Watching “Lars and the Real Girl” recently, I had the feeling that I’d seen this story before. The movie stars Ryan Gosling as a lonely weirdo who purchases a life-size sex doll, imbues her with a saintly personality (she’s a celibate paraplegic missionary who loves kids) and introduces her to his brother and sister-in-law as his girlfriend, Bianca. Naturally, they are horrified, as is everyone else in the small Midwestern town where they live. But on the advice of the town shrink, they all agree to play along with the illusion that “Bianca” is real until Lars is good and ready to snap out of it. But a funny thing happens to the town after they agree to treat Bianca as a person. They start to enjoy spending time with her alone. They embrace her as part of the community. They elect her to the school board. They succumb to mass delusion, forgetting how crazy it once seemed. ¶ It was during the everybody-loves-Bianca montage that it hit me why Lars and Bianca looked so familiar. “Lars and the Real Girl” may be a self-consciously cute, low-budget art-house comedy, but its central conceit is a perfect metaphor for what’s happened to male and female characters in mainstream comedies. He’s a schlub, she’s beautiful. He’s active, she’s passive. He’s maladjusted, she’s placid. He’s unreliable and immature, she’s patient and forgiving. He’s funny and charming, she’s conventional and dull. He’s the subject, she’s the object. He’s human, she’s a piece of plastic with a fantasy projected on it. ¶ When actress Isla Fisher remarked on the dearth of decent comedy roles for women earlier this month (“I realized after ‘Wedding Crashers’ there aren’t that many comic opportunities for women in Hollywood,” she told Details magazine. “All the scripts are for men and you play ‘the girl’ ”), the comment was widely picked up, with most of the headlines making some allusion to feminism. The idea that a girl might play anything other than “the girl” in a studio comedy is so far out of the mainstream that it’s considered an experimental concept, not to mention a major financial risk. It seems that not a week goes by without a dust-up about the alleged misogyny of studio executives, or a lament about the state of women’s careers in Hollywood, or an explosion of frustration on feminist blogs. Meanwhile, newspapers are constantly running trend pieces trumpeting women’s happy retreat from the public sphere, and publishers are releasing dating books suggesting that women stop being so picky. No wonder Susan Faludi’s new book makes a case about the marginalization of women in the terror age -- there has to be some explanation for why, increasingly, girls are reduced to playing “the girl,” not just in studio comedies but in life.
The culture is completely obsessed with the gender roles and the relationship between the sexes, but the traditional comedy of the sexes is for all intents and purposes dead. This is particularly troubling because, of all the genres, comedy is the most dependent on the inherent interestingness of a character’s point of view. It relies above all on our ability to connect on a human level with the character, to be drawn in by their underdog charisma, to delight in their cleverness, to relate to their ability to recognize the stupidity of those around them, to empathize with their doomed, convention-flouting lunacy. So what does it mean to play “the girl” in mainstream comedies these days? For one thing, “the girl” and “the hot girl” have merged to produce a gorgeous, well-meaning, inoffensive love-object devoid of any motivating purpose and quite possibly manufactured in Stepford. “The girl” exists to be won by the hero, and yet to win her he must do nothing more than be himself. If, on the other hand, she has her own ideal in mind when it comes to a romantic partner, we never get to know what that ideal might be. It’s up to the hero to prove himself worthy, usually by simply capitulating to “a commitment,” at which point “the girl” has gotten what she wanted and can die happy. The formula is adhered to even when it effectively eliminates conflict and comedic situations.
‘The girl’ as wife
When “the girl’s” desires conflict substantially with the hero’s desires -- that is, when “the girl” happens also to be “the wife"-- her desires are presented as hidebound, reactionary, conventional and dull. Funny actresses (we know they’re funny because we’ve seen them on TV) get cast in mainstream comedies all the time, but more often than not, they’re scolds or nags or ciphers. (See: Lauren Graham in “Evan Almighty,” or Lauren Bowles in “The Heartbreak Kid,” or Sarah Silverman in “School of Rock.”) You wonder if there’s some weird economic principle in their being cast. Like it’s the entertainment industry equivalent of the government paying farmers not to grow corn.
“The (hot) girl” so thoroughly displaced the loopy broad -- that venerable type -- from American comedy, that it’s hard to imagine where comedians such as Madeline Kahn, Bernadette Peters, Lily Tomlin, Diane Keaton or even Julia Roberts would fit in today. Funny actresses such as Isla Fisher, Amy Adams and Amanda Bynes just don’t have the same options those actresses had. Part of the reason this has happened is that slavish devotion to demographics has parsed all of humanity into absurdly reductive roles, in which one sector has been deemed the most important. The culture has been gerrymandered, labeling as “male” all movies that don’t pander specifically to subjects only women are presumed to care about.
