The Decline of Western Masculinity

Reviews of the latest films.
Aug. 30 1997 3:30 AM

The Decline of Western Masculinity

The Full Monty, Hoodlum, and She's So Lovely.

The Full Monty
Directed by Peter Cattaneo
Fox Searchlight Pictures


Hoodlum
Directed by Bill Duke
United Artists Pictures


She's So Lovely
Directed by Nick Cassavetes
Miramax Films

Is it me, or does it seem as if the whole of contemporary cinema has turned into a promo for the forthcoming Susan Faludi tome, the one about men who feel their manliness going the way of all Woolworth's? Everywhere you look on-screen, hapless males are battling to keep from being downsized: to win back their spouses, save their communities, reclaim their potency. And, eerily enough, Faludi always seems to be hovering nearby. Sylvester Stallone, before he porked up to play the loser sheriff in Cop Land, sat down to share his masculine anxieties with ... Faludi, in Esquire. And damned if, in Doubletake, Faludi didn't profile a group of discarded male factory workers who have now turned up--adopting Yorkshire accents, to allay our suspicions--in The Full Monty. Thank heaven John Wayne is dead. The woman would be grilling him now on how it felt to grow up with the first name "Marion."

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The comedy The Full Monty is the most benign and playful of the recent spate of Faludiesque scenarios. The title is slang for a triumphantly all-out display of the male member. But it's really an ironic victory, an assertion of potency through a cocky revelation of impotence. Our only hope, fellas, is to make sport of our shortcomings. A prologue, a stereotypical '60s rah-rah industrial film, celebrates Sheffield, England, "a city on the move" thanks to a vibrant steel plant. Then there's a cut to the factory 25 years later, abandoned. Two of our heroes, Gaz (Robert Carlyle) and Dave (Mark Addy), who represent the ragged remains of the out-of-work male populace, attempt to pinch a girder but drop it in a stream. Their long rod sinks, if you catch my drift.

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In a custody fight, Gaz might well lose his Culkinesque son and co-conspirator, Nathan (William Snape), while Dave is fat and full of shame and can't get it up with his ever less understanding wife. Their former foreman, Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), feels so humiliated by his tumble in stature that, for six months, he hasn't been able to tell his spouse of his unemployment. All lose their wives to a Chippendale show that prances through town, packing the local theater with ladies who want, for a change, to gaze upon the real thing. And so, Gaz has an inspiration: To make a pile of money (and, subtextually, to prove to the world that the men of the town still have ... you know what), he'll organize a group of Yorkshire blokes to do their own Chippendale number--a show he plans to have climax with the eponymous exhibition.

The Full Monty--directed by Peter Cattaneo, written by Simon Beaufoy, nippily edited by Nick Moore and Dave Freeman, and acted with abandon by all--remains oddly one-sided: Weren't any women laid off? How do the females cope? Those politically correct questions aired, I can't think of a more enjoyable (or psychologically healthy) way of tackling this whole shriveling business. The laughs are fuller when they're rooted in authentic desperation, and the premise is yeasty enough to keep the film from sinking into facile hopelessness. It's hard to hold a frown when our heroes watch Flashdance and comment, "I hope she dances better than she welds. Those joints won't hold fuck-all."

The audition scene is especially sure-fire, as trousers are shed by out-of-condition, would-be strippers, among them a red-haired, Stan Laurel type (Steve Huison), who's promptly dubbed a "pigeon-chested little tosser"; and a black man called "Horse" (Paul Barber), who, when exposure is imminent, doesn't seem so certain that he can stand up to his moniker.

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W hich is more at stake: Horse's male pride or his black pride? You could pose the same question about Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Laurence Fishburne), the true-life "colored" gangster hero of Hoodlum. Bumpy emerges from a lengthy stretch in prison to find the Prohibition Harlem "numbers" racket--presided over by his Godmother of sorts, the icily formal but beneficent "Madame Queen" (Cicely Tyson)--under siege by Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth), a white hothead homicidally indifferent to the plusses of Negro self-esteem. The blacks just want to keep their dollars in Harlem and their neighbors (2,000 in the business, we're informed) employed. They're all so decent, these gangsters, such Robin Hoods. One wonders: Did Bumpy ever have to be an enforcer? To rough up innocent black folks? For all that Hoodlum tells you, the numbers racket was a New Deal public-works program overseen by the hopelessly civic-minded. And woe to those brothers who collaborate with the white man against their own community's best interests.

In a cinema obsessed with sagas of lost and reclaimed potency, Hoodlum is one of the more ticklish to criticize. Yes, the black man's lot is hard, and was harder still in the '30s, in the face of those emasculating white mobsters. (In one scene, Schultz blows away a Latin gangster who boasts of the size of his cojones, which are then sliced off for use as a future negotiating, er, tool.) But the picture, which clocks in at 146 minutes, is a zeppelin inflated with clichés and minus even the zest of blaxploitation.

