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I date, therefore I am. Well, not me personally. I don’t date and am not sure I ever have—at least not with the intensity of today’s prime dating demographic, which, if media are to be believed, seems to think of nothing else. Contemporary courtship is, as someone once said, more popular than Jesus. It’s yielded a raft of “reality” shows in which dating is depicted as a cross between arranged marriage and big-ticket prostitution, a library of how-to and how-not-to books, a phalanx of snarky advice columnists, and a huge clip file of alarmist stories by anxious elders. A new Washington Post Magazine feature is called “Date Lab,” a name that suggests PETA should raid the place and rescue some abused animals. I’ve even heard that there’s an alternative weekly somewhere that has a dating blog.
The desperation with which today’s daters seek their goals—an ideal balance of hot sex, true love, and the mutually advantageous union, all appointed with premium-brand accessories—certainly lends itself to satire. But satire requires a point of view, consistency of tone, and unlikable characters, all of which are inimical to today’s Hollywood product. So it’s no surprise that the latest dating comedies wander and waver and ultimately can’t pull the trigger on their dating monsters: the pathologically possessive former lover of My Super Ex-Girlfriend and the philandering user of John Tucker Must Die. If Scoop, a different kind of dating comedy, is a little harsher on its characters, it’s only because its director is an old-timer who’s still faithful to venerable genre rules.
My Super Ex-Girlfriend turns on a couple of riffs that aren’t especially fresh but are potentially amusing: The title character is both a vision of female neediness that might make Casanova think twice and a distaff Clark Kent who uses brown hair and glasses to hide her identity as crime-fighting blond superheroine G-Girl. (What does the name G-Girl denote? That scripter Don Payne didn’t try very hard.) Moderately neurotic architectural project manager Matt (Luke Wilson) approaches seemingly prim Jenny (Uma Thurman) on the New York subway; she’s icy toward him until he rushes to retrieve her handbag from a purse-snatcher. Way too soon, they’re an item, which attracts the attention of Professor Bedlam (Eddie Izzard), G-Girl’s archenemy, who secretly nurses a longtime crush on her.
Matt quickly tires of Jenny’s hysterical, if not entirely unjustified, jealousy of his co-worker Hannah (Anna Faris) and breaks off the relationship—although not before Jenny reveals her secret identity. What follows is a bout of superpowered stalking and reprisal that involves a lot of fish: Jenny tries to fry Matt’s goldfish with her heat vision and later hurls a shark into the apartment where Matt and Hannah are making out. But it’s easy to see how all this can be resolved, complete with a love interest for Matt’s piggish best friend and sex-wars adviser Vaughn (Rainn Wilson)—although you’ll have to stay past the crummy animated final credits to see how that works out.
Opening with the requisite clichéd aerial shots of the Manhattan skyline, director Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman proceeds through the film without breaking a sweat. He seems unconcerned that the Wanda Sykes cameo is even more extraneous here than it was in last week’s Clerks II, that Payne’s script flops from incident to incident with little narrative logic, that the title character barely has a character at all, or that all the personalities don’t grow naturally but simply go where marketing logic requires—which means the most bitter antagonists become friendly again by the final scene. Like most contemporary Hollywood comedies, this one includes a lot of pop-rock and hip-hop numbers, but Reitman uses them so awkwardly that they just seem like product placement; often he introduces a song just before a scene ends, so that a sparkling riff leads to…nowhere. But then that’s sort of fitting, since that’s just where My Super Ex-Girlfriend goes.
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Uma Thurman actually gets to be unpleasant in My Super Ex-Girlfriend, if only for about a half-hour. That’s a lot more mean-girlism than is allotted the Barbie and Ken dolls of John Tucker Must Die, another dating revenge saga. The trailer suggests that this movie will be pointed, if crass, but it’s mostly kind of sweet—and quite bland. The principal problem is that Jeff Lowell’s screenplay goes around in circles, playing sundry variations on the same incident. The movie is like a half-dozen episodes of a predictable teen sitcom condensed into a 90-minute movie.
John Tucker (Jesse Metcalfe) is the basketball-team captain and champion lady-killer at a high school where all the students look to be in their 20s. Pretending that he’s not allowed to date during basketball season, John swears his girlfriends to secrecy. That’s how he can juggle a threesome: head cheerleader Heather (Ashanti), vegan sexpot Beth (Sophia Bush), and aspiring valedictorian Carrie (Arielle Kebbel). One day on the volleyball court, John’s semisteady dates happen to start talking and realize that they’ve all been fed the same lines. They turn to an innocent bystander, quiet new-kid-in-school Kate (Brittany Snow) and demand that she become the agent of their retribution: the girl who breaks John’s heart.
