Death of the Chick Flick: What ‘Bridesmaids’ Accomplishes for Women, Comedy, and Hollywood

Written for and originally posted at Gozamos.

By now, you’ve probably heard a lot about the new comedy, Bridesmaids. It’s been called The Hangover for women and there’s a hilarious but disgusting food poisoning scene that you should really look out for (as if you could miss it). Now that the movie is out in theaters and opened in second at the box office (with Thor in first), the real question is: What does this successful comedy with an all-female cast mean for women and the future of film?

It seems a shame that in 2011 this is still up for discussion, but it’s true that Hollywood has been churning out tons of successful “bro” comedies lately, and somehow leaving plenty of room for dramatic female roles and little room for good, solid female comedies. On average, the most you’re going to get in that arena in a given year is another Reese Witherspoon rom-com – not exactly gut-splitting.

Bridesmaids is not only hysterical, it’s genius both dramatically and comically. It’s not “pretty funny for a chick flick” – this time, it sets the bar. The script was co-written by Saturday Night Live star Kristen Wiig (who also stars in the film as the lead and Maid of Honor, Annie), and Annie Mumolo – an improv actor and screenwriter who makes a brief cameo during the airplane scene.

By no means is Bridesmaids a film that will be used in Women’s Studies classes, but it is definitely the first since Mean Girls (2004 film written by and starring yet another Saturday Night Live star, Tina Fey) to truly succeed as a female-led blockbuster comedy that appeals to a general audience. The latter part is the most significant: for a female comedy to land as high as second at the box office, it must have universal appeal, and it must also surpass the bemoaned stamp of “chick flick.” (Read: men won’t voluntarily and excitedly run to a “chick flick,” and many women nowadays won’t either.)

Here’s the thing: the Bridesmaids plot is exactly as the title suggests. It’s a film about women in a bridal party (the bride is Lillian, played by Maya Rudolph) going through the standard, albeit sometimes cliché motions leading up to a wedding. While sitting in the theater before the movie, I looked around and realized that yes, indeed there was a pretty equal amount of men and women in the audience – and it was packed. Tons of men were here to see a movie about a bunch of women and bridal showers and bachelorette parties, and not because their girlfriends and wives dragged them.

But how and why? While the film is about gals and girly things, the jokes in this movie are too funny for anyone not to laugh regardless of gender. Wiig and Rudolph are already regarded as a few of the funniest women in comedy today and the supporting characters and numerous conflicts only make them shine more. Wiig’s performance is one of the most impressive parts of the movie as she transitions with ease from comedy to drama throughout.

Sure, scenes like a gross but roaring-laughter-inducing food poisoning scene at a bridal store help. However, Bridesmaids works for a general audience because it doesn’t have to rely on the gross-out jokes. Additionally, while Lillian’s other best friend, the wealthy and proper Helen (played by Rose Byrne) is competing with Annie for the power over the wedding festivities throughout the whole film, there are no cat fights just for the sake of humor. Real motives and feelings propel every funny aspect of the movie. The wedding events drive Annie and Lillian apart and challenge their longtime friendship. Meanwhile, Annie is falling apart professionally and personally, it explains her actions when she, say, starts destroying the flamboyant decorations at the bridal shower thrown by Helen. In Bridesmaids, believable human emotions and the valid complexities of friendship lead to many hilarious, over-the-top, but essentially plausible outbursts, fights, and mishaps. There’s a realistic storyline to Bridesmaids that strengthens its outlandish, shocking comedy.

These women are not only funny, but they feel real – something very welcome after too many stock, shrill, unremarkable female characters in romantic comedies. The dialogue between the characters – especially Annie and Lillian – is something that most women will find true to life. Thus, the whole film feels accessible: neither women nor men will find the friendships and situations out of reach or unbelievable. (After all, men can recognize realistic women characters too, you know.)

