Thursday, September 15, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Funny Girls

In which we dole out mini-reviews to two female-led comedies, released 30 years apart. Let’s see how things have changed, shall we?

Valley Girl
Year: 1983
Director: Martha Coolidge
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Deborah Foreman, Elizabeth Daily
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A girl from the Valley falls for an LA dude with a bitchin’ bod, but her friends think he’s, like, totally grody. Will she choose him or get back with her old beau, Tommy?

I feel like such a traitor to the cause. Like, every cause. As a staunch feminist and an 80’s movie advocate, I’m always delighted when I find out that a classic high school movie was actually directed by a woman. But Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemeont High failed to wow me, and now Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl has suffered a similar fate. Obviously, this has everything to do with the state of second-tier 80’s teen flicks and not women in the director’s chair, but I can’t help feeling like a heretic.

At least with Valley Girl, I can see why it became such a zeitgeisty hit, and it’s not just Phoebe Cates misplacing her bikini top. Simultaneously canonizing a parade of 80’s megahits, including Modern English’s evergreen “Melt with You” and calling into existence an entire lexicon of slang like an omnipotent pop culture deity, Valley Girl struck teen culture during a pivotal transition period. As a cultural artifact, it’s pristine, but as an actual piece of film narrative, it’s a major bummer.

Copping the classical “forbidden love” story arc so hard that our couple literally makes out in front of a movie theater marquee advertising Romeo and Juliet, Valley Girl assumes that the drama is baked in automatically and doesn’t actually bother to create its own meaningful conflict. It’s hard to care about a relationship that has lasted the course of a montage, but it’s even harder to believe that Julie’s decision is challenging in any way, because Tommy is such a collar-popping Cobra Kai asshole that it’s literally impossible to imagine that anyone would even give him the time of day without smacking that smug grin off his greasy face.

Plus, Nicolas Cage is obscenely attractive at 19 years old. He might be giving a performance bizarrely reminiscent of David Schwimmer, but he’s got the goods, and that’s something I never thought I’d say about the star of the National Treasure franchise. This extremely superficial narrative (which expends a lot of energy trying to emphasize how “different” this white dude from 20 miles away is) can’t even pick up on that, which is immensely frustrating.

The film’s emphasis on vérité conversational scenes that meander through halfheartedly improvised dialogue while straining to grab guerilla snatches of downtown LA betray its low budget, as does its lack of proper nighttime lighting. Far be it from me to punish a movie for being cheap, but it doesn’t cost money to punch up the script a little more. A whole lot of nothing happens in Valley Girl, and it takes forever to do it. 

I admire its veracity as an on-the-ground examination of the totally arbitrary class warfare of teen culture, but Deborah Foreman is a deeply uninteresting lead (her second biggest credit is the forgotten 1986 slasher April Fool’s Day, in which she’s also the least interesting presence), the story is lazy, and just like Ridgemont High, the film is packed with side characters and subplots that we spend an arbitrary amount of time with before they vanish. At least we’ll always have Nic Cage’s eyebrows.

Rating: 5/10

I Give It a Year
Year: 2013
Director: Dan Mazer
Cast: Rose Byrne, Rafe Spall, Anna Faris
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A newlywed couple struggles to make it through their first year of marriage, both presented with temptations in the form of romantic partners far better suited for them.

I Give it a Year is a curious beast. A small British alterna-rom-com nestled in the underbrush of the Netflix catalogue, you’d think you know exactly what you’re getting. And that’s what you get: A Spartan narrative with few twists and turns, a half-cynical but still heteronormative-monogamous takedown of love and marriage, and a revolving door of broad comedy stock characters. So why did I find it so f**king delightful?

Well, ingredient number one is Rose Byrne, a vastly underrated comedy actress who I would follow to the ends of the Earth. Hell, I would watch Paul Blart: Mall Cop in Space if she was in it. She has an uncanny ability to take an extremely sour character, sharpen her to a deadly steel point of hilarity, and swoop in with her natural charisma to tie you down and force you to care for her anyway. She handles all the film’s copious negativity with charm and grace, keeping the tone light and airy.

That’s not to say the rest of the cast don’t pull their weight. I mean, Anna Faris is in this movie. Her character is probably the most flat on paper, but she grabs her nebbish role by the horns to craft a lived-in character with more dimensions than scenes. And in the wings are the male leads; Rafe Spall to play cavalry with dunderheaded charm and physical comedy, and Simon Baker to project handsomeness and overconfidence all over the place like a fire hose.

Surround this cast with a battalion of British character actors, and you’ve got yourself an unforgettable movie. I Give it a Year is simple, sleek, unadorned, and pretty hilarious. It’s no classical masterpiece of the form, but it’s a ridiculously fun time that I would recommend to anybody who fancies themselves edgy and cynical, but is still a soggy romantic at heart.

Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 961

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