Archive for January 2003

Normal

January 21, 2003

An average-joe factory worker (Tom Wilkinson) confronts his wife of 25 years (Jessica Lange) with the news that he’s a woman born in a man’s body and needs sex-reassignment surgery. She has the predictable reaction, then gradually grows to accept the situation and his new identity as “Ruth.” This is admittedly a sensitive and non-exploitative study of an unexplored subject — the impact of gender dysphoria on marriages — but it seems to have been made for absolute newcomers to the topic (or people whose only exposure to it has been the “She’s a He” crap on Jerry Springer). And writer-director Jane Anderson (adapting her play Looking for Normal) often gives her characters flatly unbelievable things to say and do, such as when Wilkinson slouches off to his blue-collar job wearing earrings. The real problem is that we get no sense of what’s being shattered in the marriage, and little sense of what he’s had to do to repress his feelings all those years; at times we seem to be watching a highlight reel of these people’s lives. What saves it from TV-movie banality are the performances; Wilkinson and especially Lange tear hungrily into the predicament, and there’s good supporting work by Clancy Brown (who only gets to play nice guys in HBO films — see The Laramie Project) as Wilkinson’s understanding boss and Hayden Panettiere, who steals many scenes as the couple’s hilariously forthright teenage daughter (“Are you going to shave your bikini line?”).

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A Guy Thing

January 17, 2003

guythingIt took four writers and one director to deliver a convoluted comedy that at least five other young writer/directors could’ve had more fun with. (Kevin Smith would probably be number one.) A Guy Thing ties itself into a Gordian knot trying to keep its own mechanism going — the plot insists that nice guy Paul (Jason Lee), about to marry nice rich girl Karen (Selma Blair), instead fall for her cousin Becky (Julia Stiles). The morning after Paul’s bachelor party, he finds himself with Becky asleep in his bed and without any memory of how she got there. To keep this apparent lapse a secret from Karen, Paul practices to deceive and weaves a tangled web around himself and the movie.

Add in a fair amount of meet-the-parents embarrassment (this movie could almost be a default sequel to Meet the Parents, and indeed the basic storylines for both were written by Greg Glienna, whose in-laws must hate him, or vice versa) and you have a not-especially-interesting comedy of discomfort, which could end prematurely at any point if Paul simply told the truth to the right persons. Yet I had a decent time with it, and I suggest you may have the same experience if you do what I did: ignore the plot and focus on the cast.

We can start with the first-billed Jason Lee, who really wasn’t built to carry a movie (as it later turned out, he had better luck fronting a sitcom). He always looks more at home as a sidekick in Kevin Smith films, and when he isn’t in one, more often than not he looks as if he’s wishing he were. Lee can do flustered, and he can do goofy, both of which he’s called upon to do here; the third thing, however — love — seems beyond him as an actor. Mostly, he just looks mute and pained when trying to express yearning. The movie doesn’t quite know how to use Selma Blair, either. This delicate-looking comic actress has already racked up enough raucous onscreen humiliation (from Cruel Intentions to Storytelling to The Sweetest Thing) to challenge Ben Stiller’s title, yet here she’s cast as a presentable Nice Girl, sweet and dull. Blair does have one tiny, inspired moment, when she claps her hands primly twice before showing some unwanted visitors out (perhaps a mannerism Karen unconsciously picked up from Mom).

Julia Stiles, unlike the daring Blair, never embarrasses herself in anything, even in her first scene here when she’s gamely trying her latest of many jobs, as a Kiwi dancer at Paul’s bachelor party. Stiles drifts through this movie amiably enough, realizing it’s something easy to do between semesters, but she makes room for one amazing bit when Becky meets Paul and discovers that her accidental bedmate is soon to marry her cousin. Stiles moves from shock to outrage before settling on a deep amusement — you can identify the split-second when Becky decides she’s going to have fun with Paul’s anguish (he’s been trying to avoid her all night).

Director Chris Koch seemed to have assembled a better-than-necessary cast for his one previous movie, 2000’s Snow Day, and here he’s got a dependable ensemble of old and new faces. The stand-out is an uncredited Larry Miller as Paul’s neighbor, a minister who regards Paul with immense contempt for what he assumes is Paul’s libertine lifestyle. Others making the 101 minutes easier include James Brolin and Diana Scarwid (has it been that long since Mommie Dearest?) as Karen’s well-off parents, Julie Hagerty and David Koechner as Paul’s more earthy folks, Shawn Hatosy as Paul’s best man, Fred Ewanuick as a stoner pharmacy clerk who ends up cooking for the rehearsal dinner (don’t ask), Jackie Burroughs — still around, and still blissfully strange — as Karen’s wine-craving Aunt Budge, and Lochlyn Munro as Becky’s psycho cop ex-boyfriend, who makes even the act of eating a sandwich seem like an act of aggression punishable by international law. A Guy Thing, the textbook example of a low-expectation January release, would feel a lot emptier without the lively actors populating it. So focus on the cast — when you happen to catch this on cable, or whenever.