Simply put, there is no one scene where only women “get the joke” and men are left clueless. Everyone is clued in, which is no easy feat for a movie written by and revolving around women. Bridesmaids is overall a refreshing success and a big step forward for female comedies in Hollywood. For all the boys clubs and The Hangovers in the movie business, Kristen Wiig and company have overcome the stigmas and impressed all kinds of audiences – from feminists to men who love bro-coms to the most respected of movie critics.

On the official poster for the film, the very top quote from a movie critic reads in bold, pink letters: “Chick flicks don’t have to suck!” This is undoubtedly Bridesmaids’ most important contribution to the industry and to audiences. In the past, a movie with this plot could have and did suck. But this time, with all the elements of comedy and female power combined, the opportunity was seized, and it was universally awesome.

‘Black Swan’: Pitch Perfect

What isn’t there to say in favor of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan that hasn’t already been said? Given the amount of praise it’s gotten (already Golden Globe nominations and Oscar buzz) and how I’m a little late to contribute to it, it feels like there’s not much to add. But I feel the need to document this anyway.

After looking back on my blurb post back in September about the psychological thriller’s festival premieres, I realized all of my expectations were met, and then exceeded – exceeded to the nth degree. In that premature post about the film (a horrendously dark story about a competitive production of Swan Lake), I stated:

This trailer alone makes Center Stage look like The Mickey Mouse Club.

Understatement.

I then said:

Personally, I am intrigued by and shuddering at the outrageously sinister tone of this movie.

The tone. The first thing I thought as I walked out of this movie was that the tone was perfect. Aside from the brilliant performances from the entire cast (Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel Barbara Hersey, Winona Ryder), Black Swan succeeded because it was presented in the most perfect way it could have been. With so much going on, Aronofsky tied it all together nicely, and then unleashed it back into the wild where it flourished. It had sinister moments, mind-twisting points, melodrama, fantasy blending with reality, comedy, gore, horror, disturbing violence, ballet (of course), sexual scenes, and it just felt right. The film embraced all of these elements in such a way that I never once thought it overly dramatic, cheesy, or that it was trying too hard. Black Swan did not hold back where most films would and do these days. The whole story downward-spiraled into place; and when it ended, it felt satisfying.

Though there are some comparisons to the director’s last film, The Wrestler (and rightly so in the sense that self-destruction and athleticism conjoin in both), this film will not really “remind” you of anything else. It will go beyond your expectations of how sinister it is. It will make you go “holy shit” several times (aloud or to yourself). You will feel satisfaction, but you will question why such a dark movie makes you feel so fulfilled. It just does, it just is.

What I’m trying to say is that you should go see Black Swan. And then after you watch it, think about all the ways someone else – or even the very filmmakers who made it – could have ruined it, or even worse, made it mediocre. That is truly what makes Black Swan a masterpiece: that it didn’t even worry about failing. It just fucking went there.

‘Love and Other Drugs’ Feels Like a Cheap Sell

I actually went into Love and Other Drugs with an open mind. Er, more of an open mind than I normally would with this sort of movie. After viewing the trailer, I didn’t think much of it, or even care about seeing it. But then I guess it was purely Andrew O’Hehir’s review on Salon – teased as “Gyllenhaal and Hathaway’s surprisingly good comedy” – that got me curious. Point being: I was open to it being good. Now having seen it, I should have known I couldn’t enjoy a film which, in a sentence, tries entirely too hard to be the next Jerry Maguire-meets-well, any movie where the girl of the boy-meets-girl has a terminal illness. I wish it didn’t have to be that frank, but it is.

Starring Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall, thirtysomething), I expected it to be a romantic comedy that proved a little more exceptional than the others. But from what I saw, this doesn’t have the makings of a classic or a “generation definer.” The plot: Set in 1996, Jamie Randall (Gylleenhaal) is a rising Pfizer pharmaceutical sales rep who uses his “way” with women to help him rep Zoloft in doctor’s offices when he meets Maggie (Hathaway) in one said doctor’s office. The very first thing we learn about Maggie is that she has onset Parkinson’s. In short – she hates him, he lusts after her, they have sex, they try to keep having sex without attachment, they fail, they fall in love. What follows are mostly bad humming music as soundtrack, montages, cheap jokes, sex, nudity, tears, and more montages.  Oh, and also, his gross younger brother comes to live with him and is poised as “comic relief,” which makes for more awkward and drawn-out than comical scenes.

