THE BACK PAGES

TOO HOT TO HANDLE

BRIAN D. JOHNSON July 31 2006
THE BACK PAGES

TOO HOT TO HANDLE

BRIAN D. JOHNSON July 31 2006

TOO HOT TO HANDLE

THE BACK PAGES

film

The Man of Steel looks like a wimp next to the alpha females who are raising hell in this summer's movies.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Apparently there’s nothing quite so hot as having sex with a woman who has superpowers. She’ll throw you backwards onto the bed, rip your clothes off faster than a line cook peeling a shrimp, and make the earth move. Literally. In My Super Ex-Girlfriend, with Uma Thurman in charge, the bed doesn’t just bounce up and down. It lurches back and forth across

the floor with every thrust until it slams right through the wall into the next apartment. But in the movies, whenever the sex is unbelievably hot, there has to be a catch. As Fatal Attraction taught us, powerful women come at a price.

Thurman plays a neurotic art gallery employee who has a secret life as a G-Girl, a Manhattan superhero. Art gallery employee seems to be Hollywood’s new code for empowered-female-in-a-messed-up-relationship-with-a-regular-guy. Jennifer Aniston played one in The Break-Up, and now Thurman offers an Amazonian twist on the breakup comedy—involving a lot of breakage. The regular guy is a mild-mannered architect named Matt (Luke Wilson) who can’t believe his luck—he’s doing a star, a celebrity superhero—until the erotic novelty wears off. Suddenly he finds himself caught in the superglue grip of a woman who, to quote his best friend, is “needy, jealous and controlling— the trifecta.” As our hero retreats to the comforting embrace of an officemate (Hannah

Lewis), G-Girl wields her superpowers to reduce his life to rubble. In one fit of jealous rage, she hurls a great white shark through his window and it chases him around the room, lunging at his nether regions. Talk about vagina dentata: Freud would have a field day.

Film actresses are always complaining about the dearth of strong female roles. Be careful what you wish for. This is the summer of superwomen who are not just empowered, but overpowering. The earnest hero of Superman Returns is a milquetoast pushover compared to some of the female warriors cutting a swath across the screen this season. Leading the pack is Meryl Streep, as a dominatrix fashion editor with ice in her veins in The Devil Wears Prada. And as her minion, the more warm-blooded Anne Hathaway morphs into quite the superhero herself, once she learns to quick-change into the Chanel costumes and wield her cellphone like a smartbomb detonator. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Keira Knightley, no longer content to be a mere damsel in distress, takes

up the sword with a vengeance. And this month marks the release of three movies in which meek guys are sent for a loop by formidable women who are clearly out of their league.

In Kevin Smith’s Clerks II, a sizzling Rosario Dawson plays the manager of a burger restau-

rant who reheats a romance with an employee as he’s about to be domesticated by a domineering fiancée. This is a vision of slacker heaven, a scenario in which a dumb-ass loser has to choose between two smart, dominant women who both claim to know what’s good

WITH ‘MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND’ CANADIAN DIRECTOR IVAN REITMAN GRADUATES FROM GHOSTBUSTERS TO BALLBUSTERS

for him. In Scoop, Scarlett Johansson plays a tenacious young journalist trailing a serial killer, while Woody Allen tags along as her scaredy-cat sidekick. And in the absurdist sketch comedy of Strangers With Candy, Amy Sedaris stars as a middle-aged, bisexual, excon junkie whore who goes back to high school and wreaks havoc. Incidentally, it’s also another movie in which an oversexed woman shoves a guy backwards onto a bed.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend is one of those highconcept comedies that adds up to less than the sum of its gags. But Thurman is a treat. She breezes through the movie as if channelling a nutty, bitch-lite version of the avenger she played in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. It would be hard to find a filmmaker further removed from Tarantino than Ex-Girlfriend’s Canadian director, Ivan Reitman. With movies like Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters, Reitman emerged as a goofball godfather for that first Saturday Night Live generation of slacker comedy. And as a producer of movies ranging from Animal House to Old School-

®with a Trailer Park Boys feature due out next fall—he keeps mining that same vein. But this new movie is his first that could be considered a flat-out romantic comedy. At 59, Reitman is finally toying with issues of adult sexuality, even if they’re hinged to a comic-book fantasy. With My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Reitman graduates from ghostbusters to ballbusters.