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The director, Bill Duke, has done fine work with The Killing Floor (1984) and A Rage in Harlem (1991), and here he gets some broad, lusty performances. They aren't enough. The action is flatly staged; the period trappings egregiously spic-and-span; and the dialogue, penned by a white guy, Chris Brancato, full of cobwebs. Couldn't they have hired a black person to energize such exchanges as: "Have I made myself clear?" "Crystal." Or: "I haven't seen so many poor people in Harlem in my life." "Well, welcome to the Depression." As Bumpy's unlikely squeeze, Vanessa Williams is a demure do-gooder straight out of Guys and Dolls, with the "United Negro Improvement Fund" substituted for the Salvation Army. The only difference is that, in Hoodlum, the character must shoot a rampaging hit man to prove that, in this milieu, you can't remain lily white.

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S he's So Lovely, at least, has the virtue of novelty. Its meaning, however, must have died with its scenarist, John Cassavetes, whose script has finally been made by his son, Nick (and, if the rumors are correct, by star and co-executive producer Sean Penn, who is said to have given Junior the heave-ho in post-production). The film is a romantic ode to craziness that's at the same time disconcertingly cleareyed, so that the barfly couple at its center, Eddie (Penn) and Maureen (Robin Wright Penn), are clinically loco. Gone, it seems, is the R.D. Laing-ish gloss that holds madness to be the ultimate sanity. But nothing has replaced it save a dopey misogyny, in which women remain the unknowable Other. "What an interesting thing a woman is," muses Penn, in an appallingly moist turn that carries echoes of Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man. "Tits, ass, hair. Where the fuck did hair come from? What is hair?" Regressing further, he asserts that he's in trouble: "The world is controlled by a computer and seven different women." Wrapped in a straitjacket after shooting a mental health worker, he spouts infantile Beckettisms: "You just suck on your mother's tit and then you die."

Ten years later, Maureen is ensconced in the suburban manse of Joey--John Travolta--who, in a Danny Aiello role, just can't suppress his hipness. He's a construction honcho with whom she's raising three little daughters, one of them Eddie's. When her ex is set free, she begins to feel his gravitational tug, and flatly explains to her current spouse that she loves Eddie more and owes him big time: "He went right off the bridge for me. I think he went nuts for me." Joey, understandably stricken, wants to take on his rival mano a mano and man to man. But the asylum has left Eddie sweet and passive and beatific. He knows Maureen will come back to him, because she's his and she has to and that's that. In a conventional thriller, Eddie would be the dark monster out of the past who threatens the sanctity of Maureen's new family and sanity. In a Cassavetes script, he's more likely to be saving her from suburban lobotomization.

Robin Wright Penn does amusing tipsy schtick, tottering around, black and blue, on those long, skinny legs. But it's hard to say if she's supposed to be a drunk, a junkie, a moron, a schizophrenic, or all of the above. The actress, pre-Penn, played the title character in The Princess Bride (1987), and has been cast against type with a vengeance. The vengeance rebounds on her. Casting against type doesn't work in a John Cassavetes script, in which the principal interest lies in watching actors plumb their already well-entrenched personas. Wright plumb doesn't have a persona to pen. I mean, Wright Penn doesn't have a persona to plumb. She can't begin to make sense of this character, not even poetic sense. "She doesn't love you, she doesn't love me. She's de-lovely," says Eddie to Joey in what's meant to be the wisdom, by way of Cole Porter, of a simpleton poet.

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I'm tempted to applaud the film for its perversity, for the fact that the wife doesn't do the responsible thing, that family values are unsanctimoniously flouted, that the ending is less programmatic and more open-ended than anything I've seen on-screen in years. Having said that, it behooves me to add that Cassavetes' script must have been written in the final throes of delirium tremens. It's impossible to know how to take this woman who up and abandons her three little girls for a man newly sprung from the booby hatch and still demonstrably nuts. Yet the ambiguities aren't rich, because so much has been left out--the meat of both relationships, along with a coherent point of view. Betraying my traditional masculine possessiveness, I found myself dreaming of an alternative ending, in which Travolta puts a bullet in Penn's brain. Then, in the final shot, he lowers his pistol and submits to an interview with Susan Faludi.

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The fat, the thin, and the ugly (The Full Monty) (54 seconds):
{Sound01 - fullmonty1.avi or {Sound03 - fullmonty1.mov download time, 3.75 minutes at 56K {Sound02 - movie-fullmonty01.asf or sound only

 

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Strip-o-rama (33 seconds): Sound04 - fullmonty2.avi or Sound05 - fullmonty2.mov download time, 2.25 minutes at 56K {S{{Sound08 - movie-fullmonty02.asf for sound only

 

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"Love is so difficult ..." Eddie (Penn) explains his theory to Shorty (Harry Dean Stanton) in She's So Lovely (54 seconds):
Sound06 - shesolovely.avi or Sound03 - vr1024.mov; download time, 3.75 minutes at 56K Sound09 - movie-Shesolovely.asf for sound only

 

David Edelstein writes about movies for Slate.

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