A new writer, one Brian Malone, has joined the 10YA party, and he brought a trial of fire upon himself by choosing to write about what he considered to be the worst movie he’d ever seen. After a rewatch, has he changed his position on this gross-out comedy?
For the last ten years, I’ve said that The Sweetest Thing is the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure this is strictly true, because I did walk out of Stay Tuned in 1992. But even so, I’ve had absolutely toxic memories of this film for the last decade. In a way, choosing this movie as my first review for 10YA is somewhere between a trial and a dare. Could I stand to sit through it again? And can I write something worthwhile about it?
I first watched The Sweetest Thing under somewhat novel circumstances. I was living in Virginia and it was summer and my friends and I decided it would be a lark to see a double feature at an honest-to-goodness drive-in in the country. And while I’m not particularly nostalgic, it was hard to resist the lure of such a classic American experience as a night at the drive-in. I mean, I could be sitting right behind Danny and Sandy when he gets fresh with her! And maybe that would make me Stockard Channing and that would be soooo cool.
But it wasn’t cool, of course. For one thing, paying attention to a movie at a drive-in is really difficult. It’s not exactly an immersive environment: there are people sitting in lawn chairs next to their cars, kids running wild and unsupervised, mosquitoes. The sound is bad and you occasionally miss dialogue. And, it turns out, even though you are only there to see Panic Room (and you really do want to seePanic Room), first you have to sit through a movie you’ve never heard of. A movie called The Sweetest Thing.
It’s not hard to trace the genealogy of Sweetest Thing to the blockbuster gross-out comedies of the late 1990s. There’s Something About Mary and American Pie were major box office hits (and, both arguably and regrettably, films that shaped the sensibilities of a whole generation). You can almost hear the studio pitch for Sweetest Thing: “It’s a gross-out about, wait for it, women!” Of course, once you have that concept, the script writes itself. In fact, I would be willing to believe that the script did write itself, because I would rather not believe that there exists a human being named Nancy Pimental who spent more than fifteen minutes of her life writing this script.*
The plot, of course, is not the point here and to be honest, I didn’t follow it too closely that night at the drive-in. Cameron Diaz plays someone who wants to meet Tom Jane.** She has a friend who is, in real life, Christina Applegate and another friend who is, in real life, Selma Blair. They go on a road trip to find Tom Jane. Then they find Tom Jane. Easy as pie. The theatrical release clocks in at 84 minutes.
In a way, it actually makes less sense to sum up this film as a coherent narrative than as a list of gags. I mean gag in two senses here, because the humor in the film is intended to push the envelope of gross-out comedy. And there are indeed some gross moments in this movie, including one that spoiled my appetite for the fancy sandwiches we had packed to eat in the car at the drive-in. There’s the requisite puking, of course. And an impossibly aerodynamic foil swan filled with rotting food that chases our heroines down the interstate (don’t ask).
But what annoyed me more than the gross-outs the first time I watched the film was how ridiculously contrived they all were. This remains the problem, I think, with these kinds of comedies: repeat gags aren’t allowed. The whole thing has developed into a kind of arms race, in which each new gross-out comedy has to outdo every previous one in terms of outrageousness. Remember how much narrative effort it took to get semen into Cameron Diaz’s hair in There’s Something About Mary? Then American Pie followed and had to find a more elaborate way of getting semen into Stifler’s beer. And the next thing you know, we’re watching poor Selma Blair squirm as her date’s dried semen ends up in the mouth of her dry cleaner while her elementary school teacher and parish priest watch. It’s all just so terribly, terribly exhausting.
So now it’s a decade later and I agreed to watch it again. Some things were different this time. For one thing, I paid more attention. I’m also a better reader than I was ten years ago. And this time, I watched the unrated version — with six extra minutes of unreleased footage!
It’s still the worst movie I’ve ever seen.
The first thing I noticed this time is that The Sweetest Thing is really poorly written, although I’m pretty sure Nancy Pimental doesn’t realize this. The dialogue is lazy, with a few misplaced bursts of self-conscious cleverness. For example, the script is so proud of itself for using a “hip” slang word like “bah-jiggity” that it has to use it four more times — just so we don’t miss how “cool” and “fun” it is. Yet when an actual comedic presence like Parker Posey*** shows up for a cameo, the script has doesn’t even try to come up with something interesting for her to say. As I write this sentence, I have just watched this movie three hours ago and I honestly cannot remember one line that came out of her mouth. Ms Posey would have been better off reading aloud my grocery list — at least there are some comedic possibilities in “bone-in pork chops.”
And things are not any better for the main characters. Here’s a bit of dialogue from the first minute of the first meeting between our protagonist and her eventual love interest:
Cameron Diaz: Maybe if you didn’t play it so safe, Mr. Safety-Poo, you might meet a girl you could have fun with.
Tom Jane: This brilliant love advice comes from one who loves to play games with men. Always in control. That way, she never has to get too close. Nice manners, by the way.
This comes off as a hodge-podge of clumsy characterization (“That way, she never has to get too close”) and embarrassing attempts at cuteness (“Mr. Safety-Poo”?) and it certainly doesn’t make these characters interesting or likeable. And while it is perhaps churlish to expect Bogie and Bacall from a movie in which Cameron Diaz gets poked in the eye with a penis, I still don’t want to live in a world where “Nice manners, by the way” qualifies as a snappy comeback.
