4/27/10

My Jennifer Lopez Induced Existential Crisis: A Review of the Back-up Plan


I intended to write a review of, "The Back-up Plan" on Friday after seeing it. But I couldn't concentrate thanks to a looming conference paper presentation and a teaching portfolio. With both of those out of the way, I can finally get to my review. But before I do that, I feel like I have to address a larger subject matter at hand...



I have a confession about Jennifer Lopez movies. I'm strangely drawn to them. This makes me feel mildly ashamed of myself. Then I feel guilty for being ashamed of myself. What kind of a snob gets embarrassed about some harmless romantic comedy every now and then? Then I say to my self, but there are so many other romantic comedies that are far better. "Return to Me" and, "The Princess Bride" and any number of classic films from the black and white era. In other words, Jennifer Lopez sends me into frequent existential crises about whether or not I am, indeed, a snob.

You see, I love, "Selena". It's kind of amazing. It's a heartfelt performance from an actress free from the ties of fame and personae. I didn't think much about Jennifer Lopez after that. Until, "Anaconda". Which came out during my freshman year in high school. My Dad took me to see it. We like the adventure genre, and this one looked like it was going to be a great homage to, "The Creature from the Black Lagoon". Even then, I didn't love it. But I was young enough to be able to admit that I had a fun time watching it without feeling embarrassed. It was silly. It was snakesploitation.

Then there was, "Enough". This movie was my first experience with that strange hypnotic effect, the kind that made me feel conflicted watching a movie that I knew was technically "bad". But I liked it anyway. A lot.

I saw it at the dollar theater four times alone when I was in college. Four times! Essentially, "they" had my number. The makers of that film knew just what button to press, just what demographic to strike. As a fan of action, they had created a perfect revenge tale. I almost feel like I can't intellectually explain the appeal of that movie. I can look back on it and tell you that it was formulaic and underdeveloped and unbelievable on multiple levels. But there was something viscerally satisfying about it, even though I knew it was pandering to me. I liked watching Jennifer Lopez get revenge.

There's also, for me, the bonus factor of Jennifer Lopez being so visually distinct. She's not the blonde waif I could never be, she's the fit and curvy, closer to reality role model that I could be. With a personal trainer and a live-in chef. But still...there's some psychological appeal there. It's more fun to watch a movie where you can relate to the lead character closest to who you are in reality, maybe that's why I've never enjoyed the Bond films. Oversexed femme fatales are not my thing.

"Out of Sight" was good. I didn't think, "The Cell" was as bad as everyone made it out to be. Another good, not great. After that, I stopped paying attention for a few years. I'd catch whatever random flick was out when it showed up on cable or when a roomate rented it.

Then came, "Monster In Law", which was the first one that I really couldn't resist. This is when I knew I really had a potential problem on my hands. It was like I was living a double life, this fangirl that read AICN messageboards and wrote long papers about, "The Seventh Seal" who couldn't resist, "Monster In Law"?

Perhaps it's the baggage I carry from living, and sometimes working in, a really overcritical crowd. Movie geeks, you know. But whatever it is, it honestly makes me nervous. I guess it stems from times when I've written articles and shared my personal tastes, once getting lambasted when an interview I did with Doug Jones got posted on AICN as being anti-feminist for liking Parker Posey in, "Waiting For Guffman". Now that I think about...I'm starting to understand where this neuroses comes from...

I practically wore sunglasses and a scarf to the theater for the Fonda/Lopez disaster. (Is that too strong a word? Probably. See the conflict here?) I know, I know...it was kind of awful. But there was Jane Fonda coming out of retirement and that filtered reality of "girl chases dreams" that just draws me like a moth to the flame. There's just something about the romantic comedies that Jennifer Lopez has chosen. They remind me of the old Katherine Hepburn-in-trouble movies. "Caviar comedy," one of my former professors used to call it. Meaning that these movies are designed solely for escapism. Where everyone has a house tastefully decorated and nobody has a spare tire from over-eating or financial troubles and there's nothing ugly about the world. It's a piece of cake in celluloid form. And boy do I love cake...but I wouldn't want people to see me eating those extra slices long after the party is over.

