Film Review: “The Boss” and the Triumph of Neoliberal Postfeminism

I went into The Boss expecting to be hugely entertained by two of my favourite contemporary actresses, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell, and I wasn’t disappointed in that aspect (for the most part, anyway). However, the film as a whole failed to hold together in an effective way, due in no small part to a rather cobbled-together script, and the more I thought about it afterward, the more unintentionally absurd the narrative came to seem. Even more importantly, I began to realize that beneath its surface message of female empowerment lurked an unfortunate reliance upon the neoliberal/postfeminist myth that the key to women gaining equality is through buying into the capitalist system.

The film centers around Michelle Darnell (McCarthy), a powerful executive whose financial success belies her troubled personal past, in which she was shuffled from foster home to foster home. When she is arrested for insider trading, she loses her fortune while her long-suffering assistant Claire (Bell) must find a new job in order to support herself and her daughter, Rachel (Ella Anderson). However, Michelle is not content with her lower station, and so she schemes with Rachel and a reluctant Claire to rebuild her fortune on the back of the latter’s phenomenal brownie recipe.

Even this cursory plot summary reveals the extent to which the film indulges in (and encourages us to indulge in) the neoliberal/postfeminist fantasy that the key to empowerment is not through challenging, much less overturning, the current capitalist system. Instead, women can gain empowerment if they are willing to  learn the rules of the system and play by them. This not a feminist utopian tale, but a postfeminist one, for the film suggests that it is important for a woman to claw one’s way to the top of the system. Even more bewilderingly, it only cursorily acknowledges the fact that women remain vastly unrepresented within the realms of business, and while it could certainly have attempted to address that in a meaningful way, it refuses to do so. (And let’s not even get started on the idea that we are being led to identify and root for a member of the 1%, in 2016, the year of Trump and Sanders).

And it is also worth pointing out that the fortune they manage to raise stems from baking. It certainly feels like the film wants us to see their claiming of the kitchen space as a site of female monetary empowerment as a good thing, but for me it just feels slightly regressive. Could they really not have thought of another way for the women in this film to make money?

All of which is not to say that the film isn’t funny (which is, after all, one of the primary goals of a comedy film). McCarthy, as always, delivers her own particular brand of physical comedy, though it is notably toned down from many of her earlier performances. I have always found McCarthy to be a tremendous and genuinely good actress, someone whose range is far greater than her material typically grants her (Bridesmaids, Spy, and The Heat being notable exceptions). Here, she actually gets something of a compelling backstory, as the introductory sequence makes it clear that she never had the family that she so clearly desired. Further, she brings a genuine emotional depth to this seemingly very shallow and unthinking character.

There is also an undeniable chemistry between Bell and McCarthy, and it is this relationship more than anything that provides something of an antidote to the film’s otherwise regressive postfeminist politics. The characters come to deeply care for one another, and it is their extraordinary bond that provides what little narrative coherence the film has to offer. Indeed, I’m not sure that, had it not been Bell and McCarthy in the lead roles, the film would succeed even as much as it does.

The film does have some other very notable flaws. While Peter Dinklage is undeniably one of today’s finest actors, he is criminally misused in this film, relegated to a frankly pretty absurd and not at all compelling caricature of his usual roles. To my mind, it’s actually almost criminal how much his talent is wasted in this film, proof that, until better film scripts come his way, he should stick with Game of Thrones or risk having his (well-deserved) reputation as a genuinely good actor tarnished.

The greatest failing of The Boss, however, is its script. There are parts of that simply do not make sense, and the film attempts to paper over them with thin threads of narrative causality. Again, McCarthy can largely keep this train rolling along on her own, but there are even aspects of her character and her decisions that don’t entirely make sense. And the final “action” sequence in which the heroines manage to recapture a contract is absurd (and not in the good, clever way) right down to its roots. One wonders whether the screenwriters had ever read even the most basic guide on plot and narrative coherence (the answer is clearly no).

The Boss is an incredibly flawed film, both in its plot and in its politics. Nevertheless, it is amusing, so if you can bring yourself to ignore the negative parts of the film, it is worth watching. Hopefully, though, McCarthy, Bell, et al will be able to find a stronger film for their considerable talents on their next outing.

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The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “The Heart Attack” (S1, Ep. 10)

In today’s installment of the Great Golden Girls Marathon, it appears that Sophia may be having a heart attack, and the four women must cope with the fact that one of their number may be staring death in the face.

While this episode does not have the political bite of some of the other episodes of the first season, it does show the dexterity and depth with which the series is able to engage with the deeply personal. It’s one of the first times that we get a deep glimpse into the strong bond that exists between Dorothy and Sophia. It becomes clear, even at this early stage, that they are more than just mother and daughter; they are actually friends. There is an undeniable chemistry between Bea and Estelle, one that shines through in all of their performances together.

