Eric D. Snider November 22, 2012
The first decade of this century was marked by a surplus of teenage-girl-oriented movies starring young actresses who were basically interchangeable, including Mandy Moore, Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff, and the Olsen twins. They all had the same squeaky-clean public personas (at the time; not anymore), and the films they headlined could have been randomly assigned to any actress in the squad.
I hated a lot of them. The movies, I mean, not the girls. I’m sure the girls were very nice. (Well, not the Olsens.) It goes without saying that, as a non-teen non-girl, I wasn’t the target audience for “A Cinderella Story,” “What a Girl Wants,” “New York Minute,” “Chasing Liberty,” or “Just My Luck” anyway. And it is true that, of all the different segments of society, it is teenage girls whose thought processes I understand the least. Nothing they do or say makes any sense to me, and it never has — not when I was a teenage boy, and certainly not now. There’s every chance I’d be able to relate more to an un-subtitled movie about the customs of an obscure Amazonian Indian tribe than to one about American teenage girls.
But many of the movies these ladies cranked out between 2002 and 2007 were unusually vapid, synthetic, and dumb, so very dumb. It wasn’t just the difference between teen entertainment and grown-up entertainment. It was the difference between blithe idiocy and logical storytelling, between babbling and speaking coherently.
Now, I don’t intend to go back and reevaluate very many of these. I think we can all agree that such a course of action would be sad and futile. But one in particular — Amanda Bynes’ “She’s the Man,” from 2006 — caught my attention. I hated it more than I did a lot of its counterparts, yet the overall response to it was better. It holds a 44% approval rate at Rotten Tomatoes, and has a Metacritic score of 45 out of 100. Of all the teen-queen flicks of the 2000s that I had disliked, this one seemed to have the greatest chance of winning me over on a second viewing.
What I said then: “The main character in ‘She’s the Man” is so stupid that I’m amazed she’s able to take a shower without drowning. Her stupidity is a powerful, brutish force, a fog that hangs over the entire film like a stench. I dislike my fair share of movies, but I don’t recall the last time a film made me clench my fists or pull my hair in frustration and exasperation…. Granted, a lot of people in movies arrive at cross-dressing as a solution to their problems much sooner than you or I would, and I accept this as a time-honored comedy device. But in the GOOD movies where that device is used … the characters at least TRY to pass as the opposite sex. Viola doesn’t try. Well, I should say she tries, but since she’s so paralyzingly stupid, she can’t try very hard…. During the occasional brief moments when Viola is remembering that she’s supposed to be a guy, her behavior is so bug-eyed and jittery that there’s no way anyone would buy it. The reason is that the director, Andy Fickman, thinks that kind of overdone reaction will be funnier, so he’s instructed Bynes … to play everything up big-time…. I could go on all day. I hated this movie with an angry, fiery passion.” Grade: F [Here’s the whole angry review.]
(While it’s not strictly relevant, I promise you will be highly amused by the reaction to this review from the owner of an Amanda Bynes fan site. Are you more intrigued if I tell you the owner of this site was a man in his forties? I thought so!)
The re-viewing: My original review focused on (some might say obsessed over) Viola’s consistent failure to remember that she’s supposed to be passing herself off as a boy. This drove me crazy.
DUKE: I have trouble meeting girls.
VIOLA/SEBASTIAN: Why?! You’re hot!
VIOLA/SEBASTIAN: I mean – um – (deeper voice) you’re a cool dude.
Exchanges like that happen constantly in the movie, with no one ever picking up on the fact that “Sebastian” is really a girl. For the re-viewing, I knew I had to get over it. Yes, people think the obviously-not-a-boy “Sebastian” is a boy. Yes, people still think that even after they meet the real Sebastian. Yes, Viola does a pitiful job of pretending. Yes, everyone in the movie must be brain-damaged. But if that’s the degree of disbelief-suspension “She’s the Man” requires of its viewers, then so help me, I will do my best to suspend it!
Even before we got to that part of the movie, though, I found myself having a better time than I did originally. The dialogue is glib and snarky and not very funny, like a sitcom on The CW, but Bynes is bubbly and likable. That in itself is a change from how she used to strike me: she used to strike me as an irritant who would bug out her eyes and flail her limbs in lieu of doing actual comedy. I still see a lot of that, but in between incidents of eye-bugging and limb-flailing I see down-to-earth charm. Most of this film’s positive reviews (including Roger Ebert’s) emphasized Bynes’ likability, and I think that’s the key. If you can’t stand her, the movie’s other flaws are even more grating. If you like her, though, the dumbness that surrounds her is more palatable.
Speaking of dumbness, Channing Tatum. This was his first major role in a wide-release film (he’d had ensemble parts in “Coach Carter” and “Supercross”), and combined with “Step Up,” which came out five months later, and the indie gem “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” which had played at Sundance, 2006 was a good year for him. Could anyone have known then that six years later he’d be People’s Sexiest Man Alive? Probably not. I think all our money was riding on Shia LaBeouf at the time.
I used to think it was implausible that anyone would look at Amanda Bynes, even with short hair, sideburns, and mannish eyebrows, and believe she was a boy. Now I think it might be kind of plausible, because she looks like Justin Bieber, who is a boy.
I successfully coped with the film’s central mistake of Viola not looking or acting like a boy and everyone around her not noticing. This improved the experience immeasurably. Instead of sighing exasperatedly, I would roll my eyes and try to go with it. (It occurs to me that this is also a good way to deal with large family dinners.) It would take superhuman strength, however, to tolerate the film’s conclusion, in which both Viola and her actual twin brother Sebastian are “outed” in the middle of a soccer game. The principal stops the game and makes Sebastian pull down his shorts to prove he’s a boy. Then Viola shows Channing Tatum her boobs to prove she’s a girl. I’m sorry, movie, I tried, I really did, but that’s just too stupid.
Do I still hate this movie? Not as fervently as I did the first time, no. The word “hate” might not even still apply. It’s dumb, yes, and frequently in unforgivable ways. And despite being a comedy, it is short on things that will make you laugh out loud. But if you can get past all that, it’s sunny and energetic, and not aggressively annoying. Teenage girls probably deserve better movies than this (it’s hard to be sure, since I don’t understand teenage girls or their needs) — but teenage boys deserve better than “Transformers,” too, and that’s harmless enough. Grade: D+
Categories: ColumnsTags: Amanda bynes, Channing tatum, She's the Man