There is one way, however, in which the skills of the writer and director are evident and that’s in creating a film that is surprisingly skillful at hiding misogyny beneath a veneer of feminism. I remember that I was originally somewhat uncomfortable with the sexual politics of the film, but it wasn’t until I watched again ten years later that this movie’s despicable sleight-of-hand became fully apparent to me. Here’s the trick: Pimental and director Roger Kumble have made a film that hates women (and I mean hates them) and packaged it as a film that empowers women. It’s like The Taming of the Shrewmasquerading as Thelma & Louise. And it’s vile.
The movie seems to have sprung from a laudable feminist impulse: letting women be just as gross, crude, and sexual on screen as men. The crass-but-effective pre-credits set the tone, representing our protagonist as the embodiment of a version of sex-positive feminism, in which women claim the same sexual freedom as men. We see excerpts from interviews with men who she has dumped, men who she has slept with and never called, and men who she never called in the first place. She is, as one man says, “not the commitment type.” One of the more boorish dumpees suggests that any woman who is not interested in him must be a lesbian, which causes a spontaneous mob of women to mete out just deserts for his sexist presumption. And just in case that was all too subtle, the credits provide panoramic shots of the San Francisco skyline, set to the strains of Macy Gray’s “Sexual Revolution.” Hmm, do you think this movie might be about sexual liberation?
And indeed, the first scenes with Diaz, Applegate, and poor Selma Blair establish their liberated bona fides. They dance as they walk down the street. They unabashedly talk about sex. They have bare midriffs, but also professional careers (about which we never hear again, of course). And they have a philosophy. As Diaz and Applegate counsel Blair, who is something of their protegé, a women needs to disregard the “relationship propaganda” of the self-help industry and focus on “Mr. Right Now.” As advice goes, it’s actually not bad — I spent half of the last decade following much the same path. Now I don’t want to make too much of a claim for the “feminism” of these opening scenes (and not only because none of them would actually pass the Bechdel Test****), but there is indeed something appealing about the confidence and ease with which these seemingly strong women negotiate their world.
This can’t last, of course. As we know well, the arc of romantic comedy bends toward monogamy. And that’s fine, I guess. There are certainly good reasons for some women (and men) to settle into committed relationships and to embrace a version of the “relationship propaganda.” But The Sweetest Thing is not about good reasons; instead, it is about humiliating women who dare to violate traditional sex roles.
And that’s where the gross-out humor comes in. Most of the gags in the film are designed to debase the women characters for thinking they can act like men. Christina Applegate thinks she can pee in a urinal like a man? A gusher of urinal water will teach her! Does Cameron Diaz think that she can invade the stalls of a men’s bathroom and ogle a glory hole? She deserves a penis in the eye!
The movie makes its most concerted effort in enforcing the sexual double standard by brutally punishing poor Selma Blair for engaging in a casual sexual relationship. I’ve already mentioned the scene in which she brings her semen-stained dress to her neighborhood dry cleaner, only to find herself in the presence of multiple authority figures from her childhood. And if this doesn’t seem mean-spirited enough, consider the film’s climactic gag (pun intended — wait for it), where Diaz and Applegate return home to find the spectacle of poor Selma Blair with a penis stuck in her throat. And yes, I mean literally stuck in her throat (something about a penis piercing and her tonsils). And yes, I mean spectacle, because this tableau has attracted a crowd of hundreds of people into her apartment, including police, firemen, EMTs, a nun, a construction worker, a pizza delivery guy, two leather daddies, etc. In other words, the city of San Francisco has turned out to make fun of poor Selma Blair for fellating someone. This is some world-class slut shaming. All that’s missing is a narrator exhorting us to “Look at this dumb slut!”
You might think I’m being too sensitive here. After all, isn’t the point of all gross-out comedy to humiliate the characters (who, in this case, just happen to be women)? Except that you can humiliate women without humiliating them for being “naughty” (read: sexual) women. And as Exhibit A, I’d like to submit Bridesmaids, a successful woman-focused movie with lots of embarrassing (even humiliating) situations and at least a little gross-out humor. And never in Bridesmaids do you find yourself thinking, “That wouldn’t have happened to her if she hadn’t been acting like a man.” The comparison between the two films is instructive. While The Sweetest Thing looked ugly to me in 2002, ten years later, in our post-Bridesmaids world, it looks absolutely foul.
But I hate to end this piece on such a down note. And so, I am willing to admit that there was one bright spot in my re-viewing of The Sweetest Thing and that bright spot is Jason Bateman. Ten years ago, Bateman’s bearded presence in this film wasn’t worth my notice; but that was before Arrested Development, and before we met, and before we fell in love and got married. So now, because Jason Bateman is my husband, it’s enjoyable to see him in this movie — even though the script gives him precious little to work with. If there is one moment in this film that I wouldn’t mind watching again, it’s his performance of the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” But even so, I would still rather watch Panic Room.
*But alas, Nancy Pimental does indeed exist.
** The names of the characters are so forgettable and irrelevant — indeed, the characters themselves are so forgettable and irrelevant — that I just can’t bear to address them by “name.” Instead, throughout the review, I’ll be referring to the characters by the names of the actors.
*** I was going to call her “the Divine Parker Posey,” but if there’s one thing that this movie proves, it’s that even Parker Posey is mortal when she has a bad script in her hands.
**** The Bechdel Test was developed by Alison Bechdel as a way to measure women’s presence in television and films. And while The Sweetest Thing is full of women who talk to each other, they almost never talk about anything other than men. You can read more about it here: http://bechdeltest.com/