Addictions to love and shopping: A stale cinematic formula

Give me “Moonstruck.” Give me “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” I’d even take “The Cutting Edge” (hey, it’s got the Pamchenko going for it).

But as far as romantic comedies go, “Confessions of a Shopaholic”—based on the series of best-selling books by Sophie Kinsella—is an excruciatingly painful exercise in female fantasy. Isla Fisher’s Rebecca Bloomwood will resonate with women like myself who crave high-fashion clothing and accessories. Poor Becky’s full-time hobby is so out of control she has run up nearly $20,000 in credit-card bills. And yes, I can relate to reaching for the plastic instead of cutting up the cards, bringing them to the local junkyard and watching as they’re crushed into oblivion. An extreme measure? Not for shopaholics.

But I found my willingness to suspend my belief gravely tested when Becky is so obsessed with shopping that she risks missing an interview for her dream job at the fashion magazine Alette. I found it further tested when she finagles a job at Successful Saving and writes a hugely popular column on frugality using—what else?—fashion metaphors. Why do I consider Becky’s career trajectory so absurd? Because I’m in a job search mode myself, and penning winning propositions while drunk to land a second interview after the first one failed abysmally just doesn’t happen. To anyone outside of Hollywood’s play pen, that is.

The real romance in “Confessions of a Shopaholic” is not between Becky and her boss, the dashing British editor Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy). It’s between Becky and her newest acquisition. Her ever-burgeoning relationship quickly hits a snag: The Evil Debt Collector, played by a properly unctuous Robert Stanton. The silly cat-and-mouse game between Becky and Stanton’s Derek Smeath reminds me of the battle between Ferris Bueller and Principal Rooney, but you grow tired of her preposterous yet nearly always successful machinations to avoid him and accept responsibility for her actions.

I prefer my romantic comedies to be witty and charming, with some sort of metamorphosis, whether physical, mental or emotional, at the heart of the story. “Confessions of a Shopaholic” falls woefully short on all counts, and it’s not even really fun to watch. Its glossy veneer eventually cracks under the strain of Becky’s frequently garish wardrobe. Label lust doesn’t automatically translate into style.

I’ve read many reviews extolling the comedic talent and physical virtues of Fisher, who’s beguiling to a degree with her oh-so-earnest, wide-eyed pouts, but I am oddly disturbed by the sight of such a childlike face atop such a curvy body. I guess that’s why she appeals to the male set. The same phenomenon must happen a lot with Scarlett Johansson, who plays Anna in “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

But whereas Becky doesn’t mean to hurt anyone—really, wouldn’t any fashion addict pick buying a new outfit for a TV show appearance over buying a bridesmaid’s dress for your best friend’s wedding??—Scarlett’s Anna is, well, yearning to be a scarlet woman. (It’s interesting how even in the reviews that pan “He’s Just Not That Into You” for its supposedly misogynist portrayal of women, no one condemns Anna for actively pursuing a married man.)

“He’s Just Not That Into You,” a better page-to-screen adaptation in the romantic comedy genre—I won’t call it a chick flick, because I consider the term derogatory—is based on a book by two “Sex and the City” writers, Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. I was mildly surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie, from the opening sequence where Ginnifer Goodwin narrates that women’s acceptance of cruelty in boyfriends and husbands stems from a childhood incident. A little boy insults a little girl on a playground, and the girl runs crying to her mother, who tells her the boy was mean because he likes her. Flash forward to the present, where in various scenarios a woman’s girlfriends explain a man’s bad behavior by saying essentially the same thing.

There’s truth in those vignettes. Not that men who treat women poorly are masking their true feelings of love and adoration—if that were truly the message of this movie, I would call it misogynistic—but that women tend to look at their significant other as a long-term investment and are therefore often reluctant to let go when the relationship starts sinking or has been seriously problematic from the beginning. That women are especially guilty of coddling their heartbroken friends with bonbon-like compliments when they should be serving up cold slices of reality. That women like to believe in the exception rather than the rule.

Goodwin’s character, Gigi, is a Carrie Bradshaw on steroids in terms of being an emotional basket case and treating every man like he’s Mr. Big. She doesn’t know how to censor her thoughts or emotions, she jumps years ahead in a relationship after half a date gone OK, and she stalks men who express minimal interest in her. You can feel all the women in the audience wince when she once again demonstrates her lack of pride and tries to wrest an honest response from a man. And when Gigi finally succeeds, when she finally gets her man and she is recounting the moment when everything clicked for them, you see how easily perception redefines our histories as a couple.

The women in “He’s Just Not That Into You” aren’t farcical like Becky Bloomwood. They’re flawed and messy, yes, but they’re real. They spend more time on finding love and working on their relationships than I like to see in a movie theater or real life, but society is greatly responsible for female absorption in the ultimate commitment.

Another “He’s Just Not That Into You” character, Jennifer Aniston’s Beth, wants to be married and breaks up with her boyfriend of seven years because he won’t marry her. One agonizing scene is during a speech at the dinner party the night before her younger sister’s wedding, when a cousin refers to Beth as the older model still available. The humiliation Beth experiences as a single woman past her 20s is very relevant—it’s what made “Sex and the City” so relevant and successful with women of all ages.

Still, I’m not the biggest romantic comedy fan (I would have never watched Sarah Jessica Parker’s TV series if it had been named “Dating and the City” or “Looking for Love in the City”). The cinematic fare I enjoy most doesn’t go by names like “Serendipity,” “Sweet Home Alabama” or, my all-time nonfavorite, “You’ve Got Mail.” I plan to see “Coraline” this weekend and it wouldn’t shock me if the richest roles for actresses are in a stop-motion animated movie aimed at young girls, long before society warps our self-esteem and informs us our life should revolve around the Next Man or the Next Big Purchase or the Next Mr. Right.

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