While a rather understated episode, it has its moments of genuine pathos, such as when Dorothy recognizes that she may well lose her mother. As someone who has a very deep and powerful relationship with my own Mom (and my Grandma), this scene always affects me. Embedded within this very personal trial is also a reflection on the way in which we must always contend with the fact that those we love, especially in a generation older than hours, are that much closer to the end of their lives. As such, it is a powerful reminder to make the most of the time that we are given.

This is also the first time that we learn that Rose’s husband Charlie died while they were in the middle of making love. This has always struck me as one of the more heartbreaking aspects of Rose’s character, and it remains a key part of her character development throughout the first season (and indeed throughout the series as a whole). More than any of the other characters, Rose seems to have the hardest time moving beyond the memory of Charlie, a testament to the extraordinary love that they clearly bore for one another.

Of course, everything is neatly resolved in the end with the revelation that the “heart attack” was in fact a gall bladder attack brought on by overeating. However, this doesn’t entirely efface the fact that death is an ever-present fact for these four women, especially Sophia. While The Golden Girls is certainly one of the finest-written comedies to ever grace television, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that, as one gets older, death becomes an increasingly prominent part of daily life. And that, I think, has always been one of its greatest strengths.

Next up, we get reacquainted with Dorothy’s infamous ex-husband Stan, and the beginning of a series-long arc in which the two briefly rekindle their failed relationship. Stay tuned!

Film Review: “Captain America: Civil War”

Warning:  Spoilers for the film follow.

I’ve long thought that the Captain America parts of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) are the most artistically, narratively, and philosophically mature, and Captain America:  Civil War proves to be no exception. As is the case with the best superhero films, it asks the thorny questions, such as:  at what point does vengeance slip from justified into outright murder? What is the line between the individual conscience and the collective good?

The plot, in brief, is this. Tony Stark/Iron Man still feels conflicted over the events that happened in the previous film, in which the Avengers managed to foil Ultron (the AI system created by Stark that unfortunately went rogue), in his attempt to literally destroy the entire planet. While they saved the world, the Avengers also inadvertently killed several bystanders. Civil War opens with another unfortunate incident of collateral damage, which leads the UN to want to leash the Avengers through a set of legal injunctions. Cap and Tony find themselves divided on this issue, as with so much else, and the rift soon spreads to the others as well. Black Widow, Vision, War Machine, and the newly introduced Spider-Man and Black Panther align with Team Stark; Falcon, Ant-Man, Bucky, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch align with Team Cap.

This conflict intersects with the return of the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes, who has at last begun to reclaim a measure of his own identity and sanity after the brutal events of the last Captain America film. Unfortunately, it is gradually revealed that is responsible for a number of important deaths, including that of Tony’s parents. The three men, and the rest of the Avengers, are actually being manipulated by Helmut Zemo, a survivor of Sokovia whose family was killed during their foiling of Ultron’s plan. While the three leads survive their titanic final clash, the rift remains largely unhealed as the credits roll.

I have heard this film referred to as a male weepie, and that is certainly an accurate description. Each of the three primary heroes has good reason(s) to feel as they do, even as we also recognize that it is their own stubborn belief in their rightness that is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. It is hard not to feel for each of them, as we know (even better than they do), all of the trials that have endured and how much baggage they continue to carry. It’s also hard not to feel a mingled sense of sadness and uncomfortable exhilaration as the three of them battle it out in the frozen wastes of Siberia.

The fraught relationship(s) among the three leads is troubling precisely because it intersects with the larger political and philosophical questions the film raises. And it is even more troubling because of how irresolvable they are. Should superheroes be subject to the stricter rules by the government, especially when their rise seems to cause that of the villains and threats they are then called on to confront? Is Tony justified in wanting to kill Bucky for the death of his parents, even though he was not in his right mind while he did it? These questions, like all of those asked in the Captain America films, resist the easy answers that the genre seemingly provides, precisely because the various opposing answers are equally valid. As always, the film ultimately denies us a satisfactory conclusion.

While the primary conflict is, of course, between Cap and Tony, and while the primary (b)romance is between Bucky and Cap, the supporting players are given plenty to do. Each of them must ultimately choose which side of this rift they are going to occupy, and Black Widow and Scarlet Witch are extraordinary in this regard. Both Scarlet Johansson and Elizabeth Olsen shine in their respective roles, though (as is unfortunately all too usual in the MCU), they are criminally underused in this film. It still confounds me that Black Widow has so far been denied her own stand-alone film, but hopefully that will change as the MCU makes a more concerted and genuine effort to diversify its offerings.