Oh, it happens.


I feel the same way about Lopez's music. I really enjoyed her first album, and then came the marketing machine. The quickly dated hip-hop, the bedazzled everything, the early ots marketing machine that was J.Lo. Maybe that's where I really started drifting away. Hey, who am I to judge what she was doing? Maybe I had simply aged out of her intended demographic? Maybe it was overexposure? Maybe I had just made up my mind while pursuing my film and television studies undergraduate degree that I just wasn't interested anymore. I think I secretly prided myself on avoiding movies and music, "like that".
The juxtaposition between her various forms of triumph started to take me out of the fictional dream of her movies. I didn't know which personae of hers to believe anymore. Was she the humbled actress just happy to be working, her quirky on-screen characters, or the bad-ass hip hop queen from the Bronx? Can a woman be all these things at once, rolled into one? Yes. If they're real qualities. But there was something artificial about the combination in this case. As viewers, how do you allow yourself to feel empowered by her role in, "Enough" and then turn around to see her music videos where she was, essentially, marketing herself as a sex object?
I didn't want to judge Jennifer Lopez, but I also felt like I was being pushed to make a judgement with her constant media presence. Which Lopez did I believe in? It was almost like I had to choose one, and the actress always seemed the most true to me...not because she isn't musically talented. But maybe because pop music, though I love it time and again, is now and will always be a very artifical world. I guess this is the curse that triple threats have to labor under. Do they damage their own credibility by trying to do too much at once? Even if they can pull it all off? So I relgated my relationship with the starlet to catching re-runs of her movies on TBS and listening to, "On The Six" on days when I needed a little pick-me-up.
Then came the advertisements for, "The Back-Up Plan".

All of the sudden, I was interested again. Not because of the pregnancy storyline, not because it was Jennifer Lopez, and not because it came in that shiny white and pink package set to contemporary pop hits.

It was the slapstick. It was the fact that she is no longer queen of the tabloids. (Something we can hardly blame her for. But still...nice to not have to see headlines on their covers about what she's eating for breakfast or where she shops for diapers as I wait in a check-out lane.) It was the fact that there wasn't an album accompanying the movie. Or more pointedly, the fact that there wasn't an album of music I couldn't relate to out. I heard, "Louboutins". I hated it. I'm sorry, I just did. I feel like there's more R&B, more soul in Lopez's voice. And that style of music just feels...below her potential. Luckily, someone just told me she released a Spanish language album not too long ago. Where she actually sings! No synth pop! Not like I don't love a good dance song every now and then. But I couldn't take a whole album of guys rapping behind an auto-tuned Britney Spears-esque lifeless melody.

The excitement I felt over the preview for this movie was the little glimmer of hope that maybe Jennifer Lopez would surrender herself to a role. I saw the movie. She didn't surrender herself, not really. She's still Jennifer Lopez. But...she's likable again. Relatable.
The movie is a strange mix of genre, and just when you think that it's going to be a carbon copy of every other disappointing and lame contemporary romantic comedy, around thirty minutes in, it surprises you. It starts to play with the idea of breaking the mold, creating set-up moments intended to lull you into a false sense of comfort and then breaking it by showing things going wrong. For example, over a romantic dinner, at a particularly healy feely moment, something bursts into flames. And you think to yourself, "Thank God, that was really feeling contrived." So in some ways, the movie is in on it's own joke.

It's not perfect. In fact, it's fundamentally flawed in a lot of ways. We don't know enough about the male lead. He comes across as kind of creepy in the beginning, quite frankly. There are too many characters. (The curse of modern movies. How many sidekicks do you need already?!) It takes the rom-com structure and lives it out three times over the course of the movie, which kind of makes the audience call that end of second act downer's bluff. We know how it's going to end. So it's a movie with problems. For sure. However. It's funny. Hallelujah, it's funny. And there were a few moments that actually shocked me. I had my hands over my mouth with wide eyes during the entire "water birth" sequence.