It’s a steamy July morning in Manhattan. Reitman holds court in a high-rise hotel room overlooking Central Park, which stretches through the haze 41 floors below. The Czech-born director (who fled to Canada with his family at 4 and moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s) has spent most of his life in California. But he has filmed five movies in New York City. And from the first shot of My Super Ex—an aerial close-up that swoops past the gilded torch of the Statue of Liberty, New York’s goddess in residence— the film has the look of an old-fashioned Manhattan romance. “It’s a bit of a love letter to the city,” says Reitman, who adds that, as an immigrant, he feels a personal connection to the Statue of Liberty. No kidding. In Ghostbusters II, it came to life and took a destructive stroll down Fifth Avenue. “She’s tough,” said Bill Murray’s character. “She’s a harbour chick!”

With G-Girl, Reitman gives us another possessed diva on a rampage. But New Yorkers have become so braced for larger-than-life catastrophes that the notion of a spurned lover leaving a trail of destruction doesn’t seem far-fetched. The day before the Reitman interview, a gas explosion reduced a Manhattan townhouse to rubble in what appeared to be a suicide attempt by a doctor destroying a contested asset in a hellish divorce. “The first thoughts,” says Reitman, “were not that some idiot doctor committed suicide by blowing up his building. It was, ‘Omigod, is al-Qaeda here? Is this the beginning of something larger?’ ”

Ever since 9/11, that Superman line, “Look, up in the sky, is it a bird, is it a plane?” has ac-

NO ONE, INCLUDING THE SCREENWRITER,

IS QUITE SURE WHAT THE ‘G’ STANDS FOR, ALTHOUGH ‘G SPOT’ IS A WELCOME INNUENDO

quired extra resonance. One keeps expecting terror, or salvation, to come down from the heavens. And G-Girl is very much a Manhattan superhero. Zipping across the sky in a trim white jet stream, she’s a career woman on the move, condensing a New York minute into a microsecond. She also has a New Yorker’s neurotic impatience. Desperate for a normal life, she resents the constant demands of saving the world. But like Streep’s Prada villainess, she loves the costumes that come with the job, and has quite a range to choose from.

“G-Girl’s a real New Yorker who has style,” says Reitman, explaining that Thurman got highly involved in selecting her superhero wardrobe. “She wanted to be comfortable, she wanted to be fresh, she wanted to be strong. There was a scene where we go into her Bat Cave, which was basically a big closet, and we reveal all this stuff. There’s probably a Prada outfit in there.” The scene was dropped early on, he adds, “and in retrospect it should have gone back into the film.”

As for the G-Girl moniker, the movie’s screenwriter, Don Payne, says he thinks Thurman came up with it. “Originally she was XGirl,” says Payne, who wrote the script on spec while working as a writer for The Simpsons. “X had the double meaning of being an ex, but the studio was worried that X-Girl was too close to X-Men. We went through a number of alternatives—Alpha Girl, Gamma Girl, and so on.” No one, including the writer, is quite sure what the “G” stands for, although “G spot” is a welcome innuendo. As Thurman said, coyly deflecting a question at a press conference, “Has anybody ever used the letter ‘G’ in any specific manner?” Payne, who describes himself as a former comic-book nerd, and looks the part, says, “I think every comic-book geek has wondered at some point what it would be like to be with

a super-empowered woman. It’s every guy’s fantasy, and nightmare.” The super-sex in this PG-rated movie, which involves no nudity and is used purely for comic effect, mostly involves super-force. “At one point,” says Payne, “the act became faster and faster,” but that notion was dropped.

