I Have a Crush On Chick Flicks

The older I get, the more I seem to seek out for my own pleasure kiss-kiss rather than bang-bang cinema, and positive feelings rather than negative vibes. Perhaps I’m a traitor to my gender, but male ego-trips bore me to tears, and I certainly don’t need movies to frighten me even vicariously-CNN takes care of that.

And so I find myself liking John McKay’s Crush , from his own screenplay, possibly more than I should. The big problem for most critics with this movie is Andie MacDowell. She has been making critics angry ever since her performance as Ann in Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), in which all the sympathy went to Laura San Giacomo’s Cynthia, who is sleeping with Ann’s husband even though they are sisters. In Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral , Ms. MacDowell not only took the Hugh Grant character away from Kristin Scott Thomas and Anna Chancellor, she also casually and amusedly enumerated all her previous affairs in the process. Ms. MacDowell projects a sheltered existence while at the same time flashing the kind of beauty that screams entitlement. She has never played a loser in the game of love; indeed, she’d probably break up her best friend’s wedding without working up a sweat. Critics seem unwilling to forgive her for this romantic armor. So naturally I have taken up her cause as the female Rob Lowe, who needed The West Wing to prove that he was not a gorgeous joke.

In Crush , Ms. MacDowell, Imelda Staunton and Ms. Chancellor play a convivial trio of 40-ish career women willingly buried in the low-key, small-scale and hilly-nilly English Cotswolds, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Ms. MacDowell is Kate, a school headmistress; Ms. Staunton is Janine, a policewoman; and Ms. Chancellor is Molly, an overqualified physician. They love to debauch themselves on wine and chocolates as they gossip about their neighbors and reveal their own disastrous encounters with men, having wasted their 20′s and 30′s on an assortment of one-night stands and failed marriages.

Then, suddenly, Cupid’s arrow strikes Kate as she trades amorous glances with a 25-year-old former student named Jed (Kenny Doughty). A leisurely camera movement across foliage reveals Kate and Jed in flagrante delicto in the first of many trysts. When Janine and Molly learn that Kate’s infatuation is growing into a full-fledged love affair, Janine takes it in stride, but Molly goes ballistic and manages maliciously-though in the end inadvertently-to precipitate a disastrous end to the affair.

Somehow, the three women manage to reunite after a temporary rupture, and this is what the critics seem to hate most of all about the film. Yet when I think about Crush in terms of conceptual consistency, there could have been no other ending. This is a film primarily about three women and how they sustain each other through the coming crisis of old age, which is staring at them from their respective mirrors. This is a crisis in which Jed-lovable and hunky as he turns out to be-can not long participate. Dave Kehr of The New York Times cited Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, as a parallel for the Kate-Jed romance. I would suggest instead Vincent Sherman and John Van Druten’s Old Acquaintance (1943), the last scene of which shows the hitherto-bickering Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins preparing to spend the rest of their lives together.

Oh God, how I love the old chick flicks! And some of the new ones, like Crush , aren’t that bad either.

There’s also Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s Kissing Jessica Stein , from a screenplay by the film’s two leads, Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, which has been generally dismissed and demeaned as a lightweight lesbian romance-but a closer look at its comic contours reveals the dimensions of a classic screwball comedy from pre–World War II Hollywood, but without the conformist strictures of the old Production Code.

The old Hollywood heroines, after all, would never have even considered kissing another woman on the lips. Jessica (Ms. Westfeldt) and Helen (Ms. Juergensen) are made of sterner stuff, though both remain technically bisexual, and the “happy ending” for Jessica comes in the form of a previously rejected boyfriend, Josh (Scott Cohen).

What makes the film break the relatively new gay-film formula is the wit and charm of the two actresses, who have written themselves some sparkling lines, such as designating James Woods and Mick Jagger as “sexy-ugly” and having Helen describe Jessica to a friend as a “Jewish Sandra Dee.” Truth to tell, if you find Ms. Westfeldt’s Jessica too ditzy for your taste, you won’t find the goings-on very interesting. I happened to see the movie after the negative reviews came out, and I was surprised to find myself likening Ms. Westfeldt to a cross between Jean Arthur and Diane Keaton, and Ms. Juergensen to a sultrier brunette in the “other woman” tradition. Also true to form, Helen is always pressuring a reluctant Jessica to “go all the way” after their first kiss.

