Tuesday, June 04, 2013

FILM: The Shrew v The Goofball

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about women in film. Not film-makers and not independent film-making but women in Hollywood film – the ones that bring in the big bucks.  And I’ve been wondering a lot about why men can’t seem to make a film that shows a woman as a … well, woman. 

But perhaps I’m wrong …

Perhaps it's not that the women are being presented wrongly. Perhaps it's the notion of Who Is What in a film that we need to talk about.

During the promotion for Knocked Up – a film I liked a lot – it's lead female star, Katherine Heigl, made this comment:

"It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. It exaggerated the characters, and I had a hard time with it, on some days. I'm playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy? Why is this how you're portraying women? Ninety-eight percent of the time it was an amazing experience, but it was hard for me to love the movie."

The result is that neither her co-star Seth Rogan or director Judd Apatow have spoken to her since. In fact,  Rogan dismissed her comments as 'batshit crazy' when he was asked about her on the Howard Stern Show a couple of years ago.  

Which is where the problem lies.

Because it's simply ridiculous to dismiss what Heigl says just because it could be construed as a criticism of your film. It's not. It's an observation.  Heigl has a reputation of speaking her mind and it's had an impact on her career. But that doesn't mean that what she says here isn't worthy of wider consideration.

Because it's impossible to ignore that what Heigl says about the women in this film is true: Knocked Up  DOES portrays its women as 'shrews ... humorless and uptight' whilst its men are 'lovable, goofy, fun-loving'?  Her high-acheiving character's just been landed with the child of an unemployed stoner - she's not going to be playing for laughs at that point in her life.

Katherine's Alison is not the fun one. Rogan's Ben's the fun one: a loser stumbling around trying to do the right thing. Ben's the one you root for, not Alison who could - quite frankly - do it on her own anyway. 

Batshit crazy, then? Not at all.

But these two characters being so different and, in some ways, unappealing isn't wrong. It's one of the basic devices of comedy: two people who shouldn't get along trying to get along. It's not about women being one thing or men another. Putting your characters into awkward situations is how you make your audience laugh. If it were two goof-balls or two uptight shrews, it'd be whole different story. For the odd couple premise to work you need one straight guy and one funny guy. Great comedy pairings are all about this.

Conveniently enough, The Odd Couple is a great example of this.

Jack Lemmon's Felix is Heigl's uptight shrew. Constantly cleaning up and complaining about Walter Mattau's Oscar's disgusting goofball lifestyle - just as Alison is appalled by Ben's.  It's funny because Felix is Walter's friend and the friendship they have is suddenly put under strain by their living arrangements.

In Tina Fey's under-rated Baby Mama (maybe the name didn't help and the trailers ...guh) Tina's Kate is anal about her beautiful home and protective of her successful career in organic living. Amy Poehler's rough-and-ready Angie is all about junk-food, crappy computer games and general loafing.  The humour comes from them trying to live together.

Even Dumb & Dumber pitched Jeff as the straight guy to Harry.

The reason why I'm talking about this, though, isn't because it's not 'right' to have a shrew and a goofball as your main protagonists.  My problem is that, in commercial Hollywood, the shrew is persisting  That while either one in a comedy pairing can be the funny guy, the laughs are consistently going to the goofball man.  That's what Heigl was alluding to.  That's what we should all be thinking about: is the theme of men and women in comedy not updating itself to reflect more modern attitudes?

Or is it that simply no-one can quite believe that women are funny enough to carry it?