As David Denby pointed out in an essay in the New Yorker this summer about “the new comedy of the sexes,” the old masters of the screwball comedy “knew that the story would be not only funnier but much more romantic if the fight was waged between equals. The man and woman may not enjoy parity of social standing or money, but they are equals in spirit, will, and body.” Nobody watching today’s mainstream comedies could make the case that this theory still holds, just as nobody would still try to argue that unabashed, unrepentant hegemony of one group over another (less privileged) group is inherently funny. But that’s where mainstream comedies are now -- and as a result, men aren’t as funny anymore.
Here’s a case in point: In the original “Heartbreak Kid,” Charles Grodin plays an insecure, neurotic guy who falls in love with a beautiful woman he meets on his honeymoon. But the beautiful woman is also vain and cold and manipulates Grodin’s character for the sake of it. The point of the movie -- the reason it’s funny and painful and instantly recognizable as a deeply human comedy -- is that vanity and self-delusion can lead a guy to make a dubious choice and that getting what you want might turn out to be something different from what you expected. The film satirized a certain mind-set -- it made fun of a guy who was too dumb to look past appearances and too ready to conform to the rules of a world that has no interest in enfolding him in its chilly embrace.
The new “Heartbreak Kid,” by contrast, is about none of those things. Presumably because it stars Ben Stiller and because Stiller’s credentials as a movie star and movie-star husband make it -- what? Unimaginable? Uncomfortable? Illegal? -- for him to appear in a movie with a love interest who is even remotely his physical equal, the part of the ordinary first wife goes to a paragon of model-y pulchritude, rather than to any number of comedians (Silverman, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, newcomer Charlyne Yi) who at this point only Christopher Hitchens, who graced Vanity Fair with his exegesis “Why Women Aren’t Funny” last January, would deem less funny than Mr. Stiller. The result: Instead of a story about a guy who dumps his ordinary wife for a beautiful woman he hardly knows, the movie becomes an exercise in the systematic degradation and humiliation of “the hot girl,” who despite being 10 times more attractive and 10 years younger than Stiller, never once doubts her desire to be with him.
In fact, the easy attainability of the perfect woman has become such a given in mainstream studio comedies that winning her over hardly functions as a plot point anymore. All the guy has to do is show up. “Knocked Up” was purportedly about how a slobby stoner and a beautiful TV celebrity interviewer fall into an unlikely love, but it barely bothers to work out exactly how Seth Rogen’s character, Ben, manages to win over Katherine Heigl’s character, Alison, or to convince us that she’s happy with what she gets.
Indulging the fantasy
TO make her (let’s face it) pretty sad fate seem more palatable, she’s denied close friends, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, potential boyfriends and even an independent life. (She lives in her big sister’s backyard, despite what has to be a pretty decent salary. Meanwhile, the biggest story of the real estate boom was the fact that single women made up the single biggest group of house-buyers, but no matter.) Alison is allowed to express her frustration with Ben’s behavior, but she’s never given a moment -- as he is, repeatedly -- to hash out her existential issues, her hopes, her dreams, her revulsion, with a group of close friends. At the same time, the movie is strangely defensive of Rogen’s character, to the point that it truncates potentially funny scenes if they threaten to show him in an unforgivable light. When Alison calls Ben to tell him she’s pregnant, he suggests they meet at -- yes -- Geisha House. During dinner, he tells her that he has only a couple of hundred dollars to his name. So what happens when the check comes? That’s for Apatow to know and for you to find out. You have to assume this particular geisha pays, but the movie spares us the uncomfortable sight of Ben’s emasculation by credit card.
The “likability” of the male hero has become such an imperative in American comedies -- even in small, woman-written ones such as “Lars” -- that a movie will sooner make a nice guy out of a dude in love with an anatomically correct Barbie than give us a girl’s point of view. Meanwhile, movies that might have been funny, or funnier, had they allowed the female characters to be anything more than fantasy projections end up twisting themselves into logical knots to make heroes out of male characters that anyone can see are mean, dumb, boring or nuts. Vanity and preening high self-regard are always funny, of course, but only if they’re treated as absurd and deluded and only if they get their comeuppance. But the dominant comedy paradigm insists that we love the jerk without reservations (even though “The Jerk” himself was an idiot, and his love interest Bernadette Peters), that we accept and admire his flaws, and that we redirect our ridicule toward the nags, scolds and vision-crushing conformists who would have him shape up. Even “Superbad,” which captured male adolescent geekdom so well and so tenderly by constantly winking at the boys’ insecurities, falls prey to this imperative, as the girls of their dreams wait to be asked out or turn them down gently for nonpersonal reasons. Male-oriented comedy, qua product, has taken it upon itself to pander as it satirizes -- which isn’t really possible.
When you think about the comedies with female protagonists, you have to go way back to movies like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Clueless” or to a bad movie such as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which inverted the fantasy and grossed $354 million worldwide. Maybe there’s a lesson in Tyler Perry’s ability to tap what is clearly some major pent-up demand from an underserved audience. Half the population is a pretty big niche audience.