While most of the big reviews I read were less than favorable, they all seem to find some kind of “bright side” for the movie: Ebert thinks Zwick did the best he could with a bad script; most, including New York Times’ A.O. Scott, believe Hathaway did more with the character than the script called for; and Variety‘s Justin Chang says it sorta kinda works “if one can get past the calculation inherent in the drug-pushing-boy-meets-disease-stricken-girl setup.”

Maybe they’re all just a little bit more optimistic than I am, but I can’t even give the film that much credit. My bright side? Uh…Judy Greer was pretty funny? (As a receptionist Gylleenhaal seduced and then left in the dust.) And…honestly, not much else is coming to mind. Since the movie is so blunt, I feel no need to use pretty words or phrasing here: Love and Other Drugs is a bi-polar movie that can’t decide if it’s about casual sex, the evils of the pharmaceutical sales industry, or Parkinson’s. Can all of these be combined into one movie? Sure! If done correctly (see: not the way it was done here.) This film makes me wish there was another word not as overused as “formulaic,” but it really fits in this instance.

There’s no real development or investment in any of the characters. This is a true shame, honestly, given the two wonderful actors at the film’s disposal. Both the main characters feel conflicted because they have their own set of commitment issues. “Commitment issues” is just a phrase slapped onto the movie – not a lot of explanation or history required, just take it as it is. They have trouble committing but then they try to commit to one another. The whole story feels like one big cheap sell for the tearjerker ending (the ending that aches to be the next Jerry Maguire-scale ending), which then makes the Parkinson’s disease element feel more insulting and tasteless – as if it was just thrown into the pot for one big grand finale tasting.

I think Love and Others Drugs‘ biggest downfall is that it doesn’t live up to its own image of itself. It’s not as sexy, not as daring, certainly not as funny, and not as moving and deep as it seems to think it is. You know the one thing I took away from this movie? Sex. Lots and lots of sex. Everywhere sex. (And mostly in montages also.) Oh, and the throwing around of the word “pussy” by men whenever the film needed that extra oomph of “edginess.” All of that nudity and sexuality, and for what? Two undeveloped characters and a poorly thought-out story. No, it does not feel liberating or refreshing. I know it tried really hard, but in the end, Love and Other Drugs isn’t just a film about the complications of supposedly empty sex; it is empty sex.

‘Never Let Me Go’ Novel to Film – a Successful Cloning?

Note to the reader: This post contains spoilers, but not much more than what is revealed in the film’s trailer.

I apologize. It’s too easy to make a crack about whether or not a film adaptation of a novel about clones is a “good enough clone” of the book itself. But that is the question, isn’t it? As is with all film adaptations – they can either interpret the essence of the story in their own way, or they can mimic it almost page by page. Or, in the case of Never Let Me Go – do neither.

Let’s get the worst part out of the way: Never Let Me Go – based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and directed by Mark Romanek (whose last film was One Hour Photo in 2002) – feels like you put the novel into a meat grinder, then took a handful of the squiggly meat shreds and left the rest. The real meat of it – the essence, what really made it – is gone. But it remains at least recognizable from the random bits and pieces that are left. Now less metaphorically, the best stuff was probably left on the cutting room floor. Or even worse, left out of the script entirely. (It was written for the screen by Alex Garland.)

