Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Self-Help Chick Flick

I'm about to spend a rare day out on the town doing stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with work. It's 50 cent day at the dollar movie theater, and then I'm going non-specific browse shopping for something other than books for the first time in at least a year. There are some things on my mental list, but it's not like I have to buy a particular thing for a particular reason. I'm just keeping an eye out for some things but can hold out until I find exactly what I want. At this point, it's mostly about the shoes because almost all of my shoes have simultaneously worn out or ceased being comfortable. There may be some book browsing, as well, as there's a bookstore next to the shoe store.

Since I'm short on time this morning, I dug into my futures file and found this whole series of posts I wrote earlier this year that were inspired by the movie He's Just Not That Into You. So, for the next few days, I'll be posting those (since I've been on a chick flick kick anyway). The concept behind the movie spurred a lot of thoughts. Although I was intrigued by the idea of turning a self-help book into a romantic comedy film, I wasn't intrigued enough to ignore the bad reviews and see He's Just Not That Into You at the theater. But I finally caught it on HBO, and I have to say that I'd likely have been disappointed if I'd paid to see it, though it wasn't that horrible. There were some interesting ideas struggling to get out of the muddle, but I think ultimately the film undermined its whole premise.

For those who haven't followed this saga, this movie was based on a dating advice book that was based on a Sex and the City episode. The central premise of the book was that you're wasting your time dating and worrying about men who aren't into you, with the various signs that a man just isn't that into you. Women are encouraged to stop making excuses for the way men treat them and just face the fact that if men are treating them that way, the men just aren't that into them. They're not intimidated by how awesome the women are, they're not scared by emotional maturity, they haven't lost the phone number. If men aren't calling you, if they aren't asking you out, if they're sleeping with other people, and, eventually, if they aren't asking you to marry them, they're just not that into you. This wasn't exactly earthshattering stuff. In fact, I'd already come up with a similar set of personal dating rules based on my experiences, but the book took off like wildfire (thanks also to appearances on Oprah).

Part of the movie is done as a quasi-documentary (which makes sense, as the director is a frequent director on The Office), focusing on one woman who is trying to make sense of men and dating. The movie starts by showing where a lot of this starts, in childhood, when girls are told that boys who pick on them really like them, and that's their way of showing it. That part was painfully true, and it struck me how horrible this is. I'm sure that adults are trying to make girls feel better when boys insult them or are even somewhat physically violent with them, but is that what we really want to teach girls? I remember from elementary school that a girl couldn't complain about a boy pushing her, hitting her or saying mean things to her without the teacher saying, "That just means he likes you." Meanwhile, the boy got a free pass for being a jerk. Talk about a setup for unhealthy relationship patterns.

The main character starts looking at how all this really works when she's disappointed by yet another guy saying he'll call and then never calling, so she goes to the bar where he said he often hangs out, in hopes of "casually" running into him. A Macintosh computer then reads the advice book to her. Well, actually, the bartender played by Justin Long tells her the honest truth, that if the guy isn't calling her, it only means he isn't into her, and why should she waste time worrying about a guy who doesn't like her? It's an epiphany for her, and he becomes her dating guru, someone she calls from the restroom during dates to help her figure out if the guy is into her.

Meanwhile, there are subplots involving a couple of her co-workers, one who's been with a man for years and who is getting frustrated with his refusal to get married, and one whose husband is cheating on her (though apparently she asked for it by insisting that a man who wasn't that into her marry her). And then there's yet another set of sub-subplots, involving the guy who didn't call the main character and his female friend, who is the woman the husband is cheating with, plus her friend, who has no clue about dating. And then there are a number of talking-head "interviews" where women talk about their dating lives and the way men treat them (a la When Harry Met Sally).

The movie undermines itself in a number of ways. First, the main character isn't just a normal woman who needs a little help translating "guy" to English. She's kind of a psycho doormat who puts up with all kinds of nonsense when she is dating someone (like a guy who breaks up with her every Friday so he can have his weekends free) and who puts her entire life on hold while waiting for a guy she had drinks with once to call her. Second, one of the major premises of the book and the advice the Mac bartender gives her is that she should forget about the exceptions -- all those dating urban legends about the one time a situation like this worked out. The guy who didn't call but who really had lost the number and who was glad to see the girl when she ran into him, and they lived happily ever after. The guy who really did leave his wife so he could marry the other woman. The guy who was a jerk but who changed when the woman stuck with him. Women should forget about the exceptions and stop thinking that this time will be different. But two of the happy endings involved exceptions.

I like the ensemble romantic comedies where there are multiple interwoven stories whose endings fall at various places on the happiness continuum. I think this would have been a better movie if the stories had been more interwoven beyond just the characters knowing each other. The main character's quest to understand dating and the way men treat women could have led to her observing or even getting involved in her friends' relationships. That mock documentary approach really could have worked well with this. Or they could have gone really over the top with it and had the women band together in a kind of dating revolution as they stopped playing or responding to the games. What would happen if everyone really did follow the advice in all those self-help books? You could almost have a modern Lysistrata if all women wrote off men who didn't call or who didn't treat them well.

I suspect this will become one of those movies that ends up running constantly on cable, like on Lifetime or Oxygen, and that you can turn on at any point and watch part of it, then turn it off.

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