Lipstick Woody Allens
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/24/04
In the last
couple of years there have been 2 romantic comedies written by women which evoke
Woody Allen’s Golden Era comedies from 1977-1992. The highly praised Kissing
Jessica Stein, about a female Jewish New Yorker who takes a crack at
lesbianism, & the other almost straight-to-video film Amy’s O. I
want to briefly review the films, contrast them, & determine why the former
was more successful, even though the latter was the better film.
KJS was directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, but written by Heather Juergensen & Jennifer Westfeldt, who star in the film as New Yorkers Jessica Stein & Helen Cooper. Despite the lesbianism there is little T&A- the leads are rather frumpy, but not unattractive, women. The story is every lesbian’s fantasy- seducing a clueless straight girl fed up with the male sex. This banal premise goes nowhere. Jessica’s hetero-frustration is portrayed in a montage of bad dates that could only occur in films, so right away emotional realism is tossed, & sets the film up for a failure to connect on anything but a superficial level. Helen is a bisexual fed up with men’s shallowness & places 1 of those ‘bi-curious’ personal ads. Jessica reads it, is intrigued by a quote from Rilke (she is a copy editor & bookworm), & answers. Even though the ad claims to seek ‘friendship or more’ any person over the age of 20 (especially a copy editor) would know this is adspeak for a lesbian relationship. The 30+ Jessica is clueless, & spends the whole film never even attempting to get with it. That Jessica, as portrayed before meeting Helen, could ever be attracted to such a duplicitous & shallow sort as Helen- even if a man- undercuts the whole point of her dates-from-hell montage. Also, it’s supposed to be funny that she approaches her 1st lesbian experience with a slew of ‘how to’ books. Yes, this is a comedy, but it’s not too much to ask the characters & writing to show some maturity & developmental stability.
That Jessica abandons heterosexuality so quickly & Helen becomes more than just an ‘experiment’ is the film’s biggest weakness. Were it a comedy on ‘experimentation’ it would have worked far better for the character’s shallow turns to & from each other would be explicable. Another problem is Jessica’s stereotypical domineering Jewish mom Judy (Tovah Feldshuh), whose supposed ‘emotional growth’ scene- her suddenly encouraging her daughter’s lesbianism with Helen, even though she thinks it’s detrimental to her daughter, rings false. The scene is as squeamish & leaden as all the film’s scenes of ‘growth’.
&, of course, there is a male love interest for Jessica- Josh (Scott Cohen)- her boss & ex-lover, who we know she will end the film being with. The fact that the audience knows from the 1st scenes the 2 share together that they are obviously ‘meant for each other’ in the most filmic sense, & they end up together, has not been pointed out as a major flaw in this overly-praised film. After all, are not great films those that do not necessarily have Act 1’s gun go off by Act 3?
While I am certainly no fan of T.S. Eliot’s critical skills this film is a textbook example of a script failing the Objective Correlative. The OC was a term coined by TSE in a 1919 essay Hamlet and his Problems. He claimed the play had failed to show Hamlet’s actions as logical or emotional extensions of his predicament.
only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an
"objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a
situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular
emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory
experience, are given, the emotion is evoked.’
In short, characters should act in ways consistent with their situations
& emotions should be revealed consistent with what their established
temperaments would allow, otherwise they do not have a claim to reality- or
objectivity. This does not prohibit satire nor farce, but sets the boundaries
for a kind of realism- even in comedy.
The basic problem with the OC was that of its very subjectivity. De facto, TSE was stating that he was the arbiter of emotional consistency. It also placed too high a précis on the conscious level of symbolism. Still, there are times when it can be a useful tool. In KJS, part of the film’s failure (relatively- for it is basically a cute, occasionally funny, but weightless film) is that Jessica’s lesbianism is just a plot device- it doesn’t remotely come from anything we’ve seen in the character prior to her lesbian embarkation. It feels very much as if the 2 writers simply said, Hey, let’s write a tale about a straight girl who goes lesbian chic. We’ll show that men are worthless, lesbians are screwed up, & that all real women need men, after all, in the end. It’s a bit puzzling to me why radical Feminists & lesbian activists did not howl a bit more about this film. Perhaps they recognized it as a fluff lesbian fantasy film?
