According to traditional wisdom, movies about women and starring women are few and far between. This is, and always has been, complete hogwash. While it is true that studio, tent pole films are often devoid of actresses or female characters of any import, independent and foreign films have more than taken up the slack. And now even the studios have slowly begun to realize that women are willing to spend money on movies so that at last, but not least, we are finally getting a few films from those Mounts of Olympus aimed at the distaff part of the population. All is not right in the world, but it’s not, nor has it ever been, as bad as people have painted it.
In Sex and the City 2, there is one scene that basically sums up the problems with the movie. Carrie Bradshaw (played, of course, by Sarah Jessica Parker) is in Dubai talking to a valet who has been assigned to serve her every need. When she asks him if he is married, he tells her that his wife is in India and they only see each other every few months if they can afford it. Does Carrie think, “OMG, there are people in the world so bad off financially, they can’t even live with their spouse?” Of course not. She thinks, “Hm, if this person can have a successful relationship with his wife though he only sees her every three months, maybe my husband’s request for a couple of days off a week from our marriage might not be as unreasonable as I thought”. Sex in the City is about four women who got to Dubai, see a country, experience a different culture, interact with a whole new ethnic group…and don’t learn a damn thing. I went with my friend R. (name changed to protect the innocent, or at least his profession in the industry) and he called it vulgar. I’m not sure I can disagree. The four friends end up in Dubai when Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), the sexual adventurer of the foursome, gets a potential job offer from a businessman who wants to hire Samantha to do PR and sell his country as a tourist attraction. Now you would think that someone who made a name for herself doing PR would know that it’s probably unwise to insult the country of the businessman who wishes to hire you, but from the moment Samantha steps off the plane, she does nothing but act in, as suggested by my friend, the most vulgar manner imaginable. This might be all right if she had done it for political reasons, in response to the way Dubai treats their female citizens, say; but no, she does it because, well, she’s kinda (again, as my friend suggested) vulgar, which in certain circumstances is empowering and funny, but in others, it’s just, well…vulgar. In fact, she acts like Edina Muldoon in Absolutely Fabulous and there are times when the whole movie seems like a parody of the episode where Edina and Patsy went to Morocco. For a movie about women’s liberation (the quartet even does a karaoki version of “I Am Woman”), the writer/director Michael Patrick King seems to have trouble seeing the women of Dubai as little more than an occasion for a joke. I’m sure that for King the second class citizens of Dubai are little more than a punch line, but I’m not sure they would quite see it the same way. After a few adventures, and when all the requisite character arcs of a formulaic tent pole film have been covered, all four characters return to the city a little older. If only they had returned a little wiser.
In Sex and the City 2, four women go to Dubai and never experience anything more than their own backyard. In Mother and Child, the latest from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia, three women never leave their own back yard, but experience the whole universe. The three women are Karen (Annette Bening, who seems to be having a good year, what with The Kids Are All Right coming out soon); Elizabeth (Naomi Watts); and Lucy (Kerry Washington). Exactly how these three people fit into each other’s universes is not revealed at first, though it quickly becomes clear that Elizabeth is the daughter that Karen gave up when she got pregnant at age fourteen. This revelation also gives the plot a bit of grounding, since we know that eventually the two will somehow connect again; but how exactly does Lucy fit into all this? Well, she in turns adopts the baby Elizabeth has when Elizabeth dies in childbirth; but that’s not the end of it, not by a long shot. During the film, there is a lot of discussion as to whether God exists or if He brings meaning and order to the universe. At times, these conversations seem a little forced. But they are necessary, because in a deeply moving and surprising ending, Karen, a woman with a chip on her shoulder who does all she can to alienate those around her, realizes that everyone, chip or no chip, is actually connected, that there is a spiritual unity to the universe and that she is part of it and the proof is closer than she would have ever thought. This is a movie you watch to see actors really dig into characters that have meat and bones. Jerry, my best friend in Chicago, who also loved the movie, said that in Annette Bening he now has his first strong possibility for his list of the best of 2010. He also predicts an Oscar nomination. I’m not so sure. As wonderful as she is, it’s still an independent film opening rather early in the year. She may have a better chance with The Kids Are All Right. Naomi Watts has the most difficult role to play, mainly because her character starts out with all the clinical characteristics of a sociopath; she manipulates people in quite evil ways at time and with not one whit of a guilty conscience about it. Then when she gets pregnant, she suddenly reverses herself and leaves all the sociopathology behind (the hormones, maybe?). To a certain degree, one of the themes of the movie is that a woman has to connect with their child in some way in order to fully become themselves; but to change from a sociopath to a human being when you get a bun in the oven is really going there thematically. I’m not sure I bought it, but Watts made it damn entertaining. Last but not least Washington keeps up with her co-stars; annoying and off putting at times, like all the others, she more than earns your empathy by movie’s end. This is an ensemble movie in which the characters never really interact. It’s also a deeply moving film about the need for people to connect, to find meaning in their lives by reaching out to each other, even if they do never meet. Sort of a contradiction in terms, but that’s the universe for you.