someone be her sugar daddy!) Walking and Talking is one of the funniest and truest films about what women go through—the loneliness, the bad decisions—when faced with the impossible betrayal of a best friend's looming marriage.
Starring Catherine Keener and Anne Heche (in her ingenue phase, which, according to this weekend's New York Times Magazine profile, ended abruptly when she started dating Ellen DeGeneres) as the best friends, we watch as Laura's (Heche) looming nuptials draw Amelia's (Keener) life into sharp relief; heck, she even goes on a date with the local video store guy, known colloquially as "the ugly guy." Complications ensue, and we watch as Amelia figures out where she is, both in her life and her friendship. Holofcener's neurotics have a lovely Woody Allen vibe. (Coincidentally, her stepfather, Charles H. Joffe, is a long-term executive producer on Allen films.)