The Art-Movieness of Fat Girl Is Preferable to the Maudlinity of Riding in Cars with Boys

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


Directed by Catherine

What Riding
in Cars with Boys
and Fat Girl have in common shows how utterly different
Hollywood and Art movies can be. Both films are sentimental fantasies about
female entitlement, featuring the feminist awareness of emotional abuse girls
suffer within family and social structures. Pregnant at age 15, Beverly (Drew
Barrymore), the heroine of Riding in Cars with Boys, finds it difficult
to reach her career goals (she wants to be a writer) and is literally stuck
in a dead-end marriage–in a Connecticut white trash cul-de-sac–to
stoner Ray (Steve Zahn). In Fat Girl, 13-year-old Anais (Anais Reboux)
is stuck in her own baby fat, envying the way her hottie older sister Elena
(Roxane Mesquida) flaunts freedom and privilege. Bored at her family’s
dreary vacation spot in northern France, Anais stuffs her face and fantasizes
about the proper way to lose her virginity–a desire linked to a vengeful
sense of freedom.

underlies both these stories. Each film gives a competing sense of their girls-turned-woman/directors
processing the problems of growing up female and the responsibilities of showing
the world the effect of being imprisoned by gender. Director Penny Marshall
constructs the broad humor and even broader maudlinity of Riding in Cars
with Boys
to make an ugly story nice. In the worst Hollywood tradition (practiced
by her producer James L. Brooks and such tv refugee-directors as Rob Reiner,
Ron Howard and Billy Crystal), Marshall keeps softening the rough edges of her
story, Bev’s life. It’s as if ideology didn’t exist for Marshall.
Riding in Cars speeds right past any sign of culturally sustained preconceptions
or prejudices. There hasn’t been such an insultingly cute depiction of
the white working class since Julia Roberts’ engagement party in The
Runaway Bride
(directed by Penny’s brother Garry Marshall). Riding
in Cars with Boys
is, however, even less adept at brazening laughs to distract
from social realism. With photography as visually frowzy as a Happy Days
episode, Marshall redounds to a number of strained comic setpieces such as Bev
trying to end her pregnancy by falling down stairs; scooping her drowning toddler
out of a swimming pool only to dunk him back in; or messily and noisily trying
to nurse Ray’s heroin withdrawal. It is Marshall, more than the constantly
frustrated Bev, who seems to be dangerously suppressing anger. (What a career!
Since the unacceptable Big, A League of Their Own and The Preacher’s
Marshall’s direction has only gotten worse. It’s possible
that Renaissance Man is her best movie.)

Breillat is fueled by anger and paces Fat Girl as a slowly simmering
pressure cooker. Undeniably working her way toward revenge, Breillat shows Anais’
rude intelligence in the face of continual humiliation. She’s much smarter
than Elena about what emotions to employ during sexual initiation and she’s
instinctively skeptical of the smooth-talking student lawyer (Libero De Rienzo)
who talks his way into the bedroom Elena shares with Anais, and then into Elena’s
panties. If anything, Breillat is all too aware of ideology. Feminism becomes
her bogus justification for turning Anais (like her previous protagonists) into
a murderous standard-bearer. Dispatching crude, insensitive oppressors is Breillat’s
version of entertainment, but she uses an art-movie approach that, alas, is
preferable to Marshall’s joking and tear-jerking.

Anais isn’t
merely the focus of Breillat’s identification. It is unmistakable that
Breillat has contrived the fat girl character to express her own feelings–not
of inadequacy but of being underestimated and held back. Since making her feature
debut in 1975 with A Real Young Girl (which was only released in the
U.S. earlier this year), Breillat’s sense of resentment has seemed to fester–even
as she has developed an almost maniacal directorial assurance. A Real Young
was the template for Fat Girl and still seems a superior movie
for the way Breillat first depicted a schoolgirl’s (Alice, played by Charlotte
Alexandra) sexual imagination–it was the occasion for Breillat to liberate
her own. Seen today, A Real Young Girl seems less like the feminist movies
of the 70s (such as Margaretha Von Trotta’s Coup de Grace and
) than that era’s porn. Breillat brazenly illustrated Alice’s
"inappropriate" sexual fantasies. Mostly masturbatory, these images–various
insertions, pubic play and penis wonder–were genuinely subversive. Simultaneously
gross and antiauthoritarian, A Real Young Girl is one of the rare sound-and-color
films to sustain the erotic compulsiveness associated with old, avant-garde
silent movies. But Fat Girl (the French title is A ma soeur! [For
my Sister]) replaces Breillat’s virgin inventiveness with a dread calculation
I find far less charming.

