Monday, December 28, 2009

View from the Tank: He's Just Not That Into You (2009)

My thesis: HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU is to THE WIRE as ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD is to HAMLET -- sort of. Or perhaps HJNTIY is to THE WIRE as THE WIND DONE GONE is to GONE WITH THE WIND. That is to say, HJNTIY, which was based on a book which was inspired from a line from the TV show SEX & THE CITY, is sort of a bizarro supplement to THE WIRE, or, in some ways, the anti-WIRE.

My reasoning: Both shows are set in Baltimore. THE WIRE focuses on the drug trade, turf battles between gangs, organized crime, policing, corruption in city politics, the educational system, etc., all the while spending a great deal of attention on black characters, and fleshing out those characters into some of the great characters in recent American television (see, e.g., Stringer Bell, Omar Little, et al.)

HJNTIY appears to take place at about the same time as THE WIRE, but where THE WIRE shows us what happens in Baltimore's ghettos, its inner-city schools, its docks, its police departments, etc., HJNTIY focuses on the doings and relationships of a remarkably undiverse cast featuring Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, the Mac guy (Justin Long), E from ENTOURAGE (Kevin Connolly, playing essentially the same character he plays on the HBO show), Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly, Scarlet Johansson, Bradley Cooper, et al. You get the picture (or just see above).

Why is HJNTIY set in Baltimore? What are its creators trying to tell us with this curious choice of location? Why isn't this movie set in a nice part of San Francisco or Boston, or on the Upper West Side, or Silverlake? Why Baltimore? Why would you put an all-white cast in a story in Baltimore? As of 2006, the racial makeup of Baltimore was 64.85% African American, 31.28% white, 0.32% native American, 1.53% Asian, and 1.70% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. The casting this movie set in Baltimore must be trying to send some kind of message, right?

A tip off (no pun intended): when we first meet Justin Long's character, he is sitting in Conor's fancy apartment (this could have been one of those waterfront condos Stringer Bell was planning to develop), watching hockey. Hockey, as you may know, is easily the whitest major team sport in the U.S. And Baltimore doesn't even have an NHL team.

Of course, we should've noticed some issues in the opening sequences, where the filmmakers try to "universalize" the problem of wondering when that guy is going to call by having women in different places in the world discuss this issue. There is the obligatory scene in Japan (the most exotic place our filmmakers can think of! so weird, so different, so EXOTIC) where one woman comforts another by suggesting that maybe that guy just lost her cell phone number. And then there is the piece-de-resistance of the opening, where two African women, squatting on the ground around an open fire, surrounded by huts, talk about why one of the women hasn't heard back from some guy. Her friend suggests that maybe he "lost her hut number" or perhaps "got eaten by a lion." Har, har, har! Get it, target demographic of Jennifer Aniston/Ben Affleck/Bradley Cooper/Scarlett Johansson fans? Because people in Africa totally sit by fires, live in huts, and get eaten by lions. AHAHAHA.

Some scenes from HJNTIY are directly reminiscent of THE WIRE. Conor takes his sort-of girlfriend, Anna (Johansson) to a house in a "new" and "upcoming" neighborhood. The neighborhood looks a little like the neighborhood where Omar Little hung out in an abandoned house with his boyfriend for a while (eating cereal when he had milk). Conor explains that gay couples, young families have "discovered" the neighborhood, and that it's becoming a "nice" neighborhood. (Paraphrasing here.) That is, nice people are now moving in: the middle-class, white, etc. These are the silent white yuppies that we never saw in THE WIRE: in HJNTIY, these figures, who were so marginal in THE WIRE, who were alluded to from time to time, but never shown, are front and center, and we get to find out all of the rich details of their lives, just as the lives of the slaves are revealed in THE WIND DONE GONE.

For example, we find out that some of these white yuppies stare at their cell phones as they do downward dog in their yoga classes. We find out that some of them spend a lot of time and money remodeling their apartments. We find out that some of them worry that their long-term boyfriends don't want to get married. It's riveting stuff, really. (It's the equivalent of the coin-flipping scenes in Stoppard's ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN). (Additional interesting parallel: where we see the ports and the dockworkers in THE WIRE, we see Ben Affleck hiding out in his private boat at some marina in HJNTIY.)

Sadly, this is not all fun. There's something toxic about HJNTIY's treatment and attitude toward race. There's a scene where Anna (Johansson) and Mary (Barrymore) are getting their nails done at a salon, and the camera lingers for a while at a line of Asian women kneeling at Anna's and Mary's bare feet, buffing and polishing their toenails. The filmmakers, in their sensitive wisdom, ease the harshness of this contrast by putting, out of focus in the background, a black woman next to Anna. (Subtext: yes, it's a bunch of Asian women kneeling at these yuppies' feet, but hey, there's also a black woman getting her nails done!) At another point, Alex (Long) is making out with a black woman, but turns away from her and ignores her when he gets a call from Gigi (Ginnefer Goodwin). Alex's black date comes off, in this treatment, as the equivalent of the Asian pedicurists -- offering a service to Alex, when he is actually interested in interacting with a real person -- fellow white yuppie Gigi.

Perhaps where the movie goes most wrong is in its sole attempt to give some lines and some "personality" to a non-white character. Janine (Connelly) interrogates her contractor, Javier (the excellent Luis Guzmán), who is overseeing her extensive and fancy house renovations. The "humor" in this exchange comes from Javier's "surprising" concern with grammar: at one point, he notes that Janine used "a lot of prepositions" in a row in a question. Get it, HJNTIY target audience? It's funny, because this Mexican guy knows English grammar! Hilarious!

Just for fun, the filmmakers also throw in some fake interviews with people complaining about relationship problems. One of these interviews features two overweight black women sitting on a bench. One of the women ends by saying something to the effect of, "If he says that, then girl, go get some ribs, because you've been dumped." And the other woman says something like "Mmm-hmm," in a "super-black" way. (As intended to be read by the HJNTIY target audience.)

I'm ashamed to say that I watched this entire movie on some premium cable channel last week and was mildly entertained by it. But as the movie settled in my head, sort of like a box of fifteen cold, greasy chicken McNuggets might settle in your stomach, I was more and more grossed out. I really do feel that there's something weird going on with the choice of the FRIENDS-style monochromatic cast, the provocative choice of location, etc. Where THE WIRE gave flesh and feeling and humanity to characters that had never received that treatment before, HJNTIY turns back the clock, and reasserts the order of things: yuppies sitting in pedicure chairs over kneeling minority women, yuppies screaming at their Hispanic contractors, etc., etc.

Whatever -- this movie is bad for America.

[New grading system] C