The film is filled with great character actors that bring the stars up a notch. This isn't the usual movie full of perfectly plastic people. Sure, you have several of those too, but they also sneak in some true weirdos, which always makes a movie better if you ask me. It keeps the film far more grounded in reality.

Speaking of being grounded in reality, this movie does something really amazing. It doesn't edit out all of the, what some may call, yucky pregnancy business. For example, we have a doctor who actually says the word, "vagina" multiple times. There's talk of biological changes and blood flow and weight gain. And these moments always come along just as you're about to give up on the movie. Just when it starts to feel like, "Father of the Bride: Part II". (A movie I enjoy, but come on, it's been done.) Just when you think you know exactly what's going to happen, the characters start telling the truth and we are treated to a brief glimpse of genuine people dealing with their flaws and insecurities.

They encounter parents who are tired and tell you how awful having kids can be, but they also talk about how worth it having children is. This movie attempts to show the full spectrum, and even when it fails, that's a lot more than you can say about most movies with pregnancy as a plot point. I mean how many times can we see the montage of the man tending to the pregnant woman? "Oh, isn't that funny? She's thirsty/in false labor/having a wacky food craving." That's where this movie goes right. It tries to simultaneously embrace and avoid cliches, which is a step in the right direction from simply perpetuating the same old movie time and again just because they know it's bankable.

It attempts something similar in the context of the romantic relationship plot too. Which is refreshing, but sometimes that realistic comedy comes in moments that are far too fleeting and much too far apart.

I can tell you this too, Jake laughed. Hard. Especially during the scenes with Anthony Anderson as a frustrated father. We both left the theater surprised and pleased, happy to see something that was trying to do something new. I was personally thrilled to see Jennifer Lopez going for some truly humiliating comedic moments. The best comedians are the ones that don't worry about looking good all the time. While most of the laughs with her are textbook, every once in a while, she does something really brave and vulnerable for the sake of a laugh. And when she does, it works. It really really works. (I can already feel the wave of anxiety coming over me...someone is going to read this and say I'm participating in gender-biased perceptions of women in film...I just know it.)
It seemed like that same actress who was startlingly talented, the girl from, "Selena", was making another appearance. Talented, but real. You don't get the sense while watching this that her handlers are just off-screen with a bottle of fancy water and a diamond-encrusted cell phone. Whether it's true or not, it seems like Jennifer Lopez may have emerged from the celebrity machine. And really, from an acting standpoint, that's all you need. For your audience to be able to let go of you as an actress, and grab hold of you as a character vastly different from who you are in reality.

Lopez, to me, is one of those women that has the potential to be a Goldie Hawn type. If she'd fly her freak flag a bit more and allow herself to be more of a character actress, and not just so quirky cute all the time, she could really start blowing people away with her comedic chops. I'd love to see her get some kind of a really stand-out role where she can just go for it. I wonder if she can get Lily Tomlin's agent or Tina Fey's people on her side?
I like Jennifer Lopez, okay? There, I said it. I don't always like her music, and I don't always love her movies, but I always seem to be rooting for her. I think she's really talented and capable of going beyond what she's done so far, beyond that formula that guarantees commercial success from teens with buying power. Existential crisis solved? I think so. For now. I'm officially out as a consumer of fluff and feel-good-movies that may not always meet with my geekosphere's intellectual standards.

So I say, what the heck, go see it. Take that recommendation from a liker of non-perfect movies, I say, give it a whirl! Not because it's perfect, not because I can guarantee that you'll like it, but because it's trying to do something new. Even if in a coy way. And that deserves some attention, and so does Jennifer Lopez, the actress.

Maybe Jennifer Lopez will put on her rings and beat up anyone who makes fun of me for this posting...or maybe she'll punch me for criticizing her career choices. She's probably too busy swimming around in her Scrooge McDuck vault o'money to worry about a little old blogger. Right...right? *cowers in fear*

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