Fat Girl
slickly blends Breillat’s neurosis into mise-en-scene. Stylistically, she
has developed a surreal polish. As in her ludicrous Romance–which
stupidly layered porn fantasies atop psychoanalytical babble–Fat Girl’s
most intense, pointed moments recall Bertrand Blier’s satirical sexual
provocations. Breillat herself admiringly said Blier turns "bad words into
poetry" and that’s a key to her own surrealist credo. Even in Fat
’s deliberately offensive–though shallowly motivated–finale,
Breillat intends to upturn conventional notions of feminine etiquette. Fat
is appalling in the way it indulges the id but Breillat’s concept
of the personal as the outrageous is at least a fully conscious conception.

in Cars with Boys
is mired in the unconscious ideology of Hollywood entertainment
that leaves every social ill and injustice in place. Anything for a laugh. Somehow
Marshall and star Barrymore have confused their own ambition with the character
Bev’s selfishness. That’s not feminism, it’s ego. At least in
Breillat’s movies–and especially A Real Young Girl–the
use of pop songs (lyrics by Breillat) points up the distress caused by the false
sentiments of pop culture, encouraging viewers to question the sentiments to
which they are usually susceptible. Marshall and Barrymore evidently have some
delusion that their neo-Bette Midler sob story (a sort of Stella meets
For the Boys
) will reveal a truth through shameless sentimentality.

Behind the
twisted-hanky convolutions of its plot, Riding in Cars with Boys is–revealingly–just
an extension of patriarchy, told from the point of view of Bev’s son, Jason
(Adam Garcia). Feeling unloved and resentful himself, Jason tries to escape
his domineering mother and flashes back on teenage Bev succumbing to her parents
(James Woods and Lorraine Bracco, both doing better-than-ever parental cliches)
or to her boy-centered accidents. This isn’t a feminism based in appreciating
the human rights of both genders; it’s Marshall, Barrymore and Brooks exploiting
Mommy and Daddy love any way they can. Despite the film’s title, there’s
nothing like the ingenious insight of Greg Mottola’s The Daytrippers,
which penetrated the patriarchal situation in which frustrated young adults
realize the extent of their harbored resentment through the metaphor of living
under (sitting in the backseat of) another person’s control. Riding
in Cars with Boys
(from an autobiography by Beverly Donofrio) makes such
obvious use of its operating metaphor that it becomes inane and uninstructive.
Breillat, on the other hand, sets up the same family car situation for Fat
’s shocking finale.

When Riding
in Cars with Boys
reaches its soggy destination–Bev reconciles with
the various men in her life–Drew Barrymore has her most effective dramatic
moment. Sitting beside her father, the desperate-to-be-sophisticated Bev (who
singlehandedly transformed herself into a Jodie Foster-severe artiste) modifies
her own look of adult resentment into little girl forgiveness, a beautiful,
lucid view of Barrymore’s own appeal. In A Real Young Girl, softcore
actress Charlotte Alexandra, playing the teenage lead, showed a similarly fascinating
transition that was part of Breillat’s conceit, to make a pubescent girl’s
confusions simultaneously evoke an adult woman’s erotic and emotional complexes.
Anais Reboux is not nearly so expressive in Fat Girl. In fact, Barrymore’s
doughy self-confidence makes a better fat girl’s case. It tells a more
interesting story than Marshall and Brooks are interested in. Along with Brittany
Murphy and Sara Gilbert, the actresses who play Bev’s best friends, Barrymore
is plump in ways that girls in high school yearbooks from decades ago now look
heavy to us (a period detail modern movies usually never get right). This makes
Barrymore–a likable and solid screen performer beyond conventional model
girl sexiness–a standard-bearer of a different kind. Wonderful Steve Zahn,
hobbled by Ray’s ridiculously conceived character, gets to give only half
a great performance. He doesn’t enjoy Marshall’s pseudo-feminist indulgence,
just a lot of shots of him looking dopey (especially in an horrendous sequence
with Rosie Perez as his screechy second wife).

only occurs to Hollywood hacks like Penny Marshall as a plot gimmick, it hasn’t
improved the way she sees or depicts the range of social experience or the frustrations
felt by men as well as women. Catherine Breillat’s perspective is also
limited despite expressing a more genuine artistic sensibility. (Critics who
praise Fat Girl as a realistic portrait of youth have no idea of what
Breillat is up to; they might as well be watching a Penny Marshall movie.) Riding
in Cars with Boys
and Fat Girl share topical interests, but like
the current mayoral race, there is no good choice between them.