Director Todd Phillips has no affection for women.
At least, if he does, he’s yet to have it manifest in any of his films.
In 2003’s Road Trip, the memorable female characters consisted of a) an immensely fat black woman who forces herself on D.J. Squalls’ porcelain matchstick body and b) Amy Smart as the bland, briefly topless Beth Wagner. Starsky & Hutch (2004) was predictably, and perhaps more justifiably, male-dominated. Both viewed women as afterthoughts, sporadic punchlines, defined either by their attractiveness, or lack thereof.
School For Scoundrels, a largely ignored Billy Bob Thornton vehicle from 2006, was much of the same, in terms of interesting female characters: there were none. The film was a consistently unfunny attempt to satirise the ‘nice guys finish last’ classes given by ‘pick-up experts’ like David DeAngelo. Thornton played a hardass, whilst Jon ‘I can’t believe Napoleon Dynamite will represent the peak of my career’ Heder played a geek. A variety of women turn up — including a wasted Sarah Silverman — as plot devices.
The Hangover, Phillips’ most recent (and successful, both comedically and commercially) work is arguably the worst of the lot, presenting women as warm-hearted whores, nut-cracking bitches, or spectacular-looking dum dums.
Heather Graham may be the most prominent of the Hangover women. She plays Jade, a seemingly simple, if sweet, lady of the night. She’s inexplicably happy about her shotgun marriage to Stu Price (Ed Helms), despite his lack of charisma, charm, intelligence, or maturity. Why is she so chuffed about her drunken nuptials? The early implication is that she views Price as a source of funds for her baby… who she un-self-consciously allows to suckle on her breast in front of the four primary protagonists.
The script makes no effort to provide Graham with humorous dialogue; the mere fact she’s (at least initially) a money-grubbing prostitute apparently provides humour enough.
The normally likeable, charismatic Graham is reduced to a gold-digging retard, a set of breasts milked for the cheapest of laughs. There’s no complexity to Jade; the only surprise she provides is a slight warmth at the culmination of the film. She is who the audience thinks she’ll be.
Then there’s Rachael Harris as Melissa, the most explicitly misogynist of the characters. Harris plays a cruel, undermining bitch. That’s it. That’s the extent of her character. She exists solely to terrorise her husband, Stu, while acting as a cold counterpoint to the relatively warm-hearted Jade.
Harris is given one good line, when she tells Zach Galifianakis’ character to ‘suck my dick’ (he sweetly replies ‘no, thank you’). It’s telling that this brief glimmer of comedic hope stems from the masculinisation of a woman; Harris gets to be funny once — when she briefly inhabits the voice of a man.
Finally, there’s Sasha Barrese as Tracy Garner, the simplest of roles. She wears a bikini. She holds a phone.
Barrese is an actress — she’s recently appeared in CSI: Miami and Supernatural — but you wouldn’t know it by The Hangover. Her role as a concerned bride-to-be asks her to perform two functions: appearing simultaneously confused and attractive; or angry and attractive. Like Harris, she’s offered nothing by her cock-centric director. She’s an afterthought, a blank space for the more interesting, developed male characters to speak into.
These roles hardly testify to a confidence in Phillips that his female cast members can hold their comedic own.
Of course, Phillips — and his legions of fratboy fans — might argue that The Hangover is about men, just like Old School, and School for Scoundrels, and Starsky & Hutch, and Road Trip and, as such, bear little obligation to the inclusion of womb-owners.
At best, the argument indicts Phillips as a director clinically incapable of dedicating substantial screentime to women; it implies he has no interest in women as characters, or actors.
At worst, it belies a deliberate antipathy towards an entire gender, combined with a bizarre and persistent obsession with men.
Judd Apatow shares that obsession with men — specifically, the process by which boys grow up — but he treats his female characters with at least a little care. When Katherine Heigl was on-screen in Knocked Up, it wasn’t wasted time. Unlike Heather Graham in The Hangover, Heigl was more than a set of tits and a smile.
Apatow has received his share of criticism for treating women as shrill, whining afterthoughts, but at least those women act with intent. They have motive. And they’re given comedic respect — think of Elizabeth Banks in The 40 Year Old Virgin, who engages in an increasingly bawdy, sexually charged conversation with Steve Carrell. A part that could have easily been cheap and obvious (‘ho ho ho! This woman is talking so slutty!’) is transformed by Banks’ cheeky performance, and the equal camera time she receives.
The challenge for Phillips? Write a fully-formed female character, with complex motivations, rich desires, and a sense of existence not completely dependent upon and defined by her relationship with a man.
Based on his track record, Todd might find that difficult.
Posted By: Anton