Maybe you've seen the trailer for Thank You for Not Smoking. It features a great bit where Aaron Eckhart, playing a Big Tobacco lobbyist, meets with Hollywood "super agent" Rob Lowe to discuss how to product-place cigarettes in movies, and Lowe suggests a new sci-fi project, positing the sexy notion of cigarettes in space. "But wouldn't they blow up in an all-oxygen environment?" Eckart asks. "Probably," says Lowe, "but it's an easy fix. One line of dialogue: 'Thank God we invented the y'know, whatever device.'"
The terrible beauty of this kind of logic was much on my mind when I dutifully sat through Failure to Launch last night (the things I do for you guys!), feeling more like a social anthropologist studying the strange habits of a foreign culture than a romantic comedy fan enjoying a movie. Because Failure is nothing if not an unfortunate triumph of Easy Fix thinking. Its characters are more simulacrums of human-like behavior than recognizable humans, and they clearly obey the dictates not of common sense, but of Studio Sense.
Don't get me wrong -- though I love indie movies, I currently work for a studio, and quite often the studio's ideas of what will make a movie work are smart and impressively effective. But in this case, you can see the studio system's blatant How To Make This Marketable ploys in overdrive. As critic Stephen Holden put it, Failure's folks come from "the romantic comedy planet" -- this in one of the movie's few positive reviews -- and as a longtime lover of the form, I found watching them a depressing experience. Because there is such a thing, goshdarnit, as a rom-com with sort-of real life people in it (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind's poignantly dysfunctional couple comes to mind), and it really bugs me that such creatures seem few and far between. It's one of the things that gives our genre a bad name.
That Failure is an anointed success -- it won its first weekend and then some, giving star Sarah Jessica Parker her best to-date opening -- is actually not a bad thing for so-called chick flicks, in that its predominately female-skewed audience has made the biz pay attention to them. Watching it, I found myself shifting into analytical mode -- my only choice, really, because the movie failed to get me from the get. Herewith are some observations on what in the Failure construct shouldn't have worked but evidently does, with some guesses as to why.
[Note: what follows is full of so-called SPOILERS, but if you're someone who fears having the plot turns of this movie SPOILED, then I'm actually a little worried about you, especially since you'd have to be someone who's never SEEN a romantic comedy to be surprised by it.]
CONCEPT: Matthew McConaughey has been living in his parents' home for so long that in desperation, they hire Sarah Jessica, an expert in "extractions," to trick him into falling in love with her and thus be motivated to move out.
PREPOSTEROUS PREMISE: Matthew is in his late 30s, yet his folks still cater to his every whim, feeding and laundering him, et al, so he has no reason to want out of this arrangement. EASY FIX: Matthew, we later learn, suffered a traumatic heartbreak 6 years ago when his girlfriend died, and thus has been coddled ever since. UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: Fine, but what about before said girlfriend died? If he moved in after college, isn't that still some 7-9 years of pre-trauma slacker sponging? And 6 years on (or 13-15, if you total it up) wouldn't these supposedly desperate parents have perhaps... talked to their son about the deal? Or at least be showing some signs of dissatisfaction (i.e. why are Mom and Dad so bewilderingly sanguine)?
PREPOS. PREM: Nobody else in Matthew's universe seems to have any big problem with his lifestyle. EASY FIX: Matt's two best friends are also 30-somethings living at home with their parents, thus further justifying his happiness with the set-up. UNANS. Qs: In what state of the Union is this over-30-stay-at-home-sons phenomenon a commonplace? Japan's having an issue with this, Italy, too, but America at large?
PREPOS. PREM: Matt uses his set-up to break up with any woman who becomes too interested in him, since none of them can abide this (arguably creepy) way to live... and yet Matt is the romantic hero of the movie and meant to be empathetic. EASY FIX: He's Matthew McConaughey. UNANS. Qs: Really? (Doesn't work for me, but I'm a guy; though I do understand how his smile and biceps evidently make him catnip to femmes, McConaughey's appeal (c'mon, there's just no there, there) is as inexplicable to me as say, Scarlett Johansson's may be to many female viewers.)