The two newcomers that enter the stage at this point deserve especial merit. Tom Holland as Spider-Man is truly one of the breakout stars in this film, as he manages to bring out just the right blend of nerdy and sassy. He is clearly star-struck by being in the presence of these magnificent superheroes who have been his own role models, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of his fighting ability. Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther likewise delivers a star-worthy performance, combining a resolute sort of honour with an ability to adapt. I know that I, for one, am really looking forward to the release of his own films (2018 can’t get here soon enough!)

The fight scenes are carried off with characteristic aplomb. I’m always struck by the strong bodily response these films elicit, as they encourage a feeling that through these antics the spectator can achieve a similar measure of bodily (super)agency. These superheroes are, in a way, our own bodily ideals sold to us

There are also a few moments of genuine sadness, as when we learn that Agent Peggy Carter has passed away in her sleep. While this is not shown on-screen, we are left in no doubt as to the effect this has on Cap, who clearly carried a torch for his former compatriot. Equally sad is Tony Stark’s regret over his adolescent petulance toward his parents on the night that they died, a traumatic memory that clearly casts a shadow even into the present. Both instances, different as they are, remain potent reminders of the central humanity of these superheroes, and a troubling reminder of how much gets left behind in their efforts to make the world a better place.

In the end, though, Captain America:  Civil War also leaves us with a troubling question. Are the Avengers really performing a service for the human race (as the surface narrative would suggest), or are they actually giving birth to the very forces that so frequently threaten the world and that they must then contend with? The question is actually posed by Vision who, as the sole nonhuman voice in the film, actually possesses a measure of intellectual and emotional distance from the events and their consequences. This is a question that the Avengers will continue to struggle with, and the fact that it is ultimately irresolvable may be the greatest hurdle they will have to collectively overcome.

It remains to be seen whether they will be able to do so.

The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “Blanche and the Younger Man” (S1, Ep. 9)

Today as part of the Great Golden Girls Marathon, I’ll be talking about a truly hilarious episode, in which Rose’s attempts to be caring of her mother end up smothering her, while Blanche finds herself (she thinks) pursued by a young, handsome man named Dirk.

As with so many episodes in the first season (and, indeed, the series as a whole), the episode remains concerned with the relationships among women. In this case, Rose struggles with the idea that she might lose her mother sooner than she would like, and she thus overcompsensates by smothering her mother with her protectiveness. Eventually, however, she has to accept the fact that her attempts to stop her mother from living (as Alma puts it), will not stop her from dying. She must, in turn, accept the painful yet liberating truth that the only thing they can do is to make the most out of the time that they have left with one another.

As Alma consistently demonstrates, she is more than capable of taking care of herself. Jeanette Nolan truly shines in her one and only appearance as Rose’s mother. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she also shows that she is not afraid to express her sexuality, and she shocks Rose by admitting that she had a brief but passionate liaison with a drifter and ex-convict after the death of her husband. Perhaps just as remarkable is the fact that she shows no sense of shame (not that she should). She freely owns her sexuality and recognizes that that particular relationship was something that she needed at that point in her life.

The other half of the episode, of course, deals with Blanche’s brief dalliance with a younger man. While she at first thinks this is a godsend, a means of recapturing her own rapidly vanishing youthful vitality, she all too quickly realizes that he really just sees her as a substitute for his mother. Naturally, she does not take this well, but the episode does nevertheless treat the older woman/younger man dynamic with a light and humorous touch. Fortunately, it doesn’t take the easy road and make Blanche an object of derisive mockery, but instead allows her to reclaim her agency in the end.

While at first I didn’t see a great deal of continuity in the episode, the more I thought about it, the more I realized there is a parallel to be found in that both Blanche and Rose have to contend with the fact of aging and with the ways in which American culture contends with motherhood. For her part, Blanche has to cope with the fact that she is not as young as she once was, but the episode does leave her with a revitalized sense of self-confidence and self-worth. Blanche will not be one to settle into that long goodnight.

Next up, the women must contend with the fact that Sophia may be having a heart attack, and the prospect of death causes Dorothy to recognize just how much she loves her mother and isn’t ready to say goodbye.

In Praise of “The Diane Rehm Show”

Anyone who knows me know that I am a huge fan of NPR. I mean, come on, I’m a doctoral student in an English department, OF COURSE I would love NPR. From This American Life to All Things Considered, I rely on public radio to provide me with a voice of reason about politics and culture. When it comes to NPR shows, however, one of my all-time favorites has to be The Diane Rehm Show.

