Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Back-up Plan: The Almost Demise of Sookie St. James

Just the other day I was thinking how great it would be to see Melissa McCarthy onscreen again. Only I didn't call her Melissa McCarthy in my head. I called her Sookie - the best friend from Gilmore Girls? She's great. She was great as Dena in Samantha Who as well, even though she played the same character. But who cares? She could play Sookie St. James in the next Star Wars film and all would still be right with the world.

Well, be careful what you wish for and all that. Shortly afterwards, a friend asked me to see The Back-Up Plan, which made me wrinkle my nose and think 'Really? Are you sure that's what you meant to say?' but turned out that was the only non-ridiculous option at the theaters. At least that's what we thought at the time. I was all set to relax into some harmless mediocrity, perhaps redeemed by an interesting wardrobe or a leading man who wasn't too bad to look at. But then to my surprise: Sookie! Sookie St. James as I live and breathe! Well my dears, believe it or not: Sookie was not enough. And, as it happened, harmless mediocrity was way too much to hope for.

So quick synopsis: Jennifer Lopez's character Zoë is an educated, accomplished pet store owner who decides that since the traditional family track hasn't happened for her, she's going to find a sperm donor and have a child. Then, in what is perhaps the weakest, least cute meet-cute ever, she meets a guy who could be The One but goodammit too late the baby's already in there, festering, throwing a wrench into things.

I want to be quick and painless here; no reason you should suffer as much as I did. Everything about this film is bad. Where to start? Lopez's performance is not good. True, we don't expect it to be, but perhaps if it had been less lazy and perfunctory, this film would have been better. Yeah no that's not true. There was no saving this thing, because it failed everywhere. Lopez's Zoë is loopy in a way that is not at all endearing. I do not care about her and her philanthropic pet store, or whatever it is. She doesn't even seem like someone who likes animals. She has no chemistry with any of the other characters; her execution of the fall-down, get dirty slapsticks scenes falls way short of her Monster-in-Law performance, if that's any standard (but of course, those had Jane Fonda, and that's a lot of help); and in general she's just Jenny - miles from the block - determined to play someone who's having twins just after she's had twins.

She is foiled in her efforts by one of the worst rom-com scripts I've witnessed in a long time. And that's quite the accomplishment. It is hard to separate out the poor performances from the very very very bad script. Take the supporting cast, for example. The best-friend-sidekick, that character who's supposed to be slightly less attractive than the leading woman but attractive enough to have her own relationship to serve as a point of comparison, but not so attractive that she's not credible as the Funny One because everyone knows a woman can't possibly be witty and attractive at once - it's too hard; that woman is there to be funny, and strange, and interesting in some way that the leading lady is too impossibly beautiful to pull off. And obviously, a good actor helps, but you have to write and direct her that way. You have to give her the backstory and the dialogue to be funny and strange, not just stick her in there with her mousy hair and plain wardrobe and expect magic to happen. Every single line from this character, set up though it was to get us all ready to laugh and go 'oh that sidekick!' fell horribly flat. So horribly flat that I started to wonder if I had misread this character altogether. Maybe she wasn't the sidekick. Maybe she was just some weirdo stalker who was going to end up stealing JLo's babies and completely switch the genre to some kind of rom-com/thriller a la From Dusk Till Dawn. It was none of that, just a very bad script and equally bad direction.

Speaking of sidekicks, the leading man got one too. I'm sure if I give you three guesses you can figure out who the actor is. A hint: portly, Black sidekick guy, perpetually played of course by Anthony Anderson, who is not funny in the best of circumstances. But even so, has this guy not earned his stripes, just from prolificacy alone? How long is one to be shoved into that wise, Black counselor, dudebro place? Especially when one has been a part of (granted the worst era of) one of the best courtroom dramas in TV history? Doesn't mere proximity to Jack McCoy disqualify you from having to labour through really awful scripts opposite really awful actors? (But then, especially as a Black actor, I suppose not. S. Epatha Merkerson is as much an L&O institution as Sam Waterston, and brilliant in the role, and she's still hanging out playing bit parts in Lifetime movies. [It may be an insult to Merkerson and the exercise of her own agency to suggest that she doesn't choose the work she does for a reason. But honestly, we all know the constraints faced by Black women who are actors in Hollywood. Man, that was some digression.])

