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The Other Woman Doesn’t Let Its Cast Be Great

The sexual politics of Nick Cassavetes’s decidedly un-romantic comedy The Other Woman are intriguingly European and, at their core, kind of groovy. Wronged Connecticut wifey-wife Kate (Leslie Mann) seeks out her husband’s mistress, sexy city-slicker and high-powered lawyer Carly (Cameron Diaz), looking to her for answers: Why is my husband such an asshole? And can we be besties? Carly, who began her relationship with Mr. Infidelity (played, with cool Michael Douglasian sleaziness, by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) not knowing he was married and cut him off once she got the tip, at first wants nothing to do with needy, high-strung Kate. But before long the two get cozy, and when they discover the philandering hubby has a third mistress, they pull her into their unlikely sisterhood, too. (She’s played, as a likably self-aware ditz, by well-known model Kate Upton.)

The basic idea behind The Other Woman is perversely progressive: When a straight married man strays in real life, the first person his scorned wife usually blames is the vixen who led him to the whoring bed. The underlying assumption, sexist at heart, is that women are the schemers, men the innocent naïfs. The Other Woman, written by Melissa Stack, doesn’t immediately buy into that baloney. And ideally, it would have provided a showcase for Diaz and Mann, both gangly, gifted comedians who know their way around a zinger, not to mention a pratfall. Each has a terrific moment or two: Mann’s Kate, weepily sprawled on the marital bed in her wedding dress, squirts Reddi-wip into her mouth straight from the can — she’s a pale, fragile meringue of temporary helplessness, channeling the lowest-of-the-low feelings modern women are never supposed to entertain but sometimes, at least secretly, do.

Diaz, who made such a gloriously unapologetic bad gal in Bad Teacher, has fewer opportunities for on-the-edge ridiculousness, but she’s a good sport all the way. Carly tumbles into the bushes and — surprise! — breaks off the heel of her shoe; she sprints goofily across a beach, a crazy windmill of arms and legs. But The Other Woman doesn’t give these actresses much to do except look ridiculous, if not sneaky and conniving. And in the end, they do what all women in comedies like this must: They pull their lives together and clink glasses over how awesome they are, without ever going to the trouble of being genuinely awesome.

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Jeanine Basinger Explains Why There’s So Few Great Marriage Movies

There’s a reason, beyond basic Judd Apatow oversaturation, that hardly anyone went to see his mewl of middle-aged despair This Is 40. A movie about a marriage already in progress—as opposed to one about a marriage just waiting to happen, the province of the romantic comedy—is always a tough sell. Forget that marriage movies offer fewer opportunities for full-on movie-star glamour (not that we get enough of that these days, anyway). There’s something soul-killing about watching Leslie Mann dress down Paul Rudd while he’s perched on the john. Real marriage involves enough toilet-bowl diplomacy as it is. Why go the movies to see it?

Jeanine Basinger pinpoints the problem in her perceptive and nimble book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies. Making movies that are truly about the state of being married has always been a thorny proposition. “Marriage, after all, was the known, not the unknown: the dull dinner party, not the madcap masquerade,” Basinger writes in her introduction. (She doesn’t say anything about toilets, but then, she doesn’t have to.) “Worst of all,” she continues, “marriage had no story arc. It just went on, day after day, month after month, year after year. Marriage took time, and movies had no time to give to it. A good story was usually a story in a hurry—good pacing being one of its best characteristics.”

Considering how hard it is to make a decent marriage movie, Basinger has dug up a surprising number of them for this book, her tenth. She approaches the subject with a sense of adventure that’s something like the euphoric energy that makes people crazy enough to put a gold ring on the third finger in the first place. Her prose is fluid and adamantly unacademic, whether she’s outlining and analyzing the plot details of a Depression-era picture about the pratfalls of hasty marriage—the way, for example, James Stewart and Carole Lombard stumble toward potential happiness in the 1939 Made for Each Other—or launching into a dazzling riff on the rambunctious yet delicately calibrated partnership of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy. (That show isn’t, of course, a marriage movie, but it exploded previous notions of how marriage—and pregnancy—could be portrayed onscreen).