You know that creepy myth – or hopefully a myth – that if you had “organ donor” on your license, and you were in a terrible accident, the doctors might not save your life in order to get your organs to someone in need of a donation? That chilling notion we shudder at is the very world that main characters Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy of Never Let Me Go are brought into. These are clones, and from the moment of their creation, their purpose was to grow up to donate their vital organs, cutting their lives short in order for others to survive. The novel is heartbreaking, relatable, haunting, surreal, yet conceivable. It’s masterful dystopia – something so awful you can hardly imagine, but really, you can imagine it all the same. You can almost buy it as a truth, something within reach. (I commented more in detail on this aspect in a recent USA Today article by Maria Puente.)

Yes, it’s impossible for most of us to read a novel and then watch the film adaptation without being judgmental and biased. You know what makes the story good, so when it’s not there, it’s hugely disappointing. You already know the potential before it doesn’t stack up. And in this case, that has a lot to do with it on my end. But this is also the kind of movie that will feel disjointed and incomplete even to most viewers who know nothing about the story beforehand.

So instead of giving you a book report and telling you how amazing the novel is and that you should read it (just do it), I’ll focus on what I think the film adaptation’s biggest strengths and (more so) weaknesses were.

In the novel and the film, there are three phases: 1) childhood and life as students at Halisham – a sort of boarding school in the England countryside for future donors, where they are educated and heavily sheltered from the world; 2) departure from protective Halisham and gained independence in a remote place called “The Cottages,” where the characters go to transition into the real world and prepare to become carers (for their fellow donors) or donors themselves; and 3) the actual process of donating, and ultimately “completing” – a cold, distancing euphemism for “dying” once a clone’s body gives out after one or multiple donations.

Here’s the good of the adaptation: It’s beautiful with natural and delicate cinematography. It portrays almost all of the scenes from the novel as I had pictured them while reading. The acting probably isn’t to blame (starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) – though it should be noted that Garfield is the best part of the entire film. He captures and understands who Tommy is as Ishiguro seems to have intended: youthful with a sort of naive childishness even in adulthood, but likewise a dark, thoughtful soul. He did his homework, and it shows. (And one of his scenes had me straight up in tears.) In these ways, the film moved me, reminding me how wonderful this story was and making me grateful to see some of it projected in front of me. This is a story of generation – our 1984, our warped Great Expectations. Our own dystopian sci-fi meets coming-of-age masterpiece.

One of the main points of the novel is to take the experience of life and speed it up in a way. As we grow older, we start to think at some point in a state of panic, “I don’t have enough time.” We wanted to do this and enjoy that before we died, but for these characters, they don’t have the luxury of waiting to find out if they’ll have that chance. Their future is laid out for them, and none of them have enough time; “having time” is simply not their purpose. A distorted and mercilessly cruel coming-of-age, it’s growing up fast-forwarded – childhood to teens to adulthood, and then it’s definitively over too soon.

In Ishiguro’s novel, you can feel the weight and anxiety and nearly drown in it. But the problem with the film is that it just feels like a rushed movie and nothing more. In merely one hour and forty-five minutes (a short length these days), Romanek touches on all three phases of life according to Never Let Me Go, but fails to engage the viewer in any of them. Thus, we feel distant and unattached to the main characters – we have little to go on. It’s too fleeting and almost careless, given the brilliant degree to which Ishiguro achieved this effect in his also relatively short, less-than-300-paged novel.

While there are several important themes within this complex book, ultimately the film zoomed in on the two big ones: love and art. The students at Halisham are highly encouraged to be creative and produce poetry, paintings, drawings, and essays. Through this, Never Let Me Go brings up many philosophical questions: Does art reveal our souls? Is it useful, important? Does it make us human? This is a truly fascinating topic, but one that the film seems to dwell on almost too much – the complex history behind art and what it means for the characters practically left in the dust. Instead, it feels stale and the characters come off as having little foundation to go on (when in fact, it’s quite the opposite).

The same questions of art nearly go hand-in-hand with love as the characters grow up and get swept away in one of the many theories in the donor community: that is, if two donors are really “properly in love,” they may be able to apply for a “deferral” and delay their donations a few years in order to be together. They still aren’t considered completely human, but the idea is that perhaps there’s a way for the world to have mercy on these clones once they reveal some kind of soul or profound feeling. Creativity and love are thought to be what determines which clones are human enough for such an opportunity.