So this is another high-school makeover movie, although the crucial transformation is in attitude, not appearance. The setup for Kate’s acceptance of her mission is actually clever: By helping Heather, Beth, and Carrie undermine John, she thinks she’ll get indirect revenge on all the men who have used her perennially heartbroken mom (Jenny McCarthy). But the movie goes all squishy as Kate realizes she really likes John, which is further complicated by the fact that she had already been moving toward a romance with his brother (Penn Badgley). Then the script goes into the spin cycle as the four conspirators keep shaming John, only to find that he has a knack for quick recoveries. These turnabouts don’t make much sense, but they do play to adolescent sex-role anxiety: When the basketball team and cheerleaders travel to an away game, Kate persuades John to sneak into her hotel room, wearing only lacy thong panties. He discovers that he’s actually in the room of the cheerleaders’ mannish chaperone, but he soon turns the humiliation to his favor by convincing everyone that lacy thongs are ideal underwear for playing basketball.
Anyone who’s ever been a high-school boy knows that gambit wouldn’t work, but director Betty Thomas—whose résumé includes Brady Bunch and Howard Stern flicks—has never learned that even comedy requires a certain measure of logic. At least she’s reasonably skillful with a song-heavy score, competently employing a New Wave and emo-punk soundtrack that takes the All-American Rejects’ “Dirty Little Secret” as its theme. Aside from the obligatory flatulence scene, however, there’s not much dirt in this PG-13 sex comedy, and there are certainly no secrets worth keeping. John Tucker Must Die is a Hollywood puppy dog of a satire, whose sappy resolution just proves that there was never really anything at stake.
Dating is a bit riskier in Scoop, in which a student journalist seduces a man she suspects is a serial killer. This is Woody Allen’s second film to be set in London’s posh neighborhoods and even posher suburbs, but it’s been cobbled together from previous Allen fairy tales of New York, mostly Manhattan Murder Mystery and Broadway Danny Rose, with a bit of Deconstructing Harry mixed in. The result is conceptually fatigued, even when the writer-director’s current muse, Scarlett Johansson, is on-screen being all blonde and stuff.
Johansson plays Sondra Pransky, an American college student who doesn’t seem to have a very good reason to be spending the summer in Great Britain. Her sojourn coincides with the death of crusading journalist Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), who is soon glimpsed in the Underworld. While on the river Styx, Strombel gets a tip that young aristocrat Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is the notorious Tarot Card Killer. This is too good a story to take to oblivion, so Strombel fights his way back. His spirit materializes in an onstage box with Sondra, who’s participating in a cheesy vanishing trick by old-style American magician Splendini (Allen). Strombel blurts a bit of the story, and soon Sondra is in pursuit of Lyman, with Splendini—real name: Sid Waterman—as her old man Friday.
What follows is part Agatha Christie, part Albert Brooks. Sondra contrives to meet Peter and is soon in bed with him. (To judge from Scoop and Thank You for Smoking, Hollywood thinks this is how women journalists report stories.) Sondra falls for Peter’s charm and moneyed lifestyle even as she unearths clues that suggest he might be indeed a murderer, if perhaps not the Tarot Card Killer. Meanwhile, Splendini tags along, delivering jokes whose joke is that they’re not remotely funny. These cracks are so feeble that it’s hard to tell when they’re just pointless asides and when they’re actually supposed to contribute to the exposition, such as it is. The movie’s elementary plot probably wouldn’t have worked anytime after the silent-film era, which would be fine if Allen were to distract us from the story with trenchant cross-cultural observations. Instead, he gripes about driving on the wrong side of the road.
London seemed to invigorate Allen in the first half of Match Point, although that Dostoevski-inspired film eventually lost its bearings. In Scoop, the transatlantic setting is mere camouflage for the director’s exhausted shtick. He may be playing surrogate grandfathers these days, but he’s still trying to wheedle his way into ingénues’ hearts the way he did in his Diane Keaton period, a tactic that has become increasingly creepy. It no longer matters whether Allen’s inspiration is Russian literature or Catskills burlesque; his real subject is the slow death of a wisecracking ladies’ man.CP