Basinger begins with the silent era, in which comic actors like Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand depicted “wretched marital behavior”—including Mabel throwing things and Fatty falling down a lot, with occasional intervention by the police or an organ grinder and his monkey—to draw the audience into a misery-loves-company embrace. “What made it work,” Basinger writes, “was that although the movies were saying ‘marriage is a disaster’ they were also winking and adding, ‘but it’s our disaster.’ ” She nominates Cecil B. DeMille for the title “Father of the American Movie Marriage,” pointing out that the director’s Don’t Change Your Husband and Why Change Your Wife? “nailed down the pattern of serenity, chaos and restored order that wouldn’t be abandoned by marriage movies for decades to come.”

The bulk of the book is devoted to movies made under the studio system, addressing the ways Hollywood struggled to find new and engaging obstacles to throw in the path of its ring-bound couples. Basinger boils down a short list of the movies’ basic threats to happily-ever-afters: money, infidelity and/or adultery, in-laws and children, incompatibility, class, addiction, and murder. The first two, of course, are the most common, but Basinger really gets cooking when it comes to murder and addiction. Her breakdown of Nicholas Ray’s 1956 Bigger Than Life, “a monster movie in which the monster is a very nice husband,” captures the picture’s sense of reluctant hopelessness. James Mason plays a loving husband and father who’s transformed into an aggressive megalomaniac when he begins taking doctor-prescribed cortisone; wife Barbara Rush and son Christopher Olsen suffer immeasurably. Basinger notes that the happy conclusion is “neither convincing nor reassuring.”

Basinger spends the last section of the book, a very small chunk, on movies of the modern era, addressing pictures like Nora Ephron’s Heartburn but also enlarging the conversation to television shows like Friday Night Lights. But the best parts of I Do and I Don’t are somewhere in the middle—the section, for example, where Basinger contrasts the three film versions of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, made in 1934 (with Greta Garbo), 1957 (titled The Seventh Sin and starring Eleanor Parker) and 2006 (with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton). “With different shadings about the importance of love, the need for sex, the issues of motherhood, obedience, couples working together, reputations ruined by affairs,” Basinger concludes, “The Painted Veil offers options to each generation, and each era can make the Painted Veil it needs.”

It’s a shame This Is 40 was released just before the book’s publication. Basinger would have found a lot of meat there, but it’s probably safe to say that the picture’s poor us, with our too-big house and our not-quite-satisfactory sex life self-indulgence wouldn’t have escaped her. Not much escapes Basinger in I Do and I Don’t. In her introduction, she notes that when she first conceived the idea for the book, friends like Molly Haskell and David Thomson warned her of the dangers ahead. But then, embarking on a book like this is just as chancy an enterprise as getting into that shaky “I Do” boat and pushing offshore. In I Do and I Don’t, Basinger navigates the choppy waters deftly, and somehow, the strain of paddling rarely shows.

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Like Marriage, This Is 40 Is Long, Aimless, and Worth It

Sadly, country songwriters stand as nearly the only entertainers in our popular culture who craft memorable art on the subject of marriage, the state in which just less than half of Americans spend the majority of their lives. A few years back, Brad Paisley, one of Nashville’s best, wrote and recorded a wry waltz whose lyrics compared the odds of newlyweds lasting to those of an airliner making it to its destination. He concludes, on the chorus, “If love was a plane, nobody’d get on.”

But we still board, despite knowing those odds. And nobody bucks against them harder than writer/director/producer Judd Apatow, who has committed himself not only to matrimony but, with This Is 40, to something even less likely: making a good movie about it. He hasn’t quite succeeded, but he hasn’t made a bad one. In fact, the biggest problems with Apatow’s messy, sprawling, perceptive comedy have more to do with his goals than his execution. Jeanine Basinger diagnoses the difficulty he faces in her forthcoming book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in Movies: “Marriage had no story arc,” Basinger writes, describing old Hollywood’s reluctance to examine life after courtship. “A good movie was usually a story told in a hurry—good pacing being one of its best characteristics. Marriage took years to develop and mature.”

