Spectacle Of Disorder
There is a weird strain in American culture where popularity is somehow a validation of personal worth. If you stop to think about it rationally, it is clear that there should be no correlation between a persona’s popularity and talent, unless popularity itself is a talent. But being the world’s oldest continuing democracy, we might be missing the point in such analysis because clearly the most popular becomes President.
Nonetheless for those of us who reside outside of America, it strikes us as incredibly strange how so many movies about the rites of passage of youth portray the struggle to disentangle the nexus of popularity and personal worth.
Then, along comes this film.
What’s Good About it
As movies about journeys back to the old neighborhood go, this one has a fresh angle to it. It is told from the point of view of somebody who was the bitchy prom queen who has become somewhat successful in life. The usual trope of this story runs in a way that the protagonist goes back to confront the Prom Queen, but not this time. It’s the disastrous homecoming for the Prom Queen, complete with self-narration disguised as a work in progress of a novel within the story.
Charlize Theron puts in a fearless performance; it’s a performance that is as every bit as fearless as her Oscar-winning effort in ‘Monster’, but in this one she adds an incredible amount of nuance to her character through delicate dissection of her minutiae. It is like a vicious character assassination of somebody but we don’t know who the model is for this splendid character. You won’t forget Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary any time soon; and in this instance Theron’s penchant for playing miserable people pays off big.
The directing is concise, and the script is mercifully direct and uncomplicated. Theron’s character Mavis is the train wreck, and we watch as she and her stupid plan come apart. We squirm through so many scenes in this film as we witness the horror of this character study. It’s a tour de force.
What’s Bad About It
As comedies go it is nice and black, but sometimes it loses its tone and harks to a more boozy and broad style. They’re not the good moments. The film is much better when it deals with the excruciating minutiae of Mavis’ narcissistic personality disorder.
What’s Interesting About It
This one is one of those rare films where everything about the character in question is deeply fascinating. As a study of narcissistic personality disorder, there might not be a better film. In Mavis, we have a character who has been told how important it is to be beautiful and popular, slowly discover that the complexity of life and the task of finding happiness have nothing to do with these things.
Towards the end of the film, she comes close to having insight about her unhappiness, and her condition, but ultimately she brushes it aside when she gets a re-boot from the community that produced her. The irony is so rich.
The interesting thing about Mavis and her popularity back at school is that even in adulthood, she returns this popularity with contempt. Where this contempt comes from is a bit of a mystery because when we meet Mavis’ parents, it is clear they are well meaning ordinary people. Somewhere along the way, this character learned that what popularity requires in return is contempt. It’s an interesting study of stardom in America, because in this film it is axiomatic that contempt is actually the first weapon of the popular against the populous.
Theron’s Mavis is never gracious, never apologises for her transgressions, and dismisses everybody she encounters with this withering contempt. There is hardly any self reflection as she plows whatever shred of human interaction she finds in the street, back into the cheesy fiction she is ghostwriting. It is a surprise she finds time for Matt, the crippled guy she once worked hard not to notice back at school, but this is perhaps through her character fault of alcoholism.
Of course, the question is why the populace accept this contempt? Or do they simply ignore it? It’s actually one of the stranger things about American society.
Is Beauty Meaningful?
Frank Zappa famously observed: Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. He also observed, rather ironically and wryly, that Beauty is a pair of shoes that makes you wanna die. Mavis spends a lot of time on a weird arc of waking up looking terrible, to dressing up for the occasion to achieve maximum beauty she can muster. The point of the beauty routine of course is to bag her man, but it is abundantly clear that this beauty regimen is way in excess of context.
The whole routine of doing makeup, dating, drinking and then having a one-night-stand encounter does not take her to the place of happiness which validates her. So this prompts her to go on a mission to get back to where she was once happy. Except, the film pretty much spells out that this beauty she works up to does not lead to love nor truth nor wisdom nor happiness.
What good is it then? The answer according to the film seems to be that beauty of in of itself is its own reward, just as truth is truth, love is love, wisdom is wisdom; all independent of one another with no linkages. If Plato were around to watch movies, he’d probably be offended by this one, because the anti-idealism runs pretty hard in this film.
Materialism Is A Salve
Like an ointment we put on a wound, the film makes a case that the only thing we have to go on in this material universe is materialism, but it offers no answers about how that could lead to any kind of emotional fulfillment. The endless array of beauty goods forms a metaphor for the gaping emptiness in the heart of the American Dream. Even success can’t validate Mavis because she wants her success to make her happy. Yet, it gets pointed out to her that she has more things to make her happy. The film is great because it doesn’t back into a maudlin sentimental position; it sticks to its ironic guns and gallows humour with the ridiculous counsel at the end.
Still, the film is totally cognizant of the emptiness at the centre of this maelstrom of materialism. Mavis wants happiness to be something she can hold and handle, like her dog. She wants happiness at her beck and call, even though she cannot even begin to describe what actually makes her happy. She never stops to consider that it is state of mind, and therefore cannot be captured with the seduction of her old boyfriend.
Gen-X, Goes Back
When Mavis goes back to Mercury Minnesota, she is attempting to regress to a previous point in her life where she felt vindicated. There is something deeply disturbing in the way Mavis characterises her mission as a rescue mission to save her beau from a longtime ago, from the confines of a town she despises. Her contempt is not shared by other human beings, and when she discovers this, she is most perturbed. The resulting self-loathing is actually endearing in a strange way.
The film has echoes of other films where the past is traced over with unsure footsteps – half of John Cusack’s film catalogue seems to echo this impulse, but this film is actually an antithesis to such excursions. In many ways it has more in common with the bile of ‘Greenberg’ starring Ben Stiller than say, the slanted irony of ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ or ‘High Fidelity’. This film wants to go beyond the wry irony of remembering the Gen X coming of age. It wants to tear it down and set it alight. It’s brazen, fresh and liberating that way.
I guess we’re getting to the point in history where Gen-X nostalgia is becoming a kind of new stomping ground. What’s interesting is the degree to which self-loathing seems to be a part of the Gen-X Goes Home movies. Compared to the Baby Boomer classics like ‘The Big Chill’ or ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’, the Gen-X movies about going back seem to be about self-loathing at the centre of our being. The past is couched as an impractical hindrance in this film; an obstacle for the soul. it’s a very long way from the affirmation found in ‘The Big Chill’.