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.

Thematically, though, there’s not much daylight between them. Both women sharpened their mots justes on the complications of life after feminism, the raised consciousness and the lowered anxiety threshold. When Ephron’s Harry (Billy Crystal) meets Sally (Meg Ryan) for the second time, he tells her that he’s about to tie the knot. Sally asks who the lucky lady is. “Helen Hillson,” recites Harry. “She’s a lawyer. She’s keeping her name.” Three little lines, and we know instantly that the nuptials are fraught, modern, and doomed. Then there’s Meyers’s Baby Boom: Diane Keaton as the businesswoman J. C. Wiatt, shoulder-padding through ’80s Manhattan in a cascade of synth-drums. J. C. lives with some kind of insensate banker. “D’you wanna make love?” he says, inclining his pajamaed body toward hers: the bedside clock reads 11:46. In the next shot they’re both putting their glasses back on, and panting a little. It’s 11:50.

Fairytale Hollywood glitters distantly over the movies of both Meyers and Ephron, for whom the secrets of men versus women were engraved upon the heart of Ernst Lubitsch, and the fabulous maidens were not Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty but Ingrid Bergman and Deborah Kerr. Harry and Sally bicker over Casablanca; for the women of Sleepless in Seattle, the emotional touchstone is An Affair to Remember (“Men never get this movie!”). In Meyers’s The Holiday, Kate Winslet gets tips from an authentic Golden Age geezer, a creaky Oscar-toting screenwriter who instructs her in the technicalities of the Lubitschean “meet-cute.” Hanging Up (directed by Keaton, from a script by Ephron and her sister Delia) features bc as the dying father, the crumbling Hollywood lion, his mind dimming behind hospital screens as he rambles about the smallness of John Wayne’s penis.

Ephron’s work in particular is shadowed by a sense that we have degenerated from an era of great verve and classiness into, you know, where we’re at: pallid, secondary, watered down. No lusty screwball chemistry between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, just a fizzle of technologized yearning—she hears him on the radio in Sleepless in Seattle, she talks to him on the Net in You’ve Got Mail. Almost-stalkings take place: a twitch of the dial, and these would have been rather dark pieces.

Julie & Julia silhouettes the loud and irresistible rise of Julia Child against the fitful overcomings of Julie Powell, a young wife in present-day Queens who is working her way through Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia is outsize, pre-orgasmic in her exclamations, a woman with a knack for bliss: she can be mystically sated by a mouthful of buttered fish. (The entire organism of Meryl Streep is in motion for this performance—her nostrils are like a second set of eyebrows.) Julie, meanwhile, is … blogging about Julia. Tippy-tap, go her fingers on the keys. “You’re the third-most-popular blog on!” cries her husband, as audience members roll insensibly under their seats.

Meyers is a looser writer than Ephron, whose scripts advance in such nifty parallelisms, one imagines her plotting them with a pair of calipers. She’s also broader, and more bodily. At moments of stress her lead characters will often ask someone to check if their glands are swollen. In Something’s Gotta Give there is a lot of talk about Viagra, and menopause. We see Jack Nicholson’s ass—jaundiced-looking, glimpsed between the blue-white wings of a hospital gown. Later in the film he makes love wearing a blood-pressure cuff. Mel Gibson in What Women Want has freaky telepathic sex with Marisa Tomei, her overheard thoughts initially distracting him (“Is Britney Spears on Leno tonight?”) until he finds his superstud magic mojo rhythm: “You knew what I wanted and how I wanted it!” she moans in the sweaty aftermath. The Holiday had none of this, offering us instead the charm overdose of Cameron Diaz and Jude Law, and the dismaying sight of Jack Black with his hair brushed.

But even The Holiday, seen in the right condition, in the correct state of sentimental expansion, can move and instruct. The scene in which, for example … The scene where … Okay, maybe not The Holiday. But how about Jack Nicholson’s heart attack in Something’s Gotta Give? Diane Keaton, looming in for the mouth-to-mouth, hissing “You … fucking … guy!!” Can men learn from these movies what women want? Can women learn from these movies what women want? Don’t ask me. But the best of them leave us tickled, tearful, and somehow reacquainted with the essentials—the basics, to which even Tarantino fans must finally submit: cherish your partner. Empathy is good stuff. Men, try harder. And if you’re drinking at 30,000 feet, remember: one in the air is worth two on the ground.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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