So, it’s easy to carp that This Is 40 is too long, too aimless, too alert to small resentments and too stingy with the comic set pieces and gel-capped life lessons that made Apatow’s Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin such hits. It’s even easier to complain, “The trailer promised big laughs and lots of triumphs, but other mostly the movie is devoted to showing us Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd pickle in each other’s presence.”

That’s all true. But those resentments are sharply observed, and the pickling is honest, more familiar from life than from movies, and almost always droll if not laugh-out-loud funny. A scene of husband Pete (Rudd) upsetting wife Debbie (Mann) with his bed farts is tinged with tragic truth—what is marriage but the process of acclimating to each other’s gasses? More painful still is the moment when Debbie, seeking sex, bares the breasts she has been worrying over as her 40th birthday approaches—only to be rebuffed as Pete monkeys with his iPad. (Mann is Apatow’s real-world wife, and the children in the movie are Apatow and Mann’s real-world children, so all this naked truth stuff is complicated.)

Occasionally, Apatow’s gifts for comedy and pain come together beautifully. Debbie and Pete laugh in bed about how much they hate each other, sometimes, and then how exactly they would murder each other. Her answer—a slow poisoning—gets more involved as she describes it, and Mann makes the most of her showcase: She plays it as if Debbie’s both pleased by the fantasy, a little turned on, but also a little upset by it—and more than a little invested in one-upping Pete. Debbie is the first female character in an Apatow film as engaging and fucked up as the boys.

Rudd dampens his natural charm, but he’s funny when not brooding. The Apatow children, though, are both marvelous. One searing eruption from Maude Apatow, age 13 at the time of filming, marks the film’s emotional high point.

This Is 40 offers story beats but nothing like a story. The family is having money troubles, which stands to reason considering both Debbie and Pete have cute movie-character jobs: She runs a teensy boutique, and he owns a record label that only releases music by over-the-hill alt-rockers. (Pete is a dick about his belief that rock music being the only real music, and his principled devotion to Graham Parker threatens his family’s lifestyle.) Meanwhile, between fights and reconciliations, the couple frets about turning 40, endures unsatisfying visits to and from their fathers (Albert Brooks and John Lithgow), and tries to ween the family off wifi and junk food. That last story element is somewhat baffling: The fit Rudd and Mann do not at all look like the scared-of-salad schlubs they’re playing.

What the movie most resembles is a “harold,” one of those improv shows where the troupe takes one suggestion and then develops inter-related comic scenes based on everything that suggestion might possibly contain. Some scenes work; some don’t. Only one is as funny as those in Apatow’s first two films—it involves an agitated Melissa McCarthy—and a couple break the film’s reality. Pete suggests to his kids that rolling a rubber tire with a stick is just as fun as playing with their many i-devices, and it’s impossible to tell if he’s joking. If he is, he’s not funny; if he isn’t, he’s too dumb for us to invest in.

Apatow hasn’t quite beaten the odds, and the film—like his undervauled Funny People, which improves with re-watching—will play best for audiences who know what they’re in for. Much like marriage, This Is 40 is somewhat formless, and it almost never hurries up. But life is improved by having the option.

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Pissing Their Lives Away in The Change-Up

A uniquely Freudian entry in the body-switching comedy canon, The Change-Up stars Jason Bateman as standard-issue anal-retentive lawyer/family man Dave and Ryan Reynolds as Dave’s classically anal-expulsive stoner/playboy childhood friend Mitch. When sober, Dave begrudgingly tolerates Mitch’s wild-animal routine. One night, when both are drunk, Dave admits he’s secretly jealous of Mitch’s life of reckless indulgence. Grass, greener, etc. “You come home every day, and you’re surrounded by people who give a shit about you!” Mitch exclaims, not for the first time betraying his soft spot for Dave’s wife, Jamie (Leslie Mann). “What more could you ask for?” Ask a stupid question, etc. Dave’s answer: “I want to have sex with strangers!”