This is the way that gay subject matter has been domesticated, at least in the restricted zones of art-house cinema and cable-television programs like Sex and the City and Six Feet Under . In a kind of throw-away joke near the end of Crush , Ms. Chancellor’s Molly publicly and audaciously kisses another woman on the lips, who promptly kisses her back.

In the movies, all comedy is hard-and romantic comedy is even harder. By ending the demonization of lesbianism, today’s pushing-the-envelope filmmakers have added a new wild card to the deck. But it will take more than mere broad-mindedness to create vibrant comedy.

Argentina’s Native Son

Juan José Campanella’s Son of the Bride was last year’s Argentine Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. It evolves as the quintessential male-midlife-crisis movie as it follows 42-year-old Rafael Belvedere (Ricardo Darín) while he operates the highly successful but time-consuming restaurant his father Nino (Héctor Alterio) founded. Despite his success, Rafael continues to live in the shadow of his unimpressed father. Rafael seldom visits his mother (Norma Aleandro), who was similarly unappreciative-even before she succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Even Rafael’s ex-wife finds reason to resent him, because he has neglected their daughter. Finally, Rafael’s beautiful girlfriend Naty (Natalie Verbeke) is unable to break through his shell of self-involvement to obtain a long-term commitment.

Then, suddenly, a minor heart attack forces Rafael to slow down and smell the roses. He sells the restaurant and is reunited with a childhood friend, Juan Carlos (Eduardo Blanco), who has survived a much greater personal tragedy, and who thereafter functions as a clownish poltergeist.

When Rafael’s hitherto anti-clerical father decides to remarry his ailing wife in a church, as she had always dreamed of doing, Rafael clears away the formidable obstacles to such a sanctification, and in so doing mends his own personal relationships.

This is a sweet film, one not without a certain emotional intelligence and fleeting bursts of wit and humor. The only problem is an overloaded plot that makes the breakdowns in Rafael’s relationships seem beyond repair in a 24-hour-a-day existence. Yet the cast alone makes all the difference in retaining the film’s credibility.

Sister Act

Lieven Debrauwer’s Pauline and Paulette , from a screenplay by Mr. Debrauwer and Jacques Boon, is a Belgian gem on the twilight existence of four sisters of a certain age drawn together reluctantly by the need to care for one of their number: the mentally retarded Pauline (Dora van der Groen), who lives with Martha in a small town near Brussels, but adores Paulette (Ann Petersen) who operates a fabric shop in town and plays the plump lead in an operetta, her life’s dream.

When Martha suffers a fatal heart attack, the problem of caring for Pauline is thrust upon the equally reluctant Paulette and the Brussels-based younger sister, Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans). Martha’s will stipulates that Pauline must be cared for by one of her two surviving sisters, or the considerable money from the sale of Martha’s house will go directly for Pauline’s care in an institution.

This is the kind of movie that is mired for a long time in the embarrassments of mental retardation. Yet Paulette and Cecile are not monsters-they try their best to cope in turn with Pauline’s streaks of stubborn self-absorption. But then a miracle occurs in an epiphany of sisterly love, and the film ends with an emotionally shattering tableau of two sisters sharing a view of the Belgian coast and the birds flying around it. The acting is superb, and the mise en scène is enlivened by obsessive colors and floral arrangements.

Dorothy McGuire: Underrated Till The End

Dorothy McGuire (1918-2001) was the most underrated actress in Hollywood in the 40′s and 50′s, and the injustice continued into this year’s Oscars, which omitted her from the “in memoriam” montage. Here are my 10 favorite McGuire performances:

1. The Spiral Staircase (1946)

2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

3. The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

4. Claudia (1943)

5. Friendly Persuasion (1956)

6. The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960)

7. Mister 880 (1950)

8. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

9. Invitation (1952)

10. Till the End of Time (1946)