Thurman, it seems, can play a voracious man-eater in her sleep, but what’s most startling about her performance is the way she handles the Clark Kent side of her character (in a brunette wig and glasses), especially when she becomes desperately clingy. “I liked that vulnerability in a really strong,

bold character,” says Thurman, “that thing where you’re just trying to squeeze, and it’s like a bar of soap—the more you squeeze, the farther it flies.” As Luke Wilson pointed out in an interview later, “The fact that Uma is strong and intelligent and independent makes it particularly funny when she’s being needy.” Although Thurman is the movie’s star, she’s no feminist heroine, and My Super-Ex is not what you’d call a chick flick. The story unfolds from the guy’s point of view. Wilson plays the shy, sensible Everyman who gets mixed up with a sex machine. His mistake, according to his posturing buddy (Riann Wilson), was that he didn’t ditch her after that first night of fabulous passion. And you can practically see the guys in the audience nodding in agreement. Sure, have a few kicks with the Amazon sex bomb, but marry the sweet co-worker who acts like your best friend.

Despite some nifty jokes and an original premise, the formula feels tired, and curdles in the final act. Reitman is an old hand at grafting a supernatural premise onto character-based comedy, but here the balance seems a bit off. Even Luke Wilson appears to damn the film with faint praise. When asked about Reitman (“the first semi-legendary director I’ve worked with”), Wilson recognizes his gift for mining comic talent: “There are so many little ad libs and improvisations that he’s included in the movie.” But he also pays him a backhanded compliment: “He’s set in his ways, and has formulas that he knows work.”

As the quiet, less famous kid brother of Wedding Crasher Owen Wilson, Luke has the unenviable job of playing Thurman’s selfeffacing straight man. It’s a timeless formula-

sensitive guy meets pushy babe—and no one has relied on it more heavily than Woody Allen. In Scoop, he revels in neurotic self-parody, casting himself as a shabby magician who teams up with a student journalist (Johansson) to solve a murder in London. (Thankfully, there’s no romance between them, despite the odd creepy echo of Manhattan.) Scoop is an amusing romp, another step in Allen’s rehab program of winning back his audience. With manic deference, he lets Johansson make him look like an idiot, while she plays an old man’s ideal of empowered girlhood—a nymph with glasses who sleeps with her subject to get a story.

But in Strangers With Candy, Amy Sedaris boldly reverses the dynamic. To play Jerry Blank—the ex-con who’s back in high school, making clumsy moves on a handsome jock— she wears fat pants, affects an overbite and acts like a dangerous, overgrown child. The movie is a low-rent, antic farce but it subverts teen comedy formula with devilish wit. With director Paul Dinello and co-writer Stephen Colbert playing cat and mouse as gay teachers, it bristles with sharp cameos from the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And as the ugly misfit, Sedaris has a weird charisma. Interviewed by phone, she says, “People get so disappointed when they find out I’m not a junkie whore ex-con. Sorrrryl”

Sedaris is surprised tough women are the exception rather than the rule in movies. “I think women do push guys around. With the guys I know, the girls always have the upper hand. Most of them, it’s like, ‘I’ll have to ask my wife or my girlfriend.’ It’s unbelievable.” Thurman agrees. “I see women as incredibly strong and intense creatures,” she said in New York. “I rarely meet a meek woman any more. Women are stronger than they’re presented to be and men are more sensitive.” GGirl just acts out what a lot of women dream of, she adds. “Imagine a woman so brokenhearted she flies out to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and plucks a great white shark from the sea. I think shark-chucking should be made part of the vernacular—‘Oooh, watch out for her, she’s shark-chucking. She’s got the great white swinging.’ ”

Someone call Steven Spielberg. Maybe it’s time to remake Jaws, with a woman’s touch. M