Seeing these big themes portrayed in a unique light onscreen would have been powerful…if only we had been able to see more of these characters on film, get to know them, feel some kind of truth in their relationships. But with all the talk of “looking into souls” and finding out if clones “have souls at all,” ironically, the viewer leaves the theater knowing little to nothing about the souls of Tommy, Ruth, or Kathy. The characters live through three phases of life but the audience skips through them to the point where you think to yourself, “Just because the movie tells me you two are in love doesn’t mean I really believe it.”

And that, it seems, is the greatest tragedy of the Never Let Me Go adapted to screen. Whether it is the fault of the directing, the writing, the editing, or the acting, this crucial element that worked so well in the novel didn’t translate cinematically. These characters were never supposed to match the sterility of the cold hospital operating rooms they were destined for. They were supposed to prove the world wrong. They were supposed to feel human.

‘Shutter Island’: Is Scorsese Still a ‘Master of Film’?

Back in December, I wrote about Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island as one of my “Things to Look Forward to in 2010.” After too many weeks of not getting around to it, I finally saw it last weekend. I know, I’m a little late for a prompt review. But the truth is, the nature of Shutter Island’s story makes it difficult to review without giving away anything, or ruining it for somebody somehow. So instead, I want to take a look at the filmmaking and film quality of the movie, as it stacks up to other Scorsese works.

Let me start with this: Shutter Island was good, but it’s not perfect. And before you say I can’t expect perfection, let me remind you that this is Martin Scorsese we’re talking about. Perfection is what he’s delivered as a master of film marked by precision, and perfection is what we’ve come to expect. He was one of the original “Movie Brats” (or New Hollywood filmmakers), meaning – basically – he studied movies before he started making the big ones. (Sidenote: His professor-like overview of Italian film, called Il Mio Viaggio in Italia, is worth a watch/education.) He was of the film school breed – one of those kids who grew up obsessed with movies and held an infinite knowledge of film before he even really started. When he did start, he became known as both precise and artful. “A master of film” is the phrase that we probably hear most when a film critic or scholar is talking about Scorsese.

Now, Scorsese is a director who’s managed to go from raw, smallish movies like Raging Bull and transition smoothly into the world of high-budget Hollywood. All the while keeping his unique and definite style intact, however, as it seems like some sort of sacrilege for me to call Scorsese “Hollywood.” Yes, Hollywood loves him and he works in it. But he doesn’t really succumb to it. Most of the time.

I think it’s worth mentioning that the thing about Scorsese’s movies – even as they’ve gotten more and more high-budget with each film – is that he knows how to move through them. Emotionally via the plot, but mostly physically – with the camera: Dolly-shots, lighting, and all camera moves perfected, editing impeccable. Shutter Island, unfortunately, is not what we’d call “impeccable.” Overall, some scenes stand out more than others, as in: “Oh! That scene was especially awesome!,” and you’ll know them when you watch them. But then there are some messes.

Take the first long scene, for instance. I don’t know if moviegoers who have never studied filmmaking noticed this, but I personally find it almost impossible not to… The scene where Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) stand at the front of the boat on their way to Shutter Island. It’s horribly edited and just plain messy. Actions and eyelines throughout the whole conversation are askew and don’t match up, not to mention the color of each shot. (Dark one second, lighter the next.) In a sentence, you notice the edits. And not in an “experimental,” intentional way. In a bad way. Like it was rushed overnight.

While I am probably being overly critical, this really bugged me for the first few minutes. To be fair, it only happened again (and not nearly as bad) in a few other scenes. So it wasn’t the whole movie that was poorly edited. But still, it didn’t have the Scorsese move and feel to it, really. Even The Departed felt this way and bothered me at times. I know everyone loved The Departed, but I couldn’t really get into it. It felt choppy and half-done for Scorsese. Especially with what some people referred to as the “Three Stooges” ending. What happened to the fluidity of his movies, even the big, grand-scale ones like Casino or the more recent Gangs of New York, and especially The Aviator?

