“When Harry Met Sally” is the “Citizen Kane” of light romantic comedies. While constraints of the genre’s narrative form and historical tradition prevent Fellini/Kurosawa/Hitchcock-caliber output, Hollywood stock like “You’ve Got Mail,” “Sleepless in Seattle” or “While You Were Sleeping” can still be enjoyable entertainment and damn good fluff for a tired Friday night.
But even light romantic comedies have their standards. The new Ashley Judd debacle “Someone Like You” (directed by Tony Goldwyn and based on a novel by Laura Zigman) manages to undercut even the lowest expectations of mainstream filmic fare. Where to begin? The dialogue is asinine, the music is the worst I’ve ever heard in a film, and the acting is flat and shallow.
If you are a cinephile, stay far far away. You’ll just get angry. If you adore romantic comedies, this is not the one to spend your money on. Even if you love attending bad films for the opportunity to mock and ridicule them, you still have to sit through two painful hours of trite tripe. This film is bad beyond mockery. Are you a masochist?
Jane Goodale (Ashley Judd, whose entire emotional repertoire consists of pursing her lips, tossing her hair and flashing empty smiles) books guests for a talk show. She meets and beds her new producer, Ray Brown (Greg Kinnear), despite the fact that he is in a three-year relationship with another woman. The other woman is merely an inconvenience for Jane, not the moral snag she ought to be.
For a while Jane loves all things male. But after (un)expectedly getting dumped by Ray, she hates men and begins to study animal behavior for clues to his gender’s impermanent attractions. Do you get the inference in her name? If not, it’s spelled out four times in the film.
The shattering research that Jane comes upon is the “New Cow Theory,” which stunningly suggests that male cows like to mate with a new female each time. She ultimately publishes this theory in a friend’s (Marisa Tomei, whose talent is squandered here) magazine.
Of course, the ideas Jane espouses aren’t really hers — she reads lots of books and articles and simply substitutes the word “man” for the word “cow.” Jane is not a rocket scientist.
The narrative trajectories of all romantic comedies exist solely to produce a couple. One of the reasons “My Best Friend’s Wedding” stands out in this genre is that the couple it produces at the end is a gay man and a straight woman. Many critics have called this pair an emblem of “safe sexuality” that marks the sexually paranoid 1990s.
Within the first three minutes of the film, it becomes painfully apparent that the seemingly wonderful guy (Ray) will be a jerk, and the seemingly horrible guy (Eddie Alden, played by Hugh Jackman and marked as the bad guy because he — smokes cigarettes!) will turn out to be wonderful.
But here’s the problem with the trajectory in “Someone Like You”: the couple is produced at the expense of the female protagonist’s own belief system. Jane is kind of a flake. She wears trendy clothes and has a job that requires a bachelor’s in schmoozing. When she comes upon the “New Cow Theory” she begins to study and write and think. Misguided and derivative as her theory may be, at least she now has a passion. But in the end, Jane still wants men. And she still wants romance. She’s thrilled to be proven wrong when Eddie turns out to be sweet. Jane (and the audience) celebrate her own folly.
I don’t like it when grown-up women act like little girls. Ashley Judd twitches and giggles like a five-year old. This is my problem with lots of other romantic comedies and popular TV shows like “Sex and the City.” If you believe “Someone Like You,” all women take recourse to wine, ice cream and beauty products when they have a problem. They cry about five times a day — even in public. They hang up on their best friend when a cute guy walks into the room. They paint their toenails to procrastinate. They balk when offered a good career opportunity. In their free time, they all do yoga. And, years after junior high, they’re still boy-crazy.
In a particularly absurd scene, when Ray and Jane are first consummating their relationship, the film cuts to inserts of little girls (one of whom is Jane in pigtails) defining words like “ecstasy.” The message: when it comes to sex and love, women are children. How enlightened.
The message when Jane wants to have part of her olfactory organs removed because the smell of post-breakup Ray is too much to bear: self-mutilation is the answer to a woman’s broken heart.
And the message when Jane performs a cheerleading routine to lure Hugh: inside, every man wants a dingbat. The message when Jane chooses the face for her publishing pseudonym: smart women have buns and wrinkles.
The film opens with a pseudo-feminist rant by Diane, the talk show host and Jane’s boss (Ellen Barkin), against a conservative woman who advocates traditional gender roles. Diane berates the woman for being inconsistent by publishing and promoting a book while leaving her three children home alone. Do the film’s writers think that the only way to combat the idea that women belong in the home is with ad hominem attacks against conservative women? Barkin’s bitchy, condescending, hyper-intense Diane is so annoying and pushy that she gives working women a bad name.
Last winter’s “What Women Want” with Mel Gibson had its problems with gender stereotypes. But compared to “Someone Like You,” it was a veritable powerhouse of insights and provocations.
Don’t be fooled by this film — its themes are as conservative as they get. Jane dares to question gender roles and is punished with loneliness until she comes around. When she admits her own mistake, she is rewarded with a man. The most insidious movies masquerade as modern while advocating a medieval message.
Judd literally trips on steps at one point and loses the heel of her shoe. The problem with the Cinderella fable is that the wench’s life only gets going when a prince rides up and rescues her. Jane’s life becomes worthwhile and joyous in a similar manner. I don’t expect much of romantic comedies, but it’s fair to ask that they not perpetuate gender stereotypes of such an antiquated and offensive nature.
These thematic problems aside, even if the film were enlightened, its horrible dialogue, cliched construction and hackneyed acting make it a painful experience in every way.
To end with advocacy: York Square, where I saw this rubbish, normally brings New Haven and Yale some of the finest independent films around. “Shadow of the Vampire,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “Before Night Falls” have all played recently. But, like most artsy theaters, to support themselves they have to bring in mainstream fare from time to time. “Someone Like You” is currently taking a slot at York Square away from a Sundance film. The antidote is for more Yale students to frequent the theater for independent films. If York Square can count on revenue from off-beat works, they will be less inclined to show trash. And that’s in everybody’s interest.