This mutual envy established, Dave and Mitch wake up the next morning having exchanged bodies, thanks to some mechanics involving a stroke of lightning and public urination—all of it hazy enough that it makes one long for the comparative narrative clarity of the magic Native American Tabasco sauce of Like Father, Like Son.

Directed by David Dobkin (whose workmanlike brand of broad Dudes Gone Wild comedy can also be seen in The Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus), The Change-Up might not be terribly interested in explicating exactly how pissing can activate the transfer of a soul from one corporeal vessel to another, but then, it’s also not terribly interested in souls. What it is interested in is piss, not to mention corporeal vessels—the ugly realities of bodies and the fluids they excrete.

This is hit-or-miss stuff. For every genuinely, productively strange conversation between Dave and Mitch about one or the other’s penis (one of which happens simultaneous to a legitimately gonzo set-piece involving two toddlers running amok in a spectacularly un-baby-proofed kitchen), there are seemingly three gags centered on the simple fact that shit, literally, happens. But at least this scatological focus undeniably, unexpectedly tweaks the basic tropes of the switcheroo flick (such as the WTF? moment of recognition, here made literal when Bateman looks into a mirror and exclaims, “What the fuck?!?”) with a kind of horror-comedy built around men in their late 30s confronting the basic facts of bodily function as if for the first time.

A rare R-rated entry in a genre usually geared to teens, The Change-Up pivots on the discrepancy in life experience and hipness between an adult and an adolescent, and, uh, distinguishes itself by maintaining an extreme, puerile worldview while finding a way to wedge “adult language” into virtually every sentence. Also there’s at least one instance of nudity for every actress with more than one or two lines. For the trouble of disrobing, all of these female characters are rewarded with sexual rejection, in two cases because their male partners are horrified to learn that women have working assholes. One of these women persecuted for defecating is played by Mann who, as usual, is so naturalistic that her character’s humiliation is actually heartbreaking.

That, essentially, is The Change-Up‘s trajectory: from shit to schmaltz. “We have to use this!” Mitch says through Dave’s mouth. But, par for the course, attempts to capitalize on their mystical accident turn the two bros into Better People. Dave and Mitch use one another’s bodies to launch journeys of self-discovery. Their involuntary disguises allow them to learn what people really think of them, and instead of the restoration of manhood each hoped for—sexual for Dave, professional and familial for Mitch—the men get their egos further bruised and are reminded of their manly deficiencies in ways that make them desperate to redeem their real lives.

Once Dave and Mitch work out all their shit (metaphorically speaking) and some kind of order is restored, the only thing left to do is confront their latent longing for one another. The film’s final dialogue exchange reveals The Change-Up to be one long setup to a bromantic joke that, in a roundabout way, maybe comes closer than any previous film to fulfilling that woebegone subgenre’s implicit homoerotic endgame. In a film about two straight men coming to terms with their true selves while being forcibly confronted by their fear of anal function, it’s almost a surprise these guys stop just short of actually Doing It.

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Emasculated Bird Can’t Get It Up in Animated Yawner Rio

Parrot sex is the narrative impetus of Rio, and yet there’s still little spark to this animated tale of a domesticated Minnesota macaw named Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) who’s reluctantly taken to Brazil by his clingy owner, Linda (Leslie Mann), in order to mate with the last of his kind, tough beauty Jewel (Anne Hathaway). Greedy smugglers, a gang of thieving monkeys, the impending chaos of Carnival, and the initial incompatibility of Jewel’s confidence and Blu’s neurosis—epitomized by his inexplicable inability to fly—all conspire to frustrate the duo’s fated coupling. More exasperating, however, is the conventionality of this ornithological odyssey, which, like Blu, is unwilling to leave its comfort zone and take daring flight. Rather, director Carlos Saldanha delivers only kids’-film-certified staples, from slapsticky set pieces and wisecracking sidekicks to a supplementary human romance and a nasty villain in white cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement). Though mercifully light on pop-culture references, the movie is leaden in terms of comedic momentum; while the animation has bounce and kaleidoscopic colorfulness, its character models are as run-of-the-mill as the sporadic musical numbers are superfluous. Too timid to be either inspired or outrageously inept, Rio is merely a bird of a familiar feather.

