Life as We Know It

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By Armond White

We can’t pretend that anything is more important in film culture than the Internet humiliation-death of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi taking place the same week as the media hype for The Social Network. After that human tragedy, the media’s celebration of the Facebook movie (a cinematic calamity) shows an alarming disregard for how movies intersect with real life. The Social Network so glamorizes the destructive effects of Internet license and individual greed that its carelessness reflects upon Life As We Know It—a perfect dovetailing with the new romcom starring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel that re-wires the argument about same-sex marriage into a tired screwball formula.

Don’t worry: Katherine Heigl isn’t knocked up in this one.

The distance between Life As We Know It and real life is the same prevaricating distance between mythologizing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s anti-social behavior and ignoring the actual hostility that his invention has made possible. (Clementi posted his suicide note on Facebook.) This should force any thinking moviegoer to question the media’s explicit celebration of the Internet industry. How the movie ignores Internet incivility repeats the callous way our culture accepts all manner of Internet bullying. Thus The Social Network helps to glamorize the “kewl” ways that the Internet makes us less responsive to each other as human beings. The slippery slope hits the pits.

Life As We Know It also shows Hollywood’s insensitive manipulation of real life issues. Director Greg Berlanti, who made his directing debut in 2000 with the amusing gay soap opera The Broken Hearts Club, refrains from what he seemed to know and has made a film that resembles the over-simplification and dramatic compromises that he learned worked on TV’s Brothers & Sisters series. That artistic concession has led to gimmickry: Heigl and Duhamel play Holly Berenson and Eric Messer, not-so-young singles in the whitest parts of Atlanta, Ga., that look just like Brentwood, Calif. Their careerism is interrupted by sudden, unexpected adopted parenthood. (Don’t ask, the set-up is just plain morbid.)

Berlanti’s irreality—following the cutesy script by Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson—results in a synthetic vision of life that is, essentially, an appeasement of the pre-fab, bourgeois status quo. He goes from the Broken Hearts Club of gay male experimentation and self-discovery to the Conformity Club of doing and thinking like others. The presumption of suburban heterosexual normality disguises sentiment for same-sex marriage in the very Doris Day-Rock Hudson template from which previous generations of gay people had recoiled. Life As We Know It’s underlying feeling gainsays civil rights issues. Bad boy Messer, who Duhamel makes resemble Jackass star Johnny Knoxville, gets completely domesticated; his maturation turns personal choice (individuality) into conventionality.

Unlike François Ozon’s sexually unorthodox characters who seek to fulfill their humanity through procreation, Holly and Messer’s leap into parenthood capitulates to an unquestioned social standard. Not accidentally, Berlanti’s camera emphasizes the expanse and expense of the lavish abode Holly and Messer inherit along with an infant. Their progressivism is materialistic, not philosophical. Broken Hearts Club was a community made of others; this film is all about the house. Berlanati has moved from homo-liberalism to homogeneity. That could be commendable if only the story’s process made it clear—or maybe funny.

This unconscious capitulation—coming on the heels of The Social Network’s media domination and the suicide at Rutgers—feels uncomfortably hegemonic. It illustrates unexamined social influence not much different from the license to harass that The Social Network condones—and has subsequently proven disastrous in real life. The Zuckerberg character’s seething envy of Harvard WASPs, and even of up-market hedonism, are casual forms of social pressure that Aaron Sorkin’s script ignores. Sorkin brags about the “irony” of anti-social Zuckerberg creating a socializing technology, yet he never questions how that technology—without personal responsibility, regulation or a truly socializing impulse toward compassion—can become a destructive, intimidating tool.

The Social Network advertises Internet wealth and power very similar to the luxuriously displayed class advantages in Life As We Know It. And the fawning media—what critic Prairie Miller astutely terms “controlled media”—automatically corroborates it. Exalting Zuckerberg’s incivility and social ineptitude is part of the corroboration that encourages Internet snark by which other cyberspace miscreants—following the Zuckerberg characters’ vindictive insecurity—bash individuality. By targeting a gay classmate, the Rutgers bullies evinced the same homophobia that is repressed throughout The Social Network.

This callousness is also a form of capitalist collusion that carries its own idiotic mystique—as when director David Fincher relates his multi-narrator film to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. If Fincher was intellectually agile and truly film savvy, his comparison would have extended to Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, where the “auto-mobile” inventor worried that his contraption “may be a step backwards in civilization. It may be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls. I’m not sure. But automobiles have come. And almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They’re going to alter war and they’re going to alter peace. And I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. And it may be that George is right. May be that in 10 or 20 years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine but have to agree with George that automobiles had no business to be invented.” Seems the “auto-mobile” functions as a perfect synonym for the Internet.

Both Life As We Know It and The Social Network are equally glib. Film culture cannot go forward unless we recognize that these two movies evidence subtle, even uncharitable, change in men’s souls.
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Life as We Know It
Directed by Greg Berlanti
Runtime: 112 min.

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