Film: If Looks Could Kill

In America, only pretty young women become movie stars. Middle-aged ale actors who are unattractive—or at least Bogart-ugly—can and do play romantic leads, but no actress who is short of beautiful or much older than 30 has much chance of seeing her name above the title of a big-budget movie, save as part of a package deal. This harsh reality is, of course, a flagrant and fundamental contradiction of all that the members of the film industry hold most ideologically dear; they are politically correct to the point of outright silliness about nearly everything else, but not female beauty, which is why die-hard feminists are so quick to foam at the mouth when it comes to Hollywood. (Feminists, like Marxists, are not infrequently wrong for the right reasons.)

Liberal guilt is about unacknowledged hypocrisy—it has no other cause—and I suspect the main reason why Hollywood is so inflexibly liberal is the fact that its male inhabitants are secretly ashamed of the sexual double standard by which they live. They will sign any petition, contribute lavishly to any Democratic PAC, perform any act of political penance—anything, in fact, but sleep with an ordinary-looking woman of a certain age or cast her as the love interest in a major motion picture. Small wonder that they have become Bill Clinton’s staunchest supporters: He’s their kind of guy.

One of the unintentionally comic ways in which American filmmakers try to compensate for their unswerving commitment to female beauty is by making ugly-duckling movies. What makes these movies funny is that the ugly ducklings are invariably pretty women who are made to look unattractive. Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, for example, was a charming little film about two unpopular girls who ended up on top of the heap—except that the stars, Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow, were actually two of the handsomest women imaginable, thereby completely undercutting the premise of the script. The only recent Hollywood movie I can think of in which the frump walked away with the drop-dead stud was The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and even that excellent film (written, not coincidentally, by a woman, Audrey Wells) played both sides of the street, for I know a great many men who find Janeane Garofalo hugely appealing.

Robert Iscove’s She’s All That is an ugly-duckling movie that also belongs to another perennial commercial genre, the high-school flick. Such films are dependable moneymakers, and this one, not surprisingly, cleaned up. But they also have a way of being quite unexpectedly touching and sometimes even subtly observant (Heathers was one of the smartest movies of the past decade), and if I had to choose between, say, Saving Private Ryan and Dazed and Confused, or Bulworth and Clueless, I’d opt for the feather-light soufflé over the heavily earnest main course every time.

 

To be sure, high-school flicks have their own ways of being earnest, and She’s All That is no exception: When it is good, it is disarmingly good, but when it is bad it is preachy, and the problem, as usual with Hollywood, is that the preachiness is built into the film’s premise. Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.), the president of and cutest boy in his senior class, is unexpectedly dumped by his girlfriend, Taylor (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe), a slutty fashion plate, just six weeks before prom night. Challenged by his buddies to put up or shut up, he agrees to take Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook), a nondescript, lower-middle-class egghead who works at a falafel parlor, makes depressing collages in her basement, and does performance art on weekends, and turn her into the next prom queen, thereby depriving Taylor of the title. Zack falls in love with his own creation, discovering in the process that his materialistic values are inferior to Laney’s idealistic convictions, which just happen to be—are you sitting down?—impeccably liberal. (One of her prom-queen campaign placards reads “Laney, the Pro-Choice Choice.”) The mildest of hijinks ensue, but Zack and Laney finally kiss in the film’s last shot, and everybody except Taylor lives happily ever after.

If all this sounds predictable, it’s supposed to, for She’s All That is a genre movie, and rather more rigidly accepting of its self-imposed rules than it absolutely has to be. R. Lee Fleming Jr.’s script contains intermittent flashes of heterodoxy, but no follow-through whatsoever; Laney, for example, appears at first glance to be a bad artist, which would have been a nice touch, but it turns out in the end that she is actually very talented. (We know this because her black art teacher tells her so, meaning that it must be true.) What makes the movie work is not the cliché-clotted script but the engaging acting of Prinze and Cook, who play out their all-too-predictable scenes with sweetness and grace, making something real out of something false.

Alas, She’s All That also suffers from a much more deeply rooted falseness, for no amount of graceful acting can conceal the fact that Cook is anything but a “rebound skank,” as one character disdainfully describes her. In point of fact, Cook looks like Winona Ryder’s little sister, even when hiding behind the horn-rimmed glasses and paint-spattered overalls that she wears throughout the first half of the film, and no sooner does Zack’s sister subject her to a makeover than she becomes a full-fledged beauty, elfin and wry. Of course Zack falls for her—who wouldn’t?

Watching She’s All That put me in mind of an honest film on more or less the same subject, Baz Luhrmann’s lovely Strictly Ballroom, in which Tara Morice plays a plain girl who snags the hottest ballroom dancer in town.

Morice, unlike Cook, is no beauty in disguise, which may explain why she hasn’t signed any million-dollar deals; blotchy-faced and flat-voiced, she is transformed from within solely by the power of love and art (as well as her own fabulously good acting). Moreover, the transformation is completely convincing: You never feel for a moment that it is implausible for Paul Mercurio to fall in love with her. But, then, Strictly Ballroom wasn’t a Hollywood film, either—it was made in Australia. Had it been shot on this side of the Pacific, Alicia Silverstone would probably have been cast instead.

Needless to say, Australia has produced its fair share of pretty people, and Mel Gibson is one of them; he is, however, well into his 40s, and were he a woman, you can bet that he wouldn’t be playing romantic leads anymore. But life is unfair, and so Gibson remains one of the film industry’s strongest box-office draws, even in an appallingly bad movie like Brian Helgeland’s Payback. Helgeland coauthored the highly intelligent script for L.A. Confidential, so one must assume that he has since suffered severe brain damage, for Payback is a film of the utmost vulgarity, violent and foul-mouthed without any compensating strokes of wit or fancy; it is so bad, in fact, that I wondered briefly whether it might have been intended as a parody of one of those awful action movies that Burt Reynolds used to grind out every year, just like bologna.

Payback was adapted from Donald E. Westlake’s tough-minded 1962 novel The Hunter (published under the pen name “Richard Stark”), which was also the source of John Boorman’s Point Blank, one of the most impressive crime films of the ’60s. The Hunter was the first in a series of novels featuring Parker (he has no first name), a no-nonsense career criminal who specializes in shrewdly planned heists. Largely forgotten save by connoisseurs of crime fiction, these novels are striking for the way in which the reader is made to sympathize with Parker, a thoroughly unappetizing near-psychopath whose only virtue is his professionalism. The plot of Payback is drawn directly from the first part of The Hunter—the film’s advertising slogan is “Get ready to root for the bad guy”—and so it is surprising to see how completely Helgeland has failed to catch the tone of the book. In The Hunter, Parker is a truly hard man, as amoral as a loaded shotgun; in Payback, he is a coarsely drawn caricature who has a soft spot for pit bulls and prostitutes but blows away anybody else who crosses his path.

Gibson is a very good actor, but he’s all wrong as Parker, and not just because he’s too handsome. Lee Marvin, who played the same part in Point Blank, was anvil-hard, with a bass-baritone voice that sounded like large rocks falling from a great height. Not so Gibson: You keep expecting him to say something amusing. One wonders what could have possessed so talented a performer to waste his time on so witless a project. No doubt money is the answer—as I write these words, Payback is the most popular movie in America—but given the fact that Gibson is also said to be both a devoted father and a good Catholic, one further wonders what possessed him to make a film that is morally and aesthetically odious. Money, they say, has no smell, but I can’t say the same for Payback: It stinks of the cheapest kind of cynicism.

Terry Teachout

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Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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