PREPOS. PREM: a) Despite all her duplicities, Sarah is supposed to be our empathetic romantic heroine, and b) despite working one town, has never been found out. EASY FIX: a) Sarah has been successful at her extractions without ever having slept with a client (because that would be wrong!) and b) she is discovered by Matt's friend Ace, who at least articulates the issue in dialogue ("you've never been caught?!"). UNANS. Qs: So due to the multitude of such 30-something stay-at-homes, Sarah makes a good, steady living by duping and devastating these guys... 'cause she's helping them grow and helping their folks? She's able to seduce and abandon these guys without even a helpful handjob along the way?
PREPOS. PREM: Sarah lives with a quirky roommate played by Zooey Deschanel, who's clearly 15 years younger than she is. EASY FIX: None. The screenwriters fall back on romantic comedy convention, assuming rom-com heroine must have a quirkyroommate (she comes with the rom-com kit). UNANS. Qs: Can I find one like Zooey on Craig's List?
PREPOS. PREM: Zooey falls for Ace, despite having evinced nothing but contempt for him; when he shoots a troublesome bird for her, she leaps on top of him and they immediately start to have sex. EASY FIX: see rom-com conventions above; opposites attract and isn't that always the way it goes? UNANS. Qs: Can I find one like Zooey anywhere?
PREPOS. PREM: Matt and Sarah fall in love, though all we see on screen is a guy trying to get laid and a woman trying to fool him into falling for her so she can get paid for a job well done. EASY FIX: all the standard TV commercial rom-com montage cliches you'd expect. UNANS. Qs: For a movie that riffs on Sarah "playing" Matt by employing standard rom-com approaches (e.g. having him console her and bond with her emotionally, etc.), how is it that the screenwriters neglected to show them emotionally bonding, et al, for real?
PREPOS. PREM: Matt's Mom suddenly evinces fear of living alone when Matt moves out, since "what if your Dad decides he doesn't like me?" -- despite the two of them having been portrayed as nothing but a happy, loving couple. EASY FIX: Mom is Kathy Bates. UNANS. Qs: Isn't the fact that her husband is suddenly found to be a nudist a more pragamatic pressing issue?
Yes, that's right, Dad (Terry Bradshaw) is a nudist. And Matt keeps getting bitten by unlikely animals -- a chipmunk, a dolphin, a lizard -- a nonsensical running gag that gets a fleeting Easy Fix in a line of dialogue (this happens because Matt is so "out of step with the natural world"). And meanwhile, the potentially substantive issue that the movie should and could explore -- what's it really like, to have a grown son live at home, and what is that really about? -- is the very thing that's glossed right out of the picture.
Finally I'll make one last observation about how the hell they're selling this. Some reviewers have noted that the amount of athletic set-pieces (e.g. a paintball war, rock-climbing, etc.) is a means of making the movie more male-friendly. I think this is a red herring that distracts from the true subtext of what's appealing to the movie's core audience:
This is a movie about lovable, pliable, tacitly neutered boy-men. Every man in the movie is a virtually toothless overgrown kid -- a passel of yes-ma'ms, in fact, who are relentlessly controlled by women who mother them, manipulate them, and have their way with them when, where and how they want them. Outside of Matt's one hissy fit, there's nary a moment when these supposed Guy-Guys evince the kind of reprehensible disturbing (i.e. violent, insensitive, arrogant, unfathomably incomprehensible) behavior that makes men in the real world a problem (true to form, the only villainous men in the picture are some sexist paintballers... who are easily defeated by Sarah J).
Ah, wish fulfillment fantasies, you gotta love 'em. Apparently the success of Failure lies in the studio's savvy understanding of what some women really want: the malleable himbo with a McConaughey grin. That's the y'know, whatever device that's really making this particular romantic comedy planet spin.