Day after day, Diane Rehm goes on the air to bring to light important issues percolating in American politics and culture. While she often has shows that focus on the current politics, just as often she hosts a panel discussing such wide-ranging topics as the bleaching of the coral reefs (the subject of a recent episode), the blight currently affecting many commercial varieties of banana (still one of the most compelling episodes), and she also frequently hosts a guest author. The interviews with authors are often quite revealing, as they give us a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the creative mind.

I am a particular fan of the weekly news roundup on both domestic and international politics. While some have accused Ms. Rehm (and NPR more generally) of being straightforwardly leftist, I actually find her to be a moderate and rational voice. She frequently invites guests and panelists that are straightforwardly conservative, and will often have both a Democrat and a Republican during the same segment. She remains invested, in my mind at least, in cultivating civil dialogue across partisan lines, and that is an invaluable trait in these troubled and divided times.

While part of the pleasure of The Diane Rehm Show stems from what can be termed its NPR aesthetic, a greater measure comes from Ms. Rehm herself. She can be by turns charming and piercing in her critical questions. She is not afraid to ask her guests–no matter how exalted and self-confident they might be–the tough questions that she knows her listeners want answered. And if you think that you are going to get by with a bit of empty rhetoric, rest assured that she will nail you on it and demand a more straightforward answer.

Further, I have often been surprised by how mature the conversations are between Diane and her call-in guests. We all know how unpleasant these situations can get (there’s a reason I avoid comments sections like the plague), but somehow Diane manages to keep even the most unruly and sometimes uninformed voter on track, and she has that truly remarkable knack of turning even the most obtuse and arcane question or comment into something more relevant. She truly cultivates a magnificent marketplace of ideas, and it is not exaggeration, in my mind, to declare her (as many have before me), a true national treasure.

While Ms. Rehm has announced that she will retiring at the end of 2016, there is still hope that the show will carry on her remarkable legacy. A number of guest hosts have begun filling in for her with increasing frequency, among whom is my personal favorite, Susan Page of USA Today. Regardless of who ends up replacing her–or if, indeed, the series has a sustainable life at all after she leaves–there can be no doubt that Diane Rehm has made an indelible impression on the face of both NPR and on American civil, political, and cultural discourse writ large. I can think of no higher praise.

The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “Break In” (S1, Ep. 8)

In today’s entry, we discuss the episode “Break In,” in which the girls come home from a Madonna concert to find that their house has been burglarized. While Dorothy, Blanche, and Sophia recover fairly quickly from the incident, Rose finds herself caught up in a mental health spiral, unable to move past the incident. At last, however, she does manage to do so, but only after accidentally assaulting a parking garage attendant.

I’ve always found this a particularly compelling and in many ways heartbreaking episode. White continues to show her versatility as an actress, delivering comedic lines and expressing vulnerability with equal grace and skill; the scene where she finally breaks down always makes me choke up. Rose truly does suffer from a form of emotional paralysis, convinced that the robbers will return at any moment, a fear compounded (the narrative suggests) by her still-raw grief over her husband. In this episode, Rose cannot even find solace in the psychiatrist, who she sees as her last hope for returning to a state of emotional normalcy. She still struggles with the fact that she has to make sense of her life without the stable (male) presence that Charlie (who she oddly refers to as Charles in this episode) provided during their years together.

Through Rose’s central conflict, the series both asks and answers the question:  can women living on their own truly consider themselves safe? It is only when Rose learns that she can in fact defend herself that she can finally overcome her terror and return to a state of emotional balance. While the incident in question is a misunderstanding, it nevertheless allows the series to demonstrate that the four women are more than capable of taking care of themselves.

There are, of course, a few lighter moments in the episode, such as when Blanche realizes that she hid her jewels in the freezer rather than the flour jar. And of course there is the moment (which happens off-screen) when she inadvertently maces herself at the police station. While this is humorous in and of itself, it is McClanahan’s delivery of the recollection that really steals the show, as she delivers it with that absolutely fantastically hyperbolic Southern accent. And of course no discussion of the episode would be complete without mentioning the hilarious incident in which Rose accidentally shoots Blanche’s Chinese vase.

This is one of those finely-tuned episodes that so mark The Golden Girls at the height of its powers, when it manages to combine moments of biting social commentary with equally pointed moments of uproarious humour. With its message of female empowerment and uplift, this episode in particular demonstrates why the series continues to be as popular and timely as it was when it was first released in 1985.

In our next installment, Blanche decides to start dating a younger man, while Rose has to contend with the fact that her mother is growing steadily older (and we get to see guest star Jeanette Nolan, who is always a pleasure!)