Something else that I at first mistook as a technical flaw in Shutter Island were all the green screens. And then the music. Why is the music so loud and overbearing and melodramatic?, I asked myself. But then at some point it all came together, and I realized this film was heavily inspired by Hitchcock’s cinematic style, particularly Vertigo. That I can appreciate. But I’m still not sure that I can justify the roughly edited first scene.

By the very end, the nod to Hitchcock, the sometimes hokey acting, the music and all the rest of it came together somehow. Almost neatly. Whatever it was, it made sense at the end. It’s just the road to getting there that was often frustrating and very rocky.  Though I questioned Scorsese’s technique during the viewing of this movie, I am intrigued, satisfied, and would see it again. I know it sounds like I just ranted about the film quality for no apparent reason, but I think it goes to show: No matter how “imperfect” I found Shutter Island to be the first go around, there are some things Scorsese will never fail to accomplish. For one, the intrigue that’s more like a subconscious addiction.

It’s what I felt when I watched Raging Bull for the umpteenth time while everyone else around me in film school found it unbearable. It what’s I felt when I went to the theater three times to see Gangs of New York when everyone asked me if I was crazy, why I wouldn’t spend money on a movie I hadn’t seen yet. It’s that undeniable urge that Scorsese produces in his own specific way… That “coming back for more” even though you’re not really sure what’s got you coming back. And by the fifth or sixth time you might put a finger on it, but you’ll already be in love.

Perhaps that is what’s currently happening to me as I continue to throw Shutter Island around in my mind, make plans to see it again, and write about its imperfections.

Delayed Reaction: ‘Wendy and Lucy’

Promotional image, 2008

I finally watched Wendy and Lucy (2008), the festival darling about a young woman (Michelle Williams) who’s making her way to Alaska with her dog (the Lucy of the pair) in hopes of starting anew. Directed by indie director Kelly Reichardt, the film feels like a drama made by and for hipsters. It’s methodically slow-paced; and though there are obstacles once Wendy becomes stranded in the middle of Oregon, the movie is ultimately uneventful.

Critics and audiences seem to have mixed reviews of this quiet independent film, which traveled the film festival circuit until it landed in theaters as a limited release. Apparently, you either think it’s subtly brilliant or overrated.

My thoughts? I’m leaning more towards the “overrated” category of opinion. I’m not sure, but maybe you really have to love dogs in order to become enthralled with this storyline – which is really just about Wendy trying to recover her missing pet in Oregon.

There are undertones of American poverty and homeless or nomadic youth, but they don’t seem to come through enough to the point where you can call it “powerful.” Williams’ acting comes off as a forced calm or lethargy. The plot is simple, which could work in its favor, but it really dragged on for me.

Overall, I just couldn’t get into the film. I admire its delicacy in its simplicity, but it wasn’t executed in a way that was engrossing or interesting for me.

And it’s an unfair comparison, but I’m going to have to do it: Wendy and Lucy was no Umberto D.

‘Up in the Air’: A Nice Touch

 

Official promotional image, 2009

Find me one person who doesn’t love George Clooney, male or female. Everyone loves George Clooney, or at least likes him. And in his newest film, Up in the Air, he proves once and for all that he’s the only actor who can really get away with “just playing George Clooney” every time. And why? Because he’s so good that roles are made for him, and he has the talent and charisma to excel at every role.

The quickness in his witty speech, the smirks, and the “not-so-family middle-aged guy” quality we all expect from Clooney are ever-present in this movie. He plays Ryan Bingham: a non-committal, attractive older man who travels most of the days of the year to fire people for a living. The bigger catch? He thoroughly enjoys it. He succeeds with this role to the point that you’re convinced there’s no other actor who could have possibly portrayed Bingham.