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Zac Efron Allowed to Grow Phallus for 17 Again

This much is for sure about the makers of the new Zac Efron picture 17 Again: They know their audience. Scientifically engineered for maximum shriek-and-squeal value among Efron’s legion of distaff tween fans (and no small number of lonelyheart cougars and gay men), the movie opens on His Zackness’ sweaty, shirtless torso glistening under the lights of a high school gymnasium, as his character, 17-year-old basketball phenom Mike O’Donnell, practices his jump shot before a big game. This is quickly followed by a scene of Efron/O’Donnell busting an impromptu move with the cheerleading squad, shaking his metrosexual bootie for all it’s worth—which, judging by the combined grosses of Hairspray and the High School Musical franchise, is considerable.

The year is 1989, and O’Donnell seems to be living a gilded existence, with college scouts on his back and the prettiest girl in school on his arm—until, moments before the game, fair Scarlet tells him she’s pregnant with their baby, causing Mike to throw up a brick on the court and squander his shot at college hoops. The more crushing blow, however, may be the one that this Warner Bros. movie deals to the Disney executives who have so carefully sculpted Efron into an icon of chaste, non-threatening masculinity on par with the brothers Jonas. Evidently, all the pre-release publicity positioning 17 Again as Efron’s first “grown-up” movie was about one thing: He has finally been allowed to grow a phallus.

This, alas, is the only novel or transgressive touch to be found in 17 Again, a reverse-engineered Big in which O’Donnell (played as an adult by erstwhile Friend Matthew Perry) gets a chance to revisit his adolescent glory days in his glorious, adolescent body. The point, of course, is that Mike has been psychologically stuck in high school mode for the last 20 years anyway—an unhung hammock and a half-built barbecue pit are among the Freudian evidence of a chronic inability to make good on his ambitions. When we first meet grown-up Mike, he’s at the brink of divorce from the adult Scarlet (Leslie Mann) and estranged from his two moody teenagers (Michelle Trachtenberg and Sterling Knight). Then fate intervenes in the form of a fairy godjanitor (Brian Doyle-Murray), who sprinkles a little hocus pocus on a despondent Mike, bringing the movie’s title to fruition and restoring Efron to the fore.

Mike doesn’t literally travel back in time like the title character in Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, thereby sparing screenwriter Jason Filardi and director Burr Steers from having to navigate any of the emotional landmines that might come with being young again (like re-living doomed relationships and re-encountering dead friends and relatives). Nor does Mike have to labor much to convince lifelong pal Ned (Thomas Lennon) of his predicament, since Ned—a millionaire software developer/sci-fi geek living in his own state of arrested development—isn’t the sort to question a sudden episode of bodily transmutation. So with Ned posing as his father, Mike enrolls at the local high school, where he sets about righting the wrongs of his past, while trying to deter his own children from following in his footsteps.

This isn’t the first time that Steers has plumbed the depths of postpubescent awkwardness on screen. But whereas his 2002 debut feature, the insipid Catcher in the Rye knockoff Igby Goes Down, aimed for art-house credibility, 17 Again finds Steers embracing his inner sitcom director; the garishly lit, poorly framed images seem to have been enlarged against their will to fill the cinema screen, while Rolfe Kent’s incessantly antic, brassy score is the musical equivalent of a laugh track. The aesthetic crassness is a natural fit for Filardi’s screenplay, which fastens together scraps of many a duly forgotten 1980s body-switching comedy (Like Father, Like Son, anyone?) with reams of below-grade-level dialogue. The high school itself is more Saved by the Bell than John Hughes, with crowds of badly directed, Sunday-supplement extras flaunting cell phones as if they were extraterrestrial communicators, and a tattooed, beady-eyed, alpha-male bully who looks more like a Rikers Island lifer than a 12th-grade jock.