Regardless, the movie is not rip-roaringly funny, smartly written, nor well-acted, enough to overcome this basic narrative dishonesty & OC failing. Fortunately, the far less known & praised Amy’s O suffers from almost none of KJS’s ills. Written & directed by Julie Davis, who stars as the title character- 29 year old best-selling Los Angeleno self-help author & celibate Amy Mandell who advises woman do not need men to be successful- this comedy is much wittier & emotionally honest than KJS until it’s disappointing last 5 minutes. There is also lesbianism at play, in the form of Amy’s lecherous publicist Janet (Caroline Aaron- a Woody Allen veteran) who seeks to control & prey upon Amy’s emotional anomy with thinly-veiled barbs about her looks. Amy is a typical Ivy League yenta who does not follow her own advice. Inside, she desperately wants love, but falls for jerks. The latest is a Howard Stern wannabe named Matthew Starr (Nick Chinlund). Amy does his radio show & falls for him, despite their banal pattering battle of the sexes. Yet, 1 can tell that they hit it off right away. He seems to be not as bad as he seems, but the set up veers away from triteness because we soon find out that while he’s not the pig he plays he has deeper issues that will kibosh any relationship. & Amy is not the basket case we think, & have seen a 100 times before. Her problem is more profound: she actually is a well-adjusted person in a fucked up world.
This is shown in some funny scenes where the Jewish Amy seeks free counseling by going to confession with a priest (Jeff Cesario) who slowly falls in love with her despite his exasperation. Here is where we see some of the differences between Jessica Stein & Amy Mandell. Where Jessica is basically dishonest, even with herself, Amy knows exactly what she wants, but lacks the guts to drop her façade & go for it. The movie also does a very subtle job of portraying Matthew as not as good a catch as Amy tries to make him out to be. Chinlund’s portrayal is very good, as we see, by film’s end, he is probably just playing the role of PC sensitivo to woo Amy. After all, he has a Kiss & Tell segment on his show, then later blasts Amy for talking of their love life on a tv show. Only at film’s end do we get a letdown. After a series of problems with Matthew Amy ends up speaking before a huge Feminist rally in DC, only to admit that she’s a hypocrite, & in love with a man, & happier than ever. Afterwards, at a book signing, Amy & Matthew have the obligatory makeup scene as the film ends.
Here is the film’s only real failing- that it copped out with what seems like an appeal for commercial over artistic success. Matthew & Amy’s relationship will never last, no more than did Helen’s & Jessica’s. That both films chose sappy endings is their only commonality. Especially frustrating is that the AO DVD has a much better ending. Her confessor priest has been defrocked & meets up with Amy to give her advice (this is in the final version), but in the alternate ending they end up on a date, fall in love & Amy’s next book is an even better selling book on animal rearing. This would have been much more in line with the film’s quirky nature than the trite ‘opposites attract’ theme.
As far as the OC goes AO passes that test. AO’s trite ending, although a disappointment because we root for the character to reach her potential, is in line with a lot of people who repeat the same mistakes over & over. While nominally the ‘happy ending’ it could be argued that Amy is just setting herself up for repeating another version of this film with a new guy in a year or less. The same cannot be said for Jessica Stein. Her character is far worse off than Amy Mandell. Amy merely lacks the emotional strength to change, while Jessica lacks that & the realization that her ‘changes’ to & from were all placed in the wrong area- sexuality rather than selfness.
Overall, AO is also a much better written film. Save for the ending, the film does put twists on old situations that KJS merely exploits for cheap laughs at the characters’ expenses. All of AO’s laughs are with Amy Mandell & her self-imposed tribulations. The very reasons AO is a better film than KJS is probably why KJS was far more successful. Most people do not like more emotionally realistic portrayals (especially in comedies) of complex characters because it forces them to think. For example, in AO there’s a scene where Janet kisses Amy & is rebuffed. Later, Amy blasts Janet for her self-centeredness & lack of consideration for her feelings. We see that Amy is an acutely aware & smart individual. She also recognizes Matthew is not the guy for her (until the copout). Jessica Stein, however, can only mutter trite maxims. She requires no real serious consideration afterwards since the character never really serious was a lesbian, nor pondered it- despite some hollow scenes meant to show the opposite. In short, she’s much more like most moviegoers than the whipsmart Amy Mandell, who long to see people like themselves on the big screen.
As such, & despite critical claims to the contrary, Amy’s O is the real claimant to the Woody Allen mantle- not Kissing Jessica Stein. Would that it only had the guts to finish what it started with the emotional maturity of 1 of his Golden Era comedies.
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