His female counterpart (who actually says in the film to think of her as him, “but with a vagina”), played by Vera Farmiga, is a strikingly powerful traveling business woman and seemingly as non-committal as Bingham. However, superficially, she seems to be the incarnation of a modern man’s fantasy – pointing out that she’s “flexible” in bed and has experimented with other women. Nonetheless, she helps to nicely balance out Clooney’s character and they make a good pair throughout the film.

While all the Elliott Smith and other downer acoustic songs seemed out of place, the movie seems to get more insightful towards the last quarter. While most of the film was dedicated to how Bingham lives his life and does his job, the last part deals with how that’s affected his relationships (or lack thereof).

It’s a reflective film that actually has enough mass appeal to please both mainstream and more independent-loving audiences. It gives people what they want in terms of humor and love story, but it doesn’t have a Hollywood ending. It doesn’t tie everything up for you in a nice, pretty bow. I could even go there and say that the resolution of the film is “up in the air” itself. Oh yeah. I went there.

Though the general Hype Bandwagon seems to think this film is life-changing and amazing, I’ll categorize it as “pretty damn good.” I enjoyed it, appreciated its touches of comical and serious truths about post-9/11 airports and today’s unemployment rate. The subject matter is timely, and yet I can see it becoming a smaller classic years from now – a film we look back on and appreciate its relevance to the time. The editing by Dana E. Glauberman is noteworthy and slightly experimental. Overall, it’s clearly a well-made film. So while director Jason Reitman obviously did a great job, I’m going to have to say that George Clooney really made it what it is.

Down to the Roots of ‘Good Hair’

good_hair_ver2Anyone who lives in Chicago and takes public transportation knows that the Red Line is full of smells. Just today I walked onto the Red Line only to be taken aback by a strong but familiar one – the smell of relaxer. Or, I guess as white people call it, “chemical straightener.” I had this (or some version of it) put in my hair twice as a pre-teen, and I knew the smell immediately. Even after this young girl walked off the train – with much confidence – it lingered. This is some serious stuff. And it’s one of the focuses of Chris Rock’s funny but illuminating documentary, Good Hair.

Let me start off by clarifying one thing: I know this is about Black women’s hair. I also know I will never personally understand the stress and maintenance that many Black women go through with their hair. While I learned some things I didn’t know before the film, I found that – just by being a woman with hair – I was able to relate to a lot of what this doc portrayed. And for everyone else…I think you’ll definitely be entertained and informed.

Rock was inspired to make the documentary after one of his (adorable) young daughters asked him, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” The doc explores the topic of what it means to have “good” hair, largely through interviews with a diverse range of Black men and women – everyone from Ice-T to dermatologists to music video stars. (Yeah, apparently Ice-T gets his own category.) Oh, and did I mention Maya Angelou? She provides some brief insight on the topic as well.

There are a multitude of topics explored under the umbrella subject of “good hair.” Rock uses the diverse interviews for perspective, a hair convention performance contest for entertainment, and a trip to India for the back story of many African-American weaves.

Most interesting, perhaps, are the permeating themes that come up frequently at various points of the doc. One being the understanding or orientation that Black men already have to Black women’s hair. One interviewee commented on how Black men get this because they grew up with their mothers and sisters doing the same things every day. Actor Nia Long talked about how other men, such as white men, don’t understand her hair maintenance at all, and might even be scared of it as something unfamiliar to them.

On the other hand, another theme popped up – the notion that, as KRS-One says outright, ALL women strive to have long, straight “European” (a word frequently used in the film) hair. Ice-T says something to the effect of, “Let’s talk to all those famous white girls and see if THEIR long hair is real”…as a cutaway reveals Paris Hilton and her obvious blonde hair “extensions.”

