EVERY NOW AND then a movie comes along that defines the term "chick flick."
Chick flicks are easy to spot: the movie posters are usually rendered in soft focus, with a close-up of an actor's face hazily superimposed over a landscape or tuft of foliage. These posters beckon you, and if you listen closely you can hear whooshy wind and a whisper that says, "Come see my movie, it's full of feeeeelings, full of feeeelings..."
Now don't get me wrong, I don't mean to insult chicks--not even chicks who dig chick flicks. It's just that the two latest chick flicks to hit the market, Little Women and Nell, are prime examples of ways that chick flicks can go wrong.
Little Women, based on the 1868 Louisa May Alcott novel, has a solid foundation: a story about girls becoming women. A journal-style autobiography involving episodes in the lives of Alcott and her three sisters, the story touches on love, sisterhood, death, liberation--everything you could possibly want from a chick flick. Though there is no particular plot and the narrative spans a half-dozen years, director Gillian Armstrong does a reasonable job maintaining momentum, and the sets and costumes are authentic but unobtrusive.
The real trouble with Little Women (besides the fact that the women all unnaturally face the camera when they hug) is a simple matter of acting. The leading role, a juicy, multi-faceted part that draws from a wealth of emotional situations, was given to Winona Ryder. Again and again, Ryder's performances in high-profile movies lead me to ask: Why does she keep getting hired? Does Ryder's agent own a copy of Heidi Fleiss' client book? Does Ryder have really nice business cards, with glitter and stuff on them?
Ryder was terrific in Heathers and Beetlejuice, where she played dippy, irritable teenagers. But her transition to grown-up movies has not been a smooth one. Forget about her token Oscar nomination; she just can't do serious acting. She lacks presence and her speech sounds like something you'd hear in a high-school play: hushed and fake. She's pretty, peppy and you can tell she's trying hard, but that's just the problem: you can tell. You shouldn't be able to tell.
That's never been a problem for Jodie Foster, at least not until Nell. In Nell, for every second that Foster is on the screen you are aware you're watching the techniques of an actor, not a character. But in this case it's not Foster's fault. The overbearing screenplay by Mark Handley simply requires too much of her.
Nell is a backwoods "wild child" who has never seen civilization and, in the absence of other people, has devised her own language. Two psychologists, played by Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, discover Nell and decide to study her to determine whether she should be put in a mental facility. Basically, whenever Nell yawns, Neeson is there with a pair of binoculars.
The movie hits all the usual chick-flick notes: Neeson and Richardson are both ailing souls, Nell is a noble savage, and it isn't long before Nell's purity leads her observers to come to terms with what's missing in their lives. Neeson and Richardson (who are an item in real life) fall in love, and the movie ends with a courtroom fight for Nell's rights as a human being. Director Michael Apted, who last worked with Foster on The Accused, takes all of this silliness very, very seriously.
For Nell, Foster is required to speak in a primitive language that makes her sound like E.T. with a head cold. She must stammer and screech and make bizarre gestures into a mirror. She has to get nude several times. And then there's the inevitable shopping-spree scene.
I don't know about you, but I don't want to see Foster Gump. I'm not interested in spending two hours watching this intelligent, versatile actress play a monkey girl. It's saddening to see Foster bare herself repeatedly at the service of a movie designed to do little more than jerk some tears and strike obvious emotional chords.
Then again, if you look at Foster's track record, she's always attempting roles that involve a lot of risk. She was a teen prostitute in Taxi Driver, a rape victim in The Accused, an FBI agent in Silence of the Lambs and a Southern belle in Maverick. She obviously loves stretching herself.
Looking at Winona's last few roles tells a different story. In The Age of Innocence, she played a young woman who is courted by a man with a goatee. In Reality Bites, she played a young woman who is courted by a man with a goatee. And in Little Women, she plays a young woman who is courted by a man with a goatee.
Performing in chick flicks is just one stop on Foster's acting adventure.
If Winona isn't careful, it could turn into her full-time career.
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