All this is but the window dressing, however, for 17 Again‘s squirm-inducing coup de grace—the courtship of the thirtysomething Scarlet by the teenaged Mike, the smarminess of which is less about the intimations of statutory rape than the humiliating way Mann (who doesn’t realize that the boy is really her soon-to-be ex) is made to prowl around Efron as though he were a fresh piece of loin. Those scenes are in line with the movie’s generally hateful attitude toward women young and old—something one wonders if the movie’s target viewers will be ruffled by or blithely ignore—who are uniformly portrayed as ball-busting shrews, frigid ice queens, or hot-to-trot vixens. In one inevitable scene, Mike is nearly seduced by his own daughter. In another, three teen vamps proposition him by promising that he doesn’t even have to remember their names.

Efron is, to put it mildly, the least of the movie’s problems. Nuance may not be his strong suit, and he never gives himself over to the part physically, the way Jamie Lee Curtis did as the girl-woman of Freaky Friday, but he plays most of the big moments well enough (verbally cutting down a bully in the cafeteria, preaching abstinence in a sex-ed class), and seems altogether more at ease than he does doing 1930s dress-up in Richard Linklater’s forthcoming Me and Orson Welles. But if this is one small step for the actor toward becoming a leading man, it is, for Hollywood movies, one more giant leap into infantilism.

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It’s a . . . Hit!

A few friends of mine who’ve adored Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up at early screenings have nonetheless voiced a similar complaint: There’s no way pin-up-pretty Katherine Heigl would end up with soaked-in-bongwater Seth Rogen, not even while drunk on a gallon of Everclear and stoned on a field of your finest homegrown. Which may be true; this is the geek’s fantasy, after all, not the princess’s.

In Apatowland, the lunch-room loner always winds up with the homecoming queen. It happened on NBC’s Freaks and Geeks, in which nebbishy Sam Weir wound up in a spare bedroom with pom-pom–pushing Cindy Sanders; it happened on Fox’s Undeclared, in which nebbishy college freshman Steven Karp lost his virginity to the adorable Lizzy Exley; and it certainly happened in
The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in which nebbishy Asia fan Andy Stitzer put action in his figure with hot granny Trish.

In Apatow’s world, the guy, no matter how frumpy or klutzy, always gets the girl. The writer-director has replaced George Lucas as the geek’s God of Thunder by promoting the nerdling, long confined to Bionic Woman/Wonder Woman girl-on-girl make-believe, to the bedroom, where he is ready to get . . . it . . . on. By which Apatow means, of course: He’s ready to grow up, accept the torturous responsibilities of adulthood, marry, raise loving, compassionate children—and, yeah, maybe move out of the shithole he shares with four slack-ass roomies whose idea of a night out is going to pick up the pizza after emptying Bong Jovi.

If you don’t buy Apatow’s premise that a woman celebrating her promotion to E! on-air correspondent would share her bed with a guy who dreams of operating a nude-celeb website, then wind up trying to get through a pregnancy with him despite the protestations of her sister in whose guesthouse she lives, there’s always a gauzy Richard Curtis romance on cable. And if you’d been paying attention to Rogen’s career, you’d know that he’s an engaging, warm, and real leading man who deserves to get the girl.

Rogen plays a guy named Ben Stone, who’s been stoned most of his adult life—he’s living the dream, he tells his old man (Harold Ramis, genius casting). He lives with four pals, all Apatow veterans who reek of sweat and herb: Jay (Jay Baruchel), Jason (Jason Segel), Jonah (Jonah Hill), and Martin (Martin Starr)—and, yes, the fact that the actors share their characters’ names suggests they’re familiar with short-term memory loss. Together they dream of starting a website called “Flesh of the Stars” devoted to detailing the precise moment when actors shed their clothes in movies.

