6/26/10

Grown-Ups: Movie Review from a Feminist Perspective

Every year, one of my nieces comes to visit my husband and I for a week over the summer. We try to plan fun activities for her to do. This year we took her to a couple of art museums, a jazz concert, her first comic book store, and we also did fun things at home like painting our nails and playing video games. On the last day of our visit, we decided to see a movie in the morning and she wanted to see, “Grown-Ups”. I did too as a matter of fact, I’m a big Kevin James fan from his days on, “King of Queens” and the previews looked like some innocent summer fun on top of a fairly safe PG-13 rating. (Though parents be warned, one stipulation of the PG-13 rating is that the film can contain at least one f-bomb. Though none are present in, “Grown Ups”.)

Speaking of Kevin James, you can sense in the film that he's sort of the replacement for what would've been the Chris Farley character. But he has his own unique brand of comedy that I hope will help critics stop making those comparisons once and for all. If you don't know much about him, I would highly recommend renting some, "King of Queens" or some of his stand-up to get a feel for his style.

First of all, I’m happy to report that I genuinely liked the movie...

Though it has some foibles, that we’ll get to in a moment, the film is genuinely family friendly. Not only that, but it’s also family-centric. It’s funny, it’s enjoyable to see these guys who are obviously friends in real life working together on screen, and on top of that this is honestly the perfect summer movie. Though that sounds like a line straight from the commercials, but it’s true. There’s a lake, a lake house, a rope swing, a picnic, and a vacation vibe in general that makes it the perfect movie for the upcoming Fourth of July weekend.

In Adam Sandler movies from years past, where women were typically just there to serve beer in a bikini or reward him with sexual activity for academic or sports-related progress, here they get to be actual people! Real live people with a more three-dimensional and emotional story. Though this is definitely a movie written by men and made for men (nothing wrong with that) the women get a larger part than they usually do and one can sense that Sandler and company are genuinely trying to be more respectful and inclusive of their female characters. They don’t always hit the mark with that intended change, but their effort seems sincere.

Though we do get some of the stereotypical “nag” jokes, but hey…those are funny in a small amount. These men seemed to be at a time in life when they were feeling emasculated, but their problems stemmed from their own lack of action, not from the action of their wives, so that was a refreshing change in the writing. Though the story teeters around blaming the women for the men's problems, hallelujah, it never really does.

Here there are four wife characters, one a successful fashion designer (Salma Hayek), one the family breadwinner (Maya Rudolph), one a caring but misguided housewife (Maria Bello), and one an older hippie who ends up actually helping everyone in the film and not just being there for jokes. But when she is, prepare for some gross-out humor based on the inexplicably “hot for the elderly” Rob Schneider character. This is another feature of the film, vignette-like jokes that don’t always get fully fleshed out. Why is he so into older women? We have no idea. Then again, we don’t really need to know.

There's a mother character that tags along too, not for much other reason than some gas jokes and old jokes and weight jokes. This would've been offensive, except for the fact that Rob Scnheider sort of serves the same purpose, as does David Spade. If you understand Sandler's humor, you know that his comedy is broad, cartoon broad, and so what might be offensive in any other context is just part of the game here. Also, I'm not one of those feminists that thinks you can't make any jokes out of female characters at all. I'm more in the Tina Fey school of "anyone is fair game" along with any subject matter as long as there's a level playing field of mockery.

Of course, it takes a while for us to get anything from the female characters resembling real emotion, but once we get rolling, portrayals seem more fair than the overtly sexist films of Sandler’s past. I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that Adam Sandler now has two adorable young daughters that will someday grow up to be women. One can only wonder. Whatever it is that made the difference, I liked it. Because even though it was a movie for men by men, I now had characters to identify with while watching that weren’t simply present to be pleasing to the male gaze. Filmmakers take note, non-sexist plots will make you more money at the box office.

Okay, so there was one slow-mo cheerleaders running scene, but it was the wives cheering on their husbands, and quite frankly, I'd rather see the camera trained on the wife characters as being the visually appealing ones than some random girl bending over a car. (next paragraph down) In fact, there was almost a sweetness to the scene where the wives paraded in to cheer their husbands on in cute little outfits. Though my fellow feminists may hunt me down for saying so. But part of any healthy relationship is finding your partner attractive and I don't want there to be such a feminist backlash that we say any woman who wants to be attractive, or is, is a traitor. That just doesn't seem fair. I'd rather have my husband say that Salma Hayek is attractive over Paris Hilton. (And he does.) Because at least she seems like a real woman with a real figure, like most of the wives in this film.  (He also likes Kate Winslet, which brings me enormous waves of pride.)

In all fairness, there are still several parts that made me wince, especially with my 14-year-old niece by my side. There is one sequence, you’ve seen it in the preview, where a clearly under-aged girl dressed far too scantily leans over a car in a highly suggestive manner so that the older married men can gawk at her. Kind of gross and definitely not realistic. Women don’t lean over their cars that way dressed like that for anything other than a Whitesnake video. We’re not stupid, we really don’t care to get hot oil or steam burns all over ourselves while tinkering with our cars, and we don’t lick our lips and make come-hither eyes at an engine.

