Monday, February 16, 2009

"I won't be calling this movie back," or "Let's Hear it for the Girls"

I took away a surprising amout of truth from He's Just Not That Into You. But none of it was from the content of the film. I have lately been very drawn to the power and pleasure of great performances, and this film, more than any other in recent memory, is a reminder that the overall quality of a movie does not necessarily reflect on the quality of the work done within that film. Simply put, the film sucks but the acting is wonderful.

In a film that would appear, from its title, to be espousing what "He" feels, "She" takes center stage with force and with grace. The four lead actresses of He's Just Not That Into You--Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Aniston, and Scarlett Johansson--are so good that it's almost shocking that their talent didn't rub off onto the rest of the film.

Goodwin has always been a delight on screen, and in what is essentially the leading role in the film, she is positively electric, bursting with energy and a quirky humanity. The fact that she plays such an emotional dimwit lays even more credit at her feet--she takes an impossible character and makes us love her.

Connelly is an almost unmatched wonder in the film, taking an equally difficult character--in this case an incompletely-drawn wife of a philandering husband--and makes her powerfully humane. She creates moments of such powerful emotional honesty that, almost in spite of the filmmakers' intent to turn her into a nagging shrew, I felt more for her character than any other in the film.

Aniston also glows with an increasing amount of relationship dissolutionment. It is easy to forget, amid all the tabloid gossip, that Aniston is a truly talented actress. And from this actress known for her comedic talent, I see from this performance that her strongest skills as an actor are conveying the sad moments, projecting a festering anger with the world. She may, in fact, draw on some of the stresses of her real life. And in a strange, perpendicular synthesis of actor and character, this is one of Aniston's best performances.

It is similarly easy to forget Scarlett Johansson's talent, and it might be especially easy to overlook the power of her work in this film, where she is essentially written as a bimbo with conflicting motivations and actions. But Johansson finds the soul of this character and turns her into an identifiable human being.

All this wonderful acting, and it went into a film that is a well-meaning near-miss at best, and an annoying piece of psycho-babble bubblegum at worst. He's Just Not That Into You is clearly an ambitious attempt to blend stories of heartbreak into the ultimate we-are-all-in-the-same-boat romantic comedy. All this talent had to be lured somehow, so these actors obviously believed in the material, but that material threatens to ruin all their good work by portraying their characters as alternately desperate, naive, stupid, and crazy. 

I like to think I have some wisdom about the inner workings of relationships, and I've channeled that wisdom into a few screenplays of my own. The number one thing I know from this experience is that the writer must care about the characters. Otherwise, those characters become talking props, stooges of the screenplay, pawns of a paint-by-numbers story. He's Just Not That Into You cares nothing about these characters other than to use them as clumsy object lessons on how not to behave in relationships. But I'm not taking this film's advice to save my life. I'd believe the actors, but not the filmmakers.

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