Heigl, free from the gloomy climes of Seattle Grace Hospital, is Alison Scott, who’s been promoted from E! segment producer to on-air talent, alongside Ryan Seacrest as a delightfully bitchy version of himself. She lives with her sister and brother-in-law (Paul Rudd)—proof that one can be successful and stunted. After her promotion, she goes to a club with her sister (Leslie Mann, the real-life Mrs. Apatow) and winds up in bed with Ben; in the morning, his flabby naked ass serves as a grim reminder of the previous night’s debauched misstep. Turns out, of course, he misunderstood her command to “Just do it already!” the night before and ditched the condom with which he was fumbling; hence, the gift that keeps on giving in nine months. (In Apatow’s movies, men never know how to put on a condom, perhaps because they seldom have the opportunity to use one.)

What happens, of course, is inevitable: A mistake turns into an accidental relationship turns into True Love turns into heartbreak turns into happiness at last, which gives nothing away, because Apatow is not one to betray the characters he loves like family. (In many instances, they are his family: Apatow and Mann’s young daughters appear in the film as Rudd and Mann’s daughters.) It’s the journey—which lasts more than two hours, and feels much shorter—in which the audience is meant to find delight and even a bit of melancholy, as Apatow wrings the biggest laughs from the smallest moments (a trip to the gynecologist, say, or the way Rudd ogles chairs in a Vegas hotel room) and finds absolute truths in fleeting and mundane occurrences (like when Mann’s character finds her husband’s been secretly skipping out on her for a fantasy-baseball draft).

Ultimately, what makes Knocked Up a terrific film—one of the year’s best, easily—is its relaxed, shaggy vibe; if it feels improvised in places, that’s because Apatow trusts his actors enough to let them make it up as they go, like the people they’re playing. It’s more than just a loose-limbed variation on About a Boy. It’s a sincere meditation on adulthood, accountability, and fidelity—and, yeah, getting high.

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NY Mirror

Hideous Kinky is neither hideous nor kinky. Discuss. But David Cronenberg‘s eXistenZ—about people ramming electrodes into each other for recreational purposes—is certainly eXistenZ-ial. Watching the trippy, oozy flick, I agreed with Jude Law‘s character’s observation, “I find this disgusting, but I can’t help myself” (though his other big line—”I have this phobia about getting my body penetrated”—is more up for debate).

The penetrating premiere bash was at the suitably sci-fi–ish Float, where Michael Stipe got up on a lit runway and performed a little dance as model-singer Bijou Phillips jumped me and said, “Don’t you dare dis that movie!” Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t, since Cronenberg had just arrived, not looking the least bit disgusting as he told me he’s never grossed out by his own work. “Part of my agenda,” he said, “is to change the aesthetic sensibility of my audience.” Another part, apparently, is to avoid that rival alternate-reality epic The Matrix. (“I’m not gonna rush,” said Cronenberg.) As for The Phantom Menace, “I’ll see it in three years. I don’t want to line up.” Honey, line up now and you’ll see it in three years.

Queue up for Get Real and you’ll get the new (if not as compelling) Beautiful Thing, down to the plus-size fag hag, though both projects actually started as plays around the same time, back when only AfterSchool Specials were covering the coming-out process. What distinguishes this closet-buster is the bawdy bathroom setting where various blokes pantingly seek out loo-d behavior. At a dinner for the movie, its writer Patrick Wilde told my pretend-innocent ass that such places really exist in England. “People stand at urinals and display erections,” he said, as I tried to look stunned. “We call it cottaging. Very much the George Michael kind of thing. It’s extraordinary to me that he needed to do that. He’s handsome and rich and presumably can have any man he wants. There must be a peculiar thrill about that kind of behavior which is almost like a narcotic.” “Gosh, beats me!” I said, affecting my most wide-eyed Annie Warbucks expression yet.

The next night, I emerged from the john at Nobu and found a party for the kitschily fun Aussie film The Cottage—I mean The Castle—so I promptly shoveled in the sushi and asked the director, Rob Sitch, if he hopes to change the aesthetic sensibility of his audience. “We’re so used to low hopes,” he said, “that having the movie released at all is a highlight.” He smirked and added, “Fortunately, we have no competition. Like Star Warsthat’s not gonna be big, is it?” Honey, line up now, etc., etc.

