Wednesday, April 15, 2015

All about Uma

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2006)

A few weeks ago I wrote about some films that, rationally or not, I just didn’t want to see, and by the way I didn’t see Pirates of the Caribbean 2 either. But I wasn’t out on much of a limb with any of that stuff. So let me go now in the opposite direction and concede a movie that I went to see for specifically questionable reasons. The movie is My Super Ex-Girlfriend, and the reason is Uma Thurman.

My Favourite Actress

For a while I thought Parker Posey might be my favourite actress, but Superman Returns marked a definitive end to that idea. There is also the transcendent Emmanuelle Beart, but for the purposes of today’s article we’re staying out of the art house. Anyway, it occurs to me I may not have faced up to my real feelings on the matter, because on scrutinizing Uma’s filmography I find that I’ve seen every one of her films back to Kiss Daddy Goodnight in 1988 (and I must get round to renting that one too). It’s not a bad list overall, but still, that’s pretty incriminating evidence.

To a great extent, Uma’s appeal may simply be stipulated. As David Thomson wrote about Angie Dickinson, his own favourite actress: “One thousand words of analysis (wouldn’t) carry more weight than a well-chosen still.”  But I happen to think she’s a more vibrant and resourceful actress than she’s generally given credit for. She doesn’t have enormous range, but with time she’s learned how to convey considerable sincerity and emotional shading, while retaining her otherworldly coolness and avoiding histrionics.

She is only 36, but has been a celebrity for nearly 20 years. In that time she’s racked up an impressive roster of iconic moments: the dance scene with Travolta in Pulp Fiction, the yellow jump-suited swordplay in Kill Bill, her entire startling presence in Dangerous Liaisons, and – inadvertently – as the joint object of David Letterman’s “Uma Oprah” Oscar gambit. Lately, there have been signs of slippage. Her role in Paycheck was utterly without reward, and although Be Cool gave us her opening sunbathing scene, it was all too trashy to be as gratifying as God must have meant it to be.

Her performance as the dumb Swedish secretary in The Producers was simply the worst acting she’s ever done. I was actually happy about that though, taking it as proof that she’s too smart for such nonsense. She was very nuanced and occasionally touching in Prime, and maybe her middle career will be predominantly in light comedy. According to the Internet Movie Database though, her next role will be in a film called In Bloom, with the outline: “A woman survivor’s guilt from a Columbine-like event twenty years ago causes her present-day idyllic life to fall apart.” Sounds intriguing, and it’s directed by Vadim Perelman, who made the exacting House of Sand and Fog, so maybe – who knows – this will be her Monster or Monster’s Ball. (2014 update – it wasn’t).

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

In the meantime, she made My Super Ex-Girlfriend, which is fundamentally only marginally worthy of her, if at all, and in fact is only marginally worthy of co-stars Luke Wilson and Anna Faris, which sounds like the kick-off to a one-star review. But given the above, I enjoyed the movie a lot. Uma plays a neurotic New York singleton who, in the manner of Clark Kent, has a secret identity – she’s the majestic “G-Girl”, who periodically swoops in to save city-dwellers from mortal peril. For reasons that remain mysterious, she hooks up with architect Wilson (who’s actually in love with co-worker Faris, but can’t bring himself to admit it), but the relationship fizzles when she proves just too nutty for him. He dumps her, and she goes crazy, propelling his car into orbit around the earth, hurling a live shark into his bedroom (yep!)  and worse.

Ivan Reitman directed it, returning to the gimmicky territory of his biggest hit, Ghostbusters. There’s nothing at all distinctive about Reitman’s work here – the movie looks borderline cheesy, but in the circumstances that’s a logical strategy. The more disappointing aspect to me was the scripting. The writer is Don Payne, who wrote numerous Simpsons episodes, and he gives it some scattered funny lines and good concepts (the aforementioned shark), but it’s relentlessly shallow. At some point – through whatever chain of association – I thought about Billy Wilder, and the layerings that Wilder and his collaborators habitually brought to their set-ups and dialogue. I also mused on what the movie would be like with young Jack Lemmon or Walter Matthau, rather than Wilson, playing the guy, but that was just too depressing.

As an aside, why is it that every second mainstream comedy (gross-out teen stuff aside) now relies on some out-of-body premise, involving dreams or ghosts or altered realities? One of the trailers preceding My Super Ex-Girlfriend was about Will Ferrell finding out that he’s a character in a book that’s being written by Emma Thompson (there’s the pairing I’ve been dreaming of…); Woody Allen’s Scoop, with Ian McShane as a ghost, opened the following week. And the exceptions – The Break-Up, You, Me and Dupree and so forth – rely heavily on a single saleable gimmick. Doesn’t anyone want to make solid human stories with an ironic or mordant sensibility? Where are the old Woody Allen, or Paul Mazursky, or the Hal Ashby of Shampoo? Even a film like James L. Brooks’ Spanglish, which was certainly no great shakes, gets better in my mind as time goes on, just for trying to work in that apparently old-fashioned mode.

Eyes of a Man

On another issue - many years ago there was a critics’ poll of the ten best films about women and I remember one respondent – I think it was Molly Haskell – responding that there were none, since even films with strong women perpetuated the message that a woman’s only fulfillment is in the eyes of a man. Maybe, she said, A Touch of Class was the only halfway great film for women. Well, I don’t remember that movie well enough to comment. But this came back to me when I was watching My Super Ex-Girlfriend, because it’s more than a little disappointing that a female superhero must be such a bag of off-putting hang-ups, and that these all seem to come down to her Bridget Jones-like status. Now, I didn’t see Halle Berry’s Catwoman or Jennifer Garner’s Elektra, so maybe those helped balance out the ledger a bit, but if so, no one noticed. If you’ll allow me to engage in some analytical dizziness here, Reitman’s film actually slights its protagonist three times in the title alone: “My” and “Girlfriend” both emphasize the male point of view, and “Ex-“ establishes her as a cast-off. But at least you’ve got the “Super” in there.

And with Uma Thurman in the role, she sure is. I think I have been as honest here as I need to be, and I can’t say it didn’t feel good. But it’s out of my system now. Don’t expect to see me in this mode again for at least five years.

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