Sunday, January 06, 2008

Chauvinism or misogyny? It's all the same to me...

A new year and new resolutions. The past six months have been so lax on this blog that I've probably driven away any tiny readership I had, but now I'm ready and motivated to actually write things. Later, my contribution to StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress blog-a-thon, but now, some nastily negative words on a couple of films that deserve them.

I never thought I would see the day when I could say I hated a Woody Allen film, but I suppose that everyone’s illusions must be shattered at some point. Anything Else is not, unfortunately, as dismissible as both its title and its plot suggest, but a self-indulgent, useless, hateful piece of work- made all the more deplorable for the fact that it was made by a filmmaker once so insightful and witty. I’ll put aside my accusations of misogyny for a moment and focus on the other thing that’s most horrifying about Anything Else: Woody Allen now thinks so much of himself that he’s not in this film once, he’s in it twice. Oh, yes. Not content with his usual youthful stand-in, this time played flatly by Jason “American Pie” Biggs, Allen also gives himself a part to play, a delusional, wizened comedy writer named Dobel. Allen angles his and Biggs’ characters into a weird kind of friendship, in which Allen gives Biggs lots of quotations, leading, naturally, to Biggs practically begging Allen for advice when his agent is troublesome and his romance goes sour. At one point near the end of the film, Allen actually gives some (unintentionally?) ironic advice to Biggs that, to paraphrase, suggests he listen to the ‘wise words’ of those offering them and then ignore them completely. The distressing fact is that by this time Allen seems so convinced of his own wondrousness, refracted not through his part but Biggs, that you are left with two thoughts: either Allen is foolishly promoting his own ‘superb’ insights, or he’s realized that he is, actually, past it, and is encouraging you to go back to when he could actually play his own central figures and actually had some interesting things to say about relationships. Allen has played the same tune for thirty years now, and, looking at this film, for all its squarely photographed pseudo-chic New York settings, he’s still stuck in the 1970s.

But I’m ignoring the main point of this entry. It could be, perhaps, that I’m going a bit far in accusing this film of outright misogyny, because it never outrightly professes to hate women, simply that they are incomprehensible. It’s probable that, as one of the two conclusions above sees Allen’s foolishness, he doesn’t see that he’s being misogynistic. Perhaps the debacle with Mia Farrow has finally caught up with his pen (or typing fingers). But Anything Else seems to see women as one of two things, handily encapsulated into a familial pairing of mother and daughter: a woman is either a loose nutcase, or a pathetic nutcase. It’s almost shocking to see two such charismatic, dextrous performers as Christina Ricci and Stockard Channing playing these shrewish characters, delivering lines either so flatly they seem braindead or so wildly they look bug-eyed, but that’s what Allen has them do. The other couple of women that make appearances in the film- one an ex of Biggs in flashback, the other someone Ricci angles to set him up with- aren’t harridans like Ricci and Channing, but they’re so bland and unimportant that they’re most likely just harridans-in-waiting.

Reign Over Me, Mike Binder’s 2007 release, could be described slightly more kindly as chauvinistic, if only because women are so sidelined in the film as just to be there when either Don Cheadle or Adam Sandler need someone to show how wonderful they are, despite the fact that they’re played by the fairly respectable performers Liv Tyler, Jada Pinkett Smith and Saffrow Burrows. Unlike Anything Else, Reign Over Me at least shows some variety in its careless depiction of womenfolk- Tyler is a kindly but apparently useless shrink (mostly just a pretty face), Smith is Cheadle’s jigsaw-playing, party-pooper of a wife, while Burrows gets the worst of the lot as a psychotic patient of Cheadle’s (he’s a dentist) who wants to, um, service him for no apparent reason. Reign Over Me doesn’t hate these figures- Tyler especially seems to be a respectable source of help, even if she’s the shrink apparently encouraging Burrows’ pursuit of Cheadle, and the only time we see her with Sandler shows her as strikingly ineffectual- but it clearly believes the male figures are both more interesting and more valuable: Smith is a source of annoyance because she won’t let Cheadle go gallivanting with Sandler on his scooter at three in the morning?

Reign Over Me purports to be a film dealing with the personal aftermath of the war on terror- Sandler’s wife, children and dog were all killed on 9/11- but as it develops, it’s really just another film where Sandler can do his shtick, only protected from criticism by the veil of seriousness. It’s salvaged from disaster by Cheadle’s good work, managing his character’s wavering reactions to Sandler’s outbursts with earnest good-heartedness, and playing well off the rest of the cast. He anchors the movie in the realm of the real, balancing Binder’s sentimental and predictable impulses (such as flickers of Sandler’s memory visualised as his children running through the same hall he now looks down) against a sturdy characterization of a successful man trying to bridge the gap between his youth and his present. Even so, though, the film sways dangerously off course almost immediately, and by the time it’s dived headlong into a courtcase, I was already lost to the calls of Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish.

Anything Else: F; Reign Over Me: C-

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