But undeniably the worst part of the film - beyond the atrocious script, the poorly-drawn characters, the yawn-inducing slapsticks, the so-what story - is the character and performance of the leading man, Alex O'Loughlin, who plays Stan.

Let me talk to you about Stan. Stan is an asshole.

From the first moment of our introduction to Stan - the meet-blargle - he comes off as an obnoxious jerk. But by this time we're not even sure we like Zoë yet, so maybe we don't care that Stan is a jerk. Maybe they can be jerks together while we talk amongst ourselves. But soon, Stan reveals himself to be such a thorough jerk that not even our apathy towards Zoë can stop us from hating him. Now, a leading man in a rom-com can be an asshole and still make for a good film. In fact, one of my favourite films featured the most brilliantly-executed asshole ever - Jason Patric's Jay in Expired - opposite an equally inspired performance by Samantha Morton. Not only was Jay layered and wonderfully interpreted while one-dimensional Stan floundered around embarrassingly on screen. But Jay's character and the relationship depicted also rang very true. We cringed when his manipulation and abuse were accepted, but we also laughed at his insecurity and the absurdity of the lie he was trying to perpetrate on Samantha Morton's character; the lie that he was it, and she could do no better, one that she ultimately rejected as she went on to be happy without him.

By contrast, here is what I hated about the message of Stan and this film: here's this woman - successful, happy, with friends and interests and things going on - who decides to have a child. She follows through with her plan, gets pregnant, then meets a man that she's at least interested in getting to know, sleeping with, but perhaps not in anything more. Who knows? it's only been 5 seconds. Of course, once he's in her life, she starts to feel guilty about not telling him of this decision she had made about her own body and life long before he fell obnoxiously into her taxi. So she tells him. And all kinds of whiny, entitled, territorial, paternalistic bullshit ensues. It becomes wholly about him, but this fact is partially obscured by the writers, whose only concern is the old "women who try to have it all need to stop pushing men away, beg their forgiveness and eat some crow" meme. (See: Tyler Perry)

To top things off, Stan has no chemistry with anyone - not Zoë (the kisses are among the worst I have witnessed. Stan is a Really Bad Kisser), not The Black Friend who is unceremoniously thrust upon him, not a single other character in the film. In fact, no one has chemistry with anyone. All the other characters exist on the fringes of the film as props in JLo's vanity project and the story's uncomfortable message. They run helter-skelter around in supermarket encounters, gratuitous, unfunny, labour scenes and other messes. And at the end, we all hate everyone and want the last two hours of our lives back. Except Sookie. We don't hate Sookie, but we do come dangerously close.


  1. First off, I love S Epetha!
    Second - I knew you had to be talking about THAT Black guy lol. He is pretty ubiquitous these days...
    Thanks for the synopsis, reading this seems to be far better than watching the movie - because I managed to laugh the whole way through (and I don't even know who Sookie is!)

  2. Came here from Shakesville. Awesome post!

  3. I am a great fan of rom-coms.I love You've Got Mail, all in fact of Hanks/Ryan combo. Also Ryan and Billy Crystal as well. My Best Friend's Wedding whose end was entirely inconsistent with the feeling of the movie all the way through.

    Something New, which I absolutely recommend.
    And then of course the old favourites with their scintillating wit- All about Eve, Casablanca etc.
    The best ones take on gender stereotypes but only in the Pride and Prejudice kind of way. Alas. Yes I like Bridget Jones' Diary as well.
    Have to think more about this.

    And what about the newer sorts- It's Complicated?


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