Notes from Underground


That chick flick again



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Life is like high school: it sucks.

That axiom, however true, is most assuredly not the message of "You Again," a cheerfully mediocre, fitfully entertaining, thoroughly formulaic, yet somehow oddly fascinating chick flick starring Kristen Bell, Sigourney Weaver, and Jamie Lee Curtis (and featuring a predictably scene-stealing turn by the inexplicably hip Betty White).

Other movies in recent years — "My Best Friend's Wedding" with Julia Roberts comes to mind — have covered the same ground with more laughs and greater insight, and the "Revenge of the Nerds" cinematic trope is almost as shopworn as the word "trope" itself. What makes "You Again" interesting, even as it utterly fails to be dramatically (or comedically) compelling, is its ambitious attempt to weave together the central themes of both of those other movies. Thus we are given a beautified geek-made-good confronting her former (and now perhaps reformed) tormenter, at the same time we're treated to an examination of the bitter rivalry that often accompanies close female friendships.

It sounds as if that could be the ticket to some deliciously catty fun. However, "You Again" is hobbled out of the gate by its PG rating, which means things can never get too shockingly mean or nasty. (That's not to say that PG movies have to be limp, antiseptic, and drained of mojo — see the scrupulously clean but still raucously potent "Napoleon Dynamite" as exhibit A.) And most critically, since it aims to be a family film, presumably one that mothers and their daughters can watch together without getting embarrassed or uncomfortable, it has to take a sudden lurch into sweetness and joyful resolution in the end, a denouement that is hardly deserved.

The plot is about as clunky and contrived as a third-rate screenwriter could possibly render it. The young heroine, Marni (Bell), was once a pitiful loser in high school who got bullied and abused daily by the haughty and gorgeous cheerleader J.J. (Odette Yustman). Now, eight years, a glamorous career, and a de rigueur success-makeover later, a thoroughly transformed Marni discovers to her horror that J.J., who now goes by Joanna, is engaged to marry her brother Will (the blandly handsome James Wolk), who has no idea of his fiancée's checkered history.

It turns out that Joanna decided to become a nice, charitable, and compassionate person after the shock of her parents' death in an automobile accident just after she graduated from high school. Marni suspects she's faking her change of heart, especially when Joanna claims to have no recollection whatsoever of Marni, the object of her cruelty throughout their high school years. And it turns out that Joanna's closest relative is now her twice-divorced aunt Mona (Weaver), a former friend of Marni's mother Gail (Curtis), with whom Gail had an angry falling out their senior year and toward whom she has nursed a grudge ever since.

Over the course of the movie, we see the two sets of women engage in a series of increasingly shrill and spastic passive-aggressive maneuvers, before all-out hostility is finally unleashed between the haughty Mona and the frazzled Gail, and between the vengeful ex-nerd Marni and the seemingly forgetful ex-mean-girl Joanna. The most interesting of the interlocking stories involves Marni's determination to set her brother straight about his girlfriend's true identity. To that end, she engineers some comeuppance at a crucial moment, provoking a slightly amusing (and, for the small subset of heterosexual males in the theater, intermittently arousing) catfight, leading eventually to contrition on both sides — Joanna for all of her high school horribleness, Marni for her more-recent selfish pettiness. Then the two "mom" figures scuffle fully-clothed in a swimming pool (Why? Well, it's really not worth going into detail about.), argue, and tearfully reconcile, and we're off to the wonderfully uplifting ending ...

When the wedding finally occurs, both the bride and the groom have suffered broken limbs (again, not worth explaining), but are happy nevertheless. Marni, just recovering from a massive infliction of bee stings on her face (courtesy of more uninspired slapstick), decides to give her beloved brother and her former nemesis/new BFF a big surprise: it's Hall and Oates, performing the couple's "song," "Kiss on My List"! (But how does this legendary '80s band have any nostalgic value to a couple who were barely alive in the '80s? And how was Marni able to get them to show up at this random wedding? Neither question seems much worth pondering.)

An aged and weathered Darryl and John play their hearts out, and the ladies who were at each other's throat just moments earlier dance merrily as though nothing had happened. Music makes the people come together, as Madonna sagely noted. But the thoughtful viewer might wonder, even as his heart swells with the moving display of good will: can we really dispense with all of the hate and viciousness in the world so easily?

In fact, for all of the film's exposure of the foibles involved in women's relationships, "You Again" ultimately asserts a gratingly naïve faith in the inherent goodness of people. The film is, in fact, almost Mary Baker Eddy-esque in its total denial of evil. When people do bad things, it's only because they haven't embraced their true wonderful selves within. If a girl behaves like a dreadful bitch and a repulsive tramp, it's merely because of low self-esteem. If a woman wants to ruin another woman out of spiteful jealousy, it's only because she's suffering badly and needs a hug. Supreme hate soon reveals itself as love in a disguise that melts away, just as pain, sin, and sorrow reveal themselves to be things of naught in the Christian Science model of existence.

Indeed, as the final credits roll and we witness all of the cast boogying joyfully on the dance floor and palling around with Darryl and John on stage, it's as though we're seeing a vision of Heaven on earth, just bursting with love and joy. It does look delightful, unless we ascertain that it's a lie.

The truth is that high school — with its attendant torments, humiliations, and idiocies — doesn't really end but stretches far into one's life; that rotten people very often contentedly continue in their rotten ways, and moreover end up thriving; that no one is really all that wonderful inside; and that the world is a thoroughly miserable place.

There is no Heaven on earth, and it remains to be seen whether there's a Heaven anywhere.

What's more, Hall and Oates are not likely to play at your wedding. And no geeky chick you've ever known has borne even the slightest resemblance to Kristen Bell.  Ω

October 26, 2010

Published in 2010 by WTM Enterprises.

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