This all comes to the realization that, no matter your ethnicity, hair is very important for most women. Whether it’s using chemical relaxer on what people offensively call “nappy” locks, or dying your hair bleach blonde regardless of your natural features, or refusing to cut your hair because its length has become a protective shield to you – hair has meaning for us females. As a completely bald woman with alopecia poignantly said in the doc:

I think hair is so important because our self-esteem is wrapped up in it.

From a white woman’s point of view, I know I’ve always been told that my hair looks better curly – in its natural state. I think a lot of white women hear that same thing, actually. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like enough people are telling Black women and girls that their hair is beautiful just the way it is. This is portrayed by the 3-year-olds getting their hair relaxed. Or the scene where one high school girl with a cute short Afro sits awkwardly as relaxed-haired women say they don’t think any woman can be taken seriously as a professional unless her hair is straightened.

One thing that’s brushed over in the film but comes up a lot when people talk about the film is the WHY. Why do Black women want straight hair? Why did people freak out when Solange Knowles cut off her hair? Why doesn’t the rest of the world accept Black hair in its natural state? These questions went largely unanswered, but the assumed answer that Chris Rock and his interviewees seemed to give is simply that Black hair is not understood by non-Black people.

The film offers not only humor, but empathy towards the subject of Black hair. However, I’m struggling to decide what the documentary does more – empathize and explain, or ridicule? I hope that – once more people see the film – the whole point of Chris Rock’s endeavor doesn’t become counterproductive.

What I’m saying is: While this is a movie about Black women’s hair, I think it’s important to remember that we shouldn’t go see this doc and then come out of it saying, “Wow, those women are CRAZY and spend SO much money on all this hair stuff! How ridiculous!” Instead, why don’t we take a step back, get past the laughs, learn a thing or two that we never thought about before, and also recognize that many women – regardless of race – do crap to their hair. Most of us women, let’s face it, abuse our hair for years and years, just to force it to be something that it’s not. And thank you, Chris Rock, for caring enough to take on that issue and portray it in a well-balanced light.

‘Capitalism’: A Long Story?

capitalism_love_story_posterCapitalism. It’s a large subject to tackle in one documentary. My boyfriend pointed this out to me as I shared some complaints I had with Michael Moore’s new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. I see the point there, but I still can’t help but wonder how the director could have done things a little differently.

After some overly heavy analogies of the Roman Empire, the doc opens with a gripping home video of a family’s house being foreclosed. Foreclosure is the one subject in the documentary that Moore spends ample time on, and it proves to be effective and heart-wrenching.

It becomes apparent though how many subjects are brought up in such a short amount of time – everything from airline pilots making an astonishingly low annual income to the Republic Windows and Doors workers’ protest in Chicago last year. The result is usually a too-brief coverage of most issues. Oddly enough, the topic choices also felt sporadic and out of place, even though they all fit under the massive umbrella subject that is “the drawbacks of capitalism.” And yet, there were still issues he didn’t bring up at all.

I expected Moore to address the unemployment rates nationwide that happened due to the economic crisis. Instead, he focused here and there on Flint, Michigan (his hometown, a subject he’s been passionate about since the beginning of his career as a documentarian.) I also thought that surely Capitalism would address the issue that college students are facing now because of the crisis.  But aside from asking a few pilots about their massive college loans still to be paid off, Moore didn’t address this at all.

Ultimately, I felt like he left me hanging. Every story that he touched on briefly, I wanted to know more about it within the context of the documentary.

I don’t think it was a bad film, but I think it would’ve benefited from focusing on only a few topics expansively, as opposed to tiny snippets. Something like Hurricane Katrina, for instance, is too painful and socially critical to just brush over of at the very end of the film.

I’m not saying you won’t be interested in Capitalism: A Love Story – because you will be, for the most part. Though at times it might drone on during the least interesting parts (like a section dedicated to FDR), and feel rushed during the most captivating, Moore’s new documentary is worth watching. At least it’ll get you wanting to know more about the subjects he briefly introduces. And whether or not you’re a recent college graduate like I am, it will also piss you off. Really, really piss you off.