Friday, May 22, 2009

Cuteness destigmatized

Like the picture of Ryan Reynolds and Isla Fisher? I took it myself!

Um, no. But early on I decided never to use the same poster art twice, and I already used Definitely, Maybe for this post. So, anyway.

I once dated a girl who was very ... well, cute. But you didn't dare call her that. She hated the word "cute." She had been called it one too many times, and she never took it in the spirit in which people intended it. No, she found it demeaning -- something you would say to a person who had nothing of substance to offer. It wasn't viewing her as an object, as calling her "hot" would have been, but it did make her feel like something small and possibly weak. The equivalent of a condescending pat on the head.

Although "cute" is a word most of us use all the time, in plenty of different contexts with plenty of different subtexts, that ex-girlfriend of mine made me acutely aware of the condescension a person may be unconsciously conveying when they use it.

So when my wife called Definitely, Maybe a "very cute movie" the other night, there was the temptation to think she was patting the movie on the head.

In fact, from my wife, this is very high praise for a romantic comedy.

I was not necessarily expecting to see Definitely, Maybe a second time in this calendar year, having first watched it on a sick day back in January. But we needed to find something to watch on my wife's sister's last night in town. Since my wife's sister was recommending movies like Bride Wars and 27 Dresses to me, I thought the least I could do was offer her a really good romantic comedy, and it was still playing On Demand. Both of the movie's newcomers ultimately agreed with my assessment.

I've heard my wife call movies "cute" before, and it is almost always unambiguously positive. However, the problem is, for me it still feels not strong enough. For me, it sounds like you are removing the film from the realm of possibly having artistic ambitions. If it's cute, that means it's necessarily fluff.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and say that they wrote Definitely, Maybe with Oscar night in mind. It's basically a romantic whodunnit, in which a young girl (Abigail Breslin) must figure out which of three women (Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks and Rachel Weisz) is her mother as a younger woman, based on a story about his romantic past being told by her father (Ryan Reynolds). It really is "cute."

But what impressed me about Adam Brooks' film, which I commented on in my review, was the fact that it's more than it needs to be. Reynolds' character aspires to work in politics, and the points of the story roughly align with the high(and low)lights of the Clinton presidency, from his first campaign for president, through his impeachment, and even briefly on to life as a former president. The Clinton subplot works as a metaphor for the character's own emotional growth and fall from innocence. Not only that, but Brooks even throws in Kevin Kline as an acerbic, boozy and highly intellectual author and university professor. The film most certainly didn't need that, but thank God it has it, because Kline is hilarious.

So -- and it really sounds funny to be saying this about a movie that was released in time for Valentine's Day -- I kind of felt that it was more than a "cute" movie, that it might actually have been "good."

But what I need to understand -- and what I need to unlearn from my ex-girlfriend -- is that sometimes, cute is good. In fact, sometimes it's damn good. Sometimes, maybe, definitely, it's great.

So yeah, see Definitely, Maybe, especially if you've got someone in your life who doesn't discriminate between the good and bad romantic comedies. You know who I'm talking about. This is one you can tolerate too.

I think you'll find it quite cute.

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