Saturday, April 26, 2008

Smitten with Kunis

This is another, still rare, non-linguistics post about movies (I suppose I could try to draw some connection to the Netflix Prize or Recommender Systems, but, yawn, this is what it is, a movie post).

I watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall yesterday. I feel the need to defend that choice, but I’ll do that later. After seeing it, I find I’m smitten with Mila Kunis, and not just because her name is Mila Kunis. I knew of Kunis through That 70s Show (although, like most people, I stopped watching midway through the third season, and that was a long time ago), but more through her voicing of Meg on Family Guy.

In Forgetting Sarah Marshall she is given the right blend of sweetness and tenacity to play to her talents (her screaming match with an ex-boyfriend was literally laugh-out-loud funny) plus she has an awesome tan. Her tan is so awesome, it’s like a separate character. They could have just put Kunis and her tan next to the ocean and I probably would have watched for the same 112 minute run time. It’s an impressive feat to get a Ukrainian THAT tan and not kill her. I don’t know what combination of chemicals and baby oil they used, but it worked. Zonker Harris would be proud.

And this is the essential hook, isn’t it? In order for a romantic comedy to work, the viewer has to become smitten with one of the leads (or both, if that’s your thang baby, make Paglia proud … on a random related note, is Torchwood the most bi-curious TV show in history?). In any case, I walked away from this movie smitten with Mila Kunis.

While watching this movie, I couldn’t help but reflect on the lack of women in Hollywood who have the two most important characteristics of a romantic comedy lead: adorability and comedic talent. Meg Ryan had lots of one and little of the other; frikkin Sandra Bullock had neither yet still managed a decade long career.

Kunis has both. She’s cute as all hell and she can bring the funny (and did I mention the awesome tan?). The only other actress today with both of these crucial qualities (sans tan) is Ellen Page (my first impression of her is here) but I fear Page may be limited to the wise-cracking smart-ass. I haven’t seen her step out of that role yet (even her small roles in the X-Men movies had this tinge to them).

Unfortunately, since the corporate takeover of Hollywood in the 1980s, the romantic comedy has been staffed by pretty dolls with little talent (both male and female). But this is why most romantic comedies fail. They have dull leads. The corporate suits create a table of demographics, then plot a script accordingly, then plug in the two actors de jour and voilà!

Now the romantic comedy may finally be coming out of its stupor. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the latest installment of Apatow Inc’s refashioning of the genre, and god bless ‘em because most romantic comedies suck.

Box Office Mojo has a list of the 300 top grossing romantic comedies since 1978, and it’s depressing. The highest grossing romantic comedy of all time is, by itself, reason to contemplate suicide. Even as you scan the large list of movies, it’s a wasteland of forgetability. But that’s the downside. The upside is that the romantic comedy genre has produced a handful of unforgettable films like His Girl Friday, Harold and Maude, and Annie Hall. There is nothing wrong with the genre itself. Hell, most epic poems suck ass, but that’s no reