What if your nightmare crazy ex had super powers, and was all too willing to use them on you?
(On the other hand, what if you totally deserved it, because, hey, what kind of idiot would dump Uma Thurman?)
Uma Thurman has had an interesting career arc, one that shows a perhaps unusually lopsided mix of strengths and weaknesses as an actor — some of those strengths being quite under-appreciated. In particular, her ability to be funny.
She started in Hollywood as a nineteen year old model, and for a brief period she just may have been the most beautiful human being alive. She also showed that when called on to emote, she could be a strong actress, but at other times, she could be quite flat. In just a few years her looks receded to a merely human level, and her career receded to a series of minor, forgettable melodramas. But in the middle of this slump, there was one film that stood out and got people talking, at least among people I knew: a comedy.
The Truth About Cats And Dogs was mostly a formula rom-com, and offensively stupid at times, but it interestingly used the classic plot of Cyrano de Bergerac to take on the issue of how we judge women by looks — perhaps especially, how women prejudge each other and themselves. It cast Janeane Garofalo as a smart, funny woman we’re supposed to root for, who happens to be short and dumpy. And it cast Uma as a tall, thin, dumb model, whom Janeane accidentally sets up as her rival in love. It wasn’t a particularly good film, and neither actress looks back on it fondly, but it certainly made an impression: for a while, all the guys in my circle were discussing the question “Uma or Janeane?”, just as years earlier guys had debated “Ginger or Maryanne?”. And just as most people claimed to prefer Maryanne, most guys I knew went along with the bias of the movie and picked Janeane. But for me, one little thing went wrong with the movie that moved me to vote for Uma.
Despite all intentions in the opposite direction, Uma was funnier than Janeane.
Then Quentin Tarantino came along and Uma’s career found a whole new direction. One that mixed action with comic touches. And perhaps the action-movie stuff she did in Kill Bill is the main reason that she got cast as a superhero, but for me, it’s long overdue that she got to star in some pure comedy. Women with impressive looks often have a hard time finding their way into comedy careers; Jamie Lee Curtis, for instance, had to wade through tons of dreck before people realized that comedy was where she belonged. (Come to think of it, her father went through exactly the same thing, because they kept trying to cast him as a heartthrob. I suppose the problem isn’t just for women.) Uma herself has said “I’ve been wanting to do comedy forever.”
And that brings us to the one key question that one has in reviewing a comedic film: is it funny? The answer: yes. I laughed. Luke Wilson as Matt Saunders, the guy who dumps her because she’s too difficult to deal with, may be a one-note actor, but he’s funny and believable. Uma makes her character Jenny Johnson’s moments of neurotic histrionics touching, frightening, and laugh-provoking all at once, just as the movie requires. She’s the only one you could describe as giving a strong performance. Rainn Wilson (no relation to Luke) plays Luke’s horndog best friend — a character full of chauvanistic relationship advice but about as suave as Mikey Teutul. (There may be a bit of, ahem, influence from The 40 Year Old Virgin here.) Wanda Sykes is funny, and Anna Faris, whose job is to be the sweet & pretty one, also squeezes some laughs through the role. The funniest of all, for the little time he’s on screen, is Eddie Izzard as Uma’s supervillain foe, “Dr. Bedlam”.
(Jenny Johnson’s superhero name is “G-Girl”, by the way. Uma came up with that herself. They were going to use “X-Girl” but for some reason that ran into legal trouble. [Gee, I wonder why?] She says she picked the letter G partly for “the sexual connotation”.)
The comedy is pretty slick and Hollywood, and the degree of personality disorder manifested by G-Girl is a bit of a stretch — I mean, wouldn’t you expect needy, clingy behavior to be something that goes along with a person being lacking in empowerment? But on the other hand, some superheroes ain’t necessarily born to be heroic types, they have to learn on the job... isn’t it more or less inevitable that sooner or later there would be one who turned out to be badly lacking in impulse control? I’m sure if superheroes started cropping up for real, that’s the first thing we’d start worrying about. Whatever, the film works whether the character is unlikely or not. Only the tying up of loose ends to make an improbably pat happy ending creates any real weak spot.
I do like the style of how they handle a lot of the comedy. Much of the time they avoid big punchlines and just let awkward situations speak for themselves. For instance, there’s a scene where Matt Saunders tries a Chinese phrase learned by rote on some visiting businessmen, and we strongly suspect that he’s gotten it wrong and said something embarrassing, but they never follow it up with an explanation of “what you actually said was” — they just leave us with the businessmen’s expressions. I like that.
There are many ways the film could have gone wrong. The part emphasized in the trailers is when G-Girl goes wacko and starts to use super powers to ruin her ex’s life. If they’d filled two thirds of the film with this, it would have been pure misery. But luckily, only a fairly short section of the film is spent on this phase. Unfortunately, there’s a tradeoff: this means that they spend an hour setting up a situation that, thanks to the trailers, you’re anticipating from the beginning.
There remains one more important question. What about the super action??? Really, it’s not bad. G-Girl gets several scenes to use her powers to the fullest, doing good and otherwise. The effects show their budgetary limitations but are still about as good as state-of-the-art effects of a decade or two ago. They even get a superpower fight in, and they actually do better than any previous super-movie at understanding how fast such a fight would be — the combatants become a blur, which would be unworkable in an action film but fits in perfectly here. And by damn, when G-Girl goes into action and saves something, you’ll chant “G-Girl! G-Girl!” right along with the bystanders, because hey, seeing a superhero pull off a fabulous rescue is the sort of thing that could make anyone cheer if they really saw it, and this film captures that aspect effortlessly.
So, this is a film that, though it may be slick Hollywood comedy, I appreciated quite a bit, and I very much look forward to Uma doing more comedy.