The Art-Movieness of Fat Girl Is Preferable to the Maudlinity of Riding in Cars with Boys
Directed by Catherine Breillat
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.
Viciousness 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 Wife Marshall's direction has only gotten worse. It's possible that Renaissance Man is her best movie.)
Catherine 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 Girl 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 Sisters) 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 Girl's deliberately offensive?though shallowly motivated?finale, Breillat intends to upturn conventional notions of feminine etiquette. Fat Girl 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.
Riding 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 Girl'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).
Feminism 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.
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