Moving Pictures December 2009

Double-X Films

Not just chick flicks, the movies of Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers defy categorization and provide a sentimental education for everyone.

When it comes to movie consumption, there’s no truer democrat in America than the slightly inebriated airline passenger. You’ve observed it, I’m sure—how at a certain altitude, and after a certain number of Bloody Marys, every prejudice of class and gender begins to be dissolved; how in that strange and hurtling passivity the grandmother in the aisle seat will submit with a kind of rapture to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, while the tattooed young man by the window gratefully dabs his eyes at the last frames of 27 Dresses.

Back down here, however—back on what John Prescott, a former British deputy prime minister, once referred to as “terra cotta”—the old divisions still obtain. Here the moviegoer sticks sourly and soberly in his or her demographic bracket, and the films of writer-directors Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers are dismissed as “chick flicks.” But would the world be a better place if everyone who queued up this summer to see Inglourious Basterds had been treated instead to a surprise screening of Ephron’s Julie & Julia? After the initial bloodletting, I think it probably would.

Video: James Parker narrates his favorite scenes from When Harry Met Sally and What Women Want

Ephron and Meyers are tag-teaming us this year. As Julie & Julia dwindles from the multiplexes, and the hootings of Meryl Streep’s Julia Child grow faint, Meyers is hitting us with It’s Complicated. Passion reignited is the theme, and common sense perplexed. Jane (also played by Streep) is a successful divorcée and mother who in her radiant maturity begins to dally afresh with the man she split from 10 years earlier. Jake, the man in question, is played by Alec Baldwin. This is fitting: sooner or later, either Meyers or Ephron was going to have to deal with Alec Baldwin, to engage with the principle of preposterous virility that he has come to represent. Sitting at the bar with his ex-wife, his paw round a little glass of something or other, Baldwin-as-Jake is florid, potent, gloatingly and inflatedly masculine, like a genie who came out of a bottle of aftershave. “You look good, Janie,” he growls. “You always do. Your hair’s shorter.” “Longer,” she says. “I like it,” he says with finality.

This Baldwin-ness, this new emanation of late-middle-age manhood, had to be tackled, because Meyers and Ephron are the leading popular interpreters of experience for women of a certain age. Ephron is 68, Meyers is 60. They’ve been through big-F Feminism, witnessed the divorce marathon, the reshuffling of roles. Ephron already had a heap of mordant, anthropologically attuned journalism behind her when she published her 1983 novel, Heartburn, drawing on the failure of her marriage to Carl Bernstein: “The moving man sat there reading the section on vaginal self-examination in my spare copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves while Charlie and I fought about furniture.” Heartburn became a 1986 Mike Nichols film, with a screenplay by Ephron. Meryl Streep starred as the heroine, Rachel Samstat—pale and glossy with stress, exquisitely burdened by pregnancy, dishes of food, betrayal. Three years later, Ephron scripted When Harry Met Sally; four years after that, she wrote and directed Sleepless in Seattle. Deadeye wit, combined with a romanticism that is almost paranoid—someone out there is waiting for you!—has been her signature.

Meyers’s early credits include the screenplays for Private Benjamin and the post-feminist pageant Baby Boom. Her output in the 1990s was a cataract of middlebrow—rewrites and remakes, first of the Father of the Bride movies, and then The Parent Trap (for which she elicited a brilliant, schizogonic performance from the young Lindsay Lohan). What Women Want, in 2000, was a life-giving dive into high-concept lowbrow—Mel Gibson in full-on madness-of-King-Mel mode, mugging and prancing as a man gifted (via electric shock) with the ability to read women’s minds. Helen Hunt was his foil, with much deployment of that tight, defensive smile of hers; not so much a smile as a flexing of the front of her brain.

Who will triumph at the box office this year? Ephron is famouser—a brand, almost—but Meyers has had the bigger hits; 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give (Diane Keaton, disappointed in love, blowing out the scented candles with age-scored lips) was a very healthy earner, and What Women Want was an absolute juggernaut, with a worldwide gross of $374 million: one of the most successful movies ever directed by a woman.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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