A potential bantam menace, The Civil War turns out to be a gun-totin’ Broadway tuner in which even the slaves wear head mikes, along with their shrouds of nonstop nobility. In fact, all the characters are iconic and all the songs are anthemic, and the effect generally sounds like a male Lilith Fair starring Foreigner, James Taylor, and Alabama—but you might as well drop your phobia about being penetrated by sentiment and give in. The showstopper-laden production happens to be gorgeously sung (Keith Byron Kirk has special star power), and your emotions are roused, even if by force. Critics be damned—The Civil War wins.

Not so The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm, which is neither fascinating nor rhythmic, and which succeeds only in updating the Gershwins to the ’70s. Except for a fabulous rumba number, it’s like a tacky old TV special, but with no stars!

Off-Broadway, Clea Lewis is updating herself with Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight, a boudoir comedy coming to the Promenade about three couples who toss off racy quips in their skivvies. “I feel good about it,” Lewis told me about her underwear exposure. What she’s less ebullient about is the demise of Ellen, on which she played the kooky Audrey. As she remembers it, “The network’s actions seemed to be slightly insidious by omission instead of active animosity. They’d promote the night’s lineup until our show.” That’s not too gay, is it?

It wasn’t Lewis’s first botched TV experience; a few years ago, she was in a short-lived series called Flying Blind, which she thought was brilliant, “but nobody watched it. I played Tea Leoni‘s roommate and was a manic-depressive, moody, spooky young lady—the antithesis of Audrey and much closer to me, actually.” Alas, offscreen, people generally expect her to be Audrey. “They assume I’m perky and delightful,” she related, “but I’m not. Well, I’m delightful, but not perky.” I’m neither.

MOMA’s special showing of the delightful but not perky North by Northwest began with a Hitchcockian moment of suspense when a museum rep mistakenly announced that we were seeing Rear Window. That would have been fine too, but as long as we were getting North by Northwest, it made sense that Eva Marie Saint was there, gushing of the classic flick, “I have such wonderful memories and a scar!” Saint said that the much misrepresented Hitch actually loved actors, “and I always called him my sugar daddy because I had beautiful clothes.” Hmmm. As for her hot-daddy costar Cary Grant, “Everything you thought he was, he really was.” Now don’t go there, girl.

No connection here, but there are two new gay bars on Avenue A. The Starlight—from the Wonder Bar folks—is a cozy cruise lounge, and Phoenix—courtesy of the Bar’s ex-owners—is where you’ll generally see two guys licking each other’s faces at the bar (and no, it’s not always the same two guys). There must be a peculiar thrill about that kind of behavior which is almost like a narcotic. Westward, at the Roxy, Ivana Trump made a surprise appearance the other night and special-requested a visit to the go-go boys’ dressing room—no doubt to compare jewelry.

And now, if I may remove my drop earrings and launch into the obligatory bad news: Thanks to an abundance of media chasing around the same number of celebs, entertainment journalism has fallen prey to a bizarre balance of power whereby publicists call the shots; they’ve become the editors, and the editors are merely their enablers. Case in point: A colleague of mine was recently assigned to interview a major star for a glossy magazine. He was told that the star’s PR firm had to approve his writing samples, insanely enough, and though they mercifully gave him a thumbs-up, her record label then decided to put in their own two demented cents. Since they had the choice, they decreed that they’d rather have more of a music writer do the story—so the poor guy lost the assignment!

Sadly, I may have started this trend some years ago when a publicist asked if I was interested in interviewing actress Amy Madigan. I was desperate, so I said yes, only to have the flack ask me to send my clippings for Madigan to peruse. I must have been really hard up because I actually sent them, thinking that would just be a formality—but then I never heard back! Amy Madigan! More recently, a publicist for an even lesser-known diva, Leslie Mann, was willing to let me interview Mann for a national magazine as long as I signed an agreement that I wouldn’t also talk about her on The Gossip Show. Leslie Mann! Shouldn’t she be begging to be on The Gossip Show? I give up—I’m becoming a publicist. It’s a real cottaging industry.

Oh, as long as we’re ranting, Ricky Martin, please stop with the girlfriend talk, girlfriend! That’s hideous kinky.