Screenplay Concept


Like Jennifer Lopez in "Enough," I've had it.

I'm not referring to my abusive husband or to my dead-end waitressing, hairdressing, bank teller job or to my bad perm -- all themes of that classic box-office staple the chick flick.

I've had it with the chick flick.

Two new films -- "Enough," starring Ms. Lopez and Juliette Lewis, and "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" with Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd and Ellen Burstyn � have put a final stake in the heart of that guilty cinematic pleasure.

As a child, I hated the platitudes about life and love that the chick flick offered, usually with the delicacy of a meat cleaver.

I remember seeing "Terms of Endearment" when it came out in 1983. As Debra Winger lay on her deathbed and sweetly cupped her hand to coo a final farewell to her mother, my sympathetic older sister had to take the Kleenex stuffing out of her bra to swab her soaking cheeks.

I, meanwhile, stood up and snarled, "Die, Debra Winger die already!" before going out to the lobby for some more Good & Plentys.

The movie was one big whiny dare: Bet we can make you cry. And I didn't want to be pushed around.

Later, I hated the fact that all men think all women like chick flicks, sort of the way men think we all love the Gloria Gaynor song "I Will Survive."

But then the Change came, . .

. . and I'm not talking Germaine Greer.

I outgrew my adolescence and disintegrated into the intellectual sloth of my 20's. I found myself on more than a few Sunday afternoons letting the remote control alight on "Beaches" and, after checking to make sure no one was around, weeping as the Barbara Hershey character found out she had cancer just after discovering that her louse of a husband was cheating on her. He even let the mistress wear her bathrobe! I swore I would move to a beach house in Malibu to live alone, painting watercolors and wearing slouchy pastel-colored cotton sweaters.

For a while I ate it up, . .

. . cruising movie theaters solo with my individual Kleenex packs. I went to see "The Bridges of Madison County" and cried mightily through the windshield-wiper scene. Nor did I turn off the television set when I stumbled across Kevin Costner protecting Whitney Houston in "The Bodyguard."

There was a reassuring predictability to these movies.

The ingredients change, but a chick flick generally features a heroine, or even better, a group of heroines, bravely confronting adversity.

If it's an ensemble piece like "Fried Green Tomatoes" or "Steel Magnolias," the women receive equal billing and screen time. (For male actors, this tends to happen only in war epics, or when the movie is about old guys, like "Space Cowboys" or "Grumpy Old Men.")

Chick flick characters are never called Jane or Alice.

Instead they answer to names that bludgeon you with their regional authenticity, like M'Lynn and Clairee ("Steel Magnolias"), Savannah ("Waiting to Exhale") and Idgie, Ninny and Sipsey ("Fried Green Tomatoes"). The names are often complemented by overwrought accents: think of Daryl Hannah's strangled, guttural Southern drawl in "Steel Magnolias" and Stockard Channing's raw Yankee inflections in "Practical Magic."

Most everyone in a chick flick is single.

When there is a husband, he tends to skulk in the background, grumbling about his fishing rod or waiting patiently for his wife at the beauty parlor. He may also assume the role of "guy you love to hate," like the feckless and philandering Flap in "Terms of Endearment." This character will invariably be offset by a gallant counterpart � the sensitive savior in the white ten-gallon hat, like Dan Futterman's sweet but ineffective Joe in "Enough."

There is usually someone whose face is as suspiciously tight as a cadet's bedsheet.

There is also often a heavy drinker in the group.

Tough on the outside and tender on the inside, she is unable to come clean with her soul sisters and buries her problems in glasses of bourbon. This is, in fact, the premise of "28 Days" starring Sandra Bullock, with Diane Ladd as her alcoholic mother. (Everyone in "Ya-Ya" drinks so much it looks like the AARP version of "Sex and the City.")

Every woman has a turbulent relationship with her mother, though not one can live without her, and everyone will be treated to at least one joke about menopause, usually delivered by Shirley MacLaine.

There will be one makeover scene.

And almost always someone dies, to show you how serious the movie really is.

The allure of these films is simple: by watching this "soap opera as cinema," women can endure a wrenching, exalting catharsis without the real emotions that actual experience involves.

But as the years wore on, the chick flick became formulaic and less novel. The sharp edges of "Thelma & Louise" (1991) and the keen comedy of "The First Wives Club" (1996) gave way to studio-template facsimiles like "Practical Magic" (1998), "Hope Floats" (1998) and "Message in a Bottle" (1999).

In recent years the major studios have taken all the components . .

-- divorce, death, Mom, friendship, tough love, female trouble -- and thrown them into a Hollywood meat grinder. Crank the handle, and presto! out comes the preformed movie patty: "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," directed by Callie Khouri, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Thelma & Louise." Based on two popular novels by Rebecca Wells, "Ya-Ya" dutifully measures out all the critical chick flick ingredients. A circle of friends tries to mend the rift between a histrionic hard-drinking mother, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), and her daughter, a New York playwright named Sidda (Sandra Bullock).

Vivi's friends, lifelong members of the secret Ya-Ya society, fly to New York, drug Sidda with Rohypnol and kidnap her to take her down South -- in chick flick legend, the land of truth -- to reconcile with her mother.

If that seems melodramatic, it isn't: everyone in chick flicks behaves that way. In these Hollywood versions of feminism, women do not fight back at the first slight from a man, the first slight from a boss or the first dawning of understanding that life is not fair. Instead, all the bad feelings just build up and up, until the little lady puts her foot down and lets loose one huge overreaction.

It was delayed rage that prompted Thelma and Louise to drive themselves into the Grand Canyon.

And inspired the women in "Set It Off" to rob banks.

And inspired millions of viewers to cheer them on.

But in "Ya-Ya" and "Enough," the rage and bitterness are cartoonishly extreme.

When Ms. Lopez's husband turns violent, instead of relying on the police, she runs away with their daughter, changes her identity and begins training in the intensive martial arts employed by the Israeli Army.

Once she has transformed her body into a lethal weapon, she seeks out her husband to kill him. Mission accomplished, she stands over his mangled body like a picture of feminist triumph.

But as you stand blinking outside the theater, you realize that she's not a liberated woman.

She's a homicidal psychopath.

And for Ms. Khouri, "Ya-Ya" has become engulfed by the very genre she helped create in "Thelma & Louise." Everything from the title to the marketing -- the happy-go-lucky trailer and the "ladies' teas" that Warner Brothers set up for the press and other guests before its release -- ensures that any originality in the movie is smothered by the giddy chick flick manifesto.

Give me "Grumpy Old Men" any day.

by Alex Kuczynski, June 9, 2002
© 2002 The New York Times Company

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