Tuesday, June 21, 2011

NAKED AMBITION IN HOLLYWOOD

A funny thing happened on the way to the cineplex. The new sex comedy called FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis forgot that it was a sex comedy. Sure it talks a good game with lots of naughty words, but when it came time to walk the walk, the movie pulled its punches. I have not seen such coyly placed bed sheets in a film in some time. In an age where the media relishes Congressman Anthony Weiner’s “Tweeted” photos for weeks on end it seems astounding to me that a movie whose subject is sex would be so cowardly about showing skin. 
Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS

When I saw a sneak preview of the movie last week, almost a month before its scheduled release, the disappointment in the audience was palpable. As a romantic comedy, it had very few laughs. As a sex comedy, it had very little sex. (NOTE: It’s supposed to be rated R, and I believe its four-letter language will ensure that, but at the time of the screening the film had not yet been rated.) The most laughable thing in the movie was the way it went out of its way to cover up its two stars. In almost every scene where they are in bed, the sheets are strategically placed to make sure nothing, and I mean nothing, is seen. They’re forever covered up to their necks in bed covers. It’s ridiculous. When did Mila Kunis become Doris Day?

Hollywood is often a town of extremes, either too puritanical like in the case of FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS, or too exploitative, almost all other times. The new teaser poster advertising the American version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO wrongfully showcases its leading lady Rooney Mara in her role as Lisbeth Salander. While the Salander character in the books and subsequent Swedish film versions doesn’t shy away from her sexuality, she’s not exactly a cheesecake pin-up. But cheesecake is exactly what the American marketing team seems to be going for in its first ad. (There’s an even more explicit and NSFW version of the poster bouncing around all over the Internet. I imagine author Steig Larsson, a renowned feminist, must be rolling over in his grave!) 
Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in the teaser poster for THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Hollywood may be overreacting on both sides of the equation because there is simply so much sex surrounding us every day. From the Wild West web to the latest Washington sex scandal to the continuing saga of reality sex stars like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian or Hef’s girlfriends, there is so much of it around us it becomes overwhelming. Is that why the filmmakers behind FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS decided to play their sex story so quaint? Or did they play it safe to secure a PG-13 rating and hopefully increase their box office receipts? Whatever the reasoning it just strikes me as the height of hypocrisy to make a movie about f**k buddies and then abstain from a realistic presentation of it. 

As for the new Larsson adaptation, it remains to be seen what the filmmakers have done with the material but the marketing team has certainly chosen the exploitation route already. I think their reasons are two fold. One, they want to get everyone talking and writing about it online. (Guilty as charged. My bad, I guess.) And two, the studio is likely worried that the audience will be turned off by director David Fincher’s grotesque vision of Salander. He’s decided to bury the attractive Ms. Mara under an awful asymmetrical haircut with jagged bangs, bleached eyebrows, a clutter of harsh face piercings and unflattering raccoon make-up. The marketing guys must have panicked and were determined to show the fans of the books that this Salander is still a hot leading lady underneath all that excess. What makes it even more egregious is the fact that Salander is sexually exploited by her perverted parole officer in the book. Too bad the PR folks at the studio decided to take a similar route. 
Emilia Clarke in HBO's GAME OF THRONES


That old cliché that actresses used to espouse about only doing nudity if it was essential to the story is actually a good rule of thumb. The story should determine how much is shown. In the case of sex comedies, a little more guts in dealing with the subject matter head on would surely be welcome. In other cases, a little more discretion would be appreciated. Nudity and sexuality should be there for a reason and dealt with in a fitting fashion. One place where Hollywood usually gets it right is on HBO. They push the proverbial envelope albeit in ways that are in line with the material. In their series GAME OF THRONES profane language and nudity are plentiful but that’s appropriate for its brutal and unscrupulous medieval world. Some may balk at the excessive amount of nudity displayed by the Daenerys Targaryen character (Emilia Clarke) but it’s important to her storyline. After all, she is sold into sex slavery but rises above it, ultimately learning to take ownership of her sexuality and bend the tribe to her will.
Kate Winslet in HBO's MILDRED PIERCE

HBO triumphed again with their more explicit version of MILDRED PIERCE a few months back. This was hardly your grandmother’s three-hanky weeper with Joan Crawford. Instead this new adaptation told James M. Cain’s sordid prose with an unabashed clarity and frankness. The story of a hard-working mother and her spoiled daughter contained scenes of sexual awakening, adultery and prostitution. And its stars Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce and Evan Rachel Wood handled the scenes with emotional and physical maturity. 