But oddly, I found myself forgiving these clearly exploitative moments, and my niece simply got through it by looking at me and rolling her eyes. In all fairness, I had a lot to explain to her at the comic book store too when she asked me why every female superhero has to have a double D bosom that seems to be exempt from the rules of gravity. So what made these moments less enraging as a female viewer? Because they were always there for a set-up, a delivery, or a turn to the joke. Once, when the “hot chick” character gets a wedgie sliding down a water slide and the camera zooms in on her rear, it’s only because in a second a man comes sliding down the slide and we see the exact same shot. Is it high art? No. But it’s a time-tested comedy staple that still works. And I laughed.

I think that even though it’s a less than perfect movie from a feminist perspective, we should reward efforts like this for making significant changes in clich├ęd narratives. Oh geez…I slip into grad school literary talk so easily. That is to say, we should look at the movie as a whole not chop it up into parts. What we have here is a really funny, fairly innocent summer comedy that was genuinely entertaining. In the end, nobody has cheated on their spouse, the husbands and wives are all closer and happier than they were at the beginning of the film, and the kids in the movie played a huge part and were also treated as real characters and not just fodder for jokes. That’s a huge step in the right direction for an audience that has grown up with Sandler movies to be able to have a new type, a new brand of Sandler to be able to enjoy with their kids without wincing.

Not only is this type of movie rare in it's getting-closer-to-the-mark with a less sexist plot, it's honestly a kinder gentler film than most when it comes to the Bechdel Test. (For more info on this feminist film rule, watch a video HERE.)

There’s also something effectively sentimental about the movie. Not only do we get a more mature even if flawed version of the wives and women, a more involved story arc for the kids, we get a sincere argument for male friendships and male bonding. The five male friends, around which the movie centers, have relationships based almost solely around teasing. Some of it, admittedly, was greek to me. But I’ve seen this type of male camaraderie in action and I know that teasing sometimes equals love among male friends. These guys are like brothers, closer even because there’s no rivalry. In fact, this movie accidentally explained some things to me about male friendships that I didn't understand before. (i.e. that teasing to men doesn't always equal "mean" as it does in girl world.)

Is it safe for your kids to see? Depends on how much you sensor what your kids watch. If you let them see, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” this is a similar type of film. A few dirty jokes, some that will go over the kids’ heads and just a few lingering shots of female body parts…oh yeah, and David Spade’s nude behind. For whatever reason, male bottoms on film are always funny. Maybe because women don’t typically look at men in the same way that men look at women. (For this same reason, there's a sequence on film at the water park where the women are gawking at an "attractive" life guard that feels a bit forced, but to harmless effect. Though I don't find many women that are honestly into the whole "beefcake" image. Never been a fan myself.)

I would say this is, by far, the safest Sandler film ever made for kids. On top of that, it happens to be very current. Most of the kids upon arrival to the lake house, have no idea how to play outside. Many of them are undisciplined, snobby and entitled. It’s fun to watch the kids learn how to have real fun, and I have to admit, the sequence at the water park didn’t help this particular critic’s newest bout of baby fever. If you want kids, this movie will make that an even bigger problem with its populist look at what childhood can be. Actually, it might be very cool for Sandler to make a kids' movie sometime in the future that he has written himself, even the back story to, "Grown Ups" seems like it would've been a fun stand-alone movie. (Did he write, "Bedtime Stories"?)

If you liked John Candy’s John Hughes movies, the National Lampoon’s vacation series, or any of the SNL alumni present in the film, absolutely go see it. You won’t be disappointed. If you have a young daughter, the film might be a good gateway to discussing the portrayal of women on film. After all, if we censored what our kids watched based on sexism alone, they wouldn’t see much of anything at all. Better to watch it with them and talk about it and after all, no movie is perfect in any regard. In fact, this film is a great introduction to talking about lots of things, texting, video games, playing outside, marriage, and all of the above.

Aside from all that, it’s just good plain summer fun. Despite my snobby ways, I give it a big thumbs up. In fact, I'd like to see a sequel, since the cast had such genuine chemistry. If you can’t get your inner critic to shut up, this movie might be just the thing.


1 comment:

Lizz said...

I think it's a big mistake to forgive the underage-girl scenes as forgivable in the name of "plain old summer fun." What I saw were a bunch of scenes (at least three) where the underage girls are plainly oggled at by older men, (and of course the filming encourages the viewer to do the same), and the more realistic looking young girls are written off as ugly hags.

Writing that fetishizes young girls and forgives the sort of comedy where a guy's 45-year-old friends are constantly hitting on and ogling his teenage daughters, (in the real world we call that molestation) is a big big mistake. This happens throughout the film; and the second-fiddle wife characters do little to offset this.