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

Throughout most of the last fifty years Hollywood has often handled adult themes of sexuality brilliantly. Films such as DON’T LOOK NOW (1973), LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1974), BODY HEAT (1981), 9 AND A HALF WEEKS (1986), FATAL ATTRACTION (1987), AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999) and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005) all tread this territory with finesse and clarity. So what’s happened in the last five years that has rendered so much sniggering when it comes to sex? Is it that everything today is post-modern, to be instantly evaluated, dissed, laughed at, and discredited? Is it because so much of adult sexuality itself, at least within the media confines, tends towards the puerile exploits of reality TV stars, elected officials and sports legends? Their sexuality is played for a punchline. But are we laughing?

In some ways the most disturbing thing about FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS was the fact that it was so tame compared to the exploits of its stars when they showed up on the MTV Movie Awards two weeks ago. There, on that cable network whose audience tends towards the junior high crowd, Timberlake and Kunis raucously groped each other’s privates on live TV. In those brief moments they were much less inhibited than they were in their 90-minute sex comedy. 
Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis at the MTV Movie Awards
I know that movie studios want to cater to the pre-teen and teenage boy audience as much as possible since they are the prime ticket buyers these days, but does that mean every movie has to have a seventh grade boy’s sensibility? Does everything have to be so immature? It’s enough to make me want to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head. Move over Justin and Mila!

4 comments:

  1. Very perceptive Mr. York. I'm in total agreement of your observations. I really expected more from two good witty actors. I would have thought that Justin's acting would have been just as good as Mila's, but it left me wanting more. Plus, what was considered the funniest parts of the movie, were already aired in the previews. Very disappointing.

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  2. I agree 100% with your comments on the GIRL poster. Once again the Hollywood marketing machine has to hyper-sexualize a female heroine, rather than focusing on her brain or her courage or her tortured past. They focus instead on her breasts. We've really “come a long way, baby.”

    Still, in the case of the newer version of GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I'm willing to bet David Fincher has it in him to make a better movie than the original. If he makes Lisbeth appear more unattractive, so be it. I really don't care as long as they don't linger on the sex, unless there is a valid point to it. Does it move the narrative along? I'm not interested in sex scenes in this film, I actually am more interested in (dare I say it?) the violence that makes this story what it is.

    Based on what I saw in the awesome SEVEN, I think he can do it. He didn't sex up Brad Pitt, so why do it with Rooney Mara? The rape scene is critical, yes, anything else in terms of sexual content is not as important. Even in the original film, after Lisbeth and Blomkvist become lovers, that whole issue is never revisited much again, that I recall. And her lesbianism, will that be played up too much? What has that got to do with anything really? I'd rather come out of the theater after this one having been SEVEN-ed than 9 1/2 WEEK-ed!

    P.S.: I’ll bet Christopher Plummer as Henrik Vanger will be even better than the original.

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  3. MoD, very well said. Indeed, Timberlake was a little wan playing it so "normal." He's far more interesting when he's given more to chew on, like playing a slime as he did in THE SOCIAL NETWORK; or showcasing his wide variety of schtick on SNL. And FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS wasn't any sexier or funnier than NO STRINGS ATTACHED, the similarly-themed film that came out earlier this year with Mila Kunis' BLACK SWAN costar Natalie Portman (opposite Ashton Kutcher.) Did they make a pact while filming their psychological thriller together? Did the gals agree to both make lame sex comedies?! NO STRINGS ATTACHED ended up pulling a lot of its punches too. For two movies that were supposed to be about modern sexuality they sure seemed almost as quaint and tame as sex comedies from the Doris Day/Rock Hudson era!

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  4. As always, Fan With No Name, you nailed it. The marketers are too often out of synch with the core values on display in the movie they're hawking. And while the teaser trailer of the American version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO promises a lot of violence, action and suspense, and rightfully so, as the source material is chock full of it, the teaser poster hints at lots of naughty nudity which I doubt the film will have. Especially considering its feminist themes.

    As for Christopher Plummer, he's having quite a resurgence, isn't he? And so far, he's enjoying a stellar year in 2011 what with the fantastic reviews he's received for his wonderful turn in BEGINNERS. I'm sure he will bring great gravitas and pathos to the role of Henrik Vanger come Christmas time in TGWTDT. And I wouldn't be surprised if he nabs a best supporting Oscar nomination for either this one or BEGINNERS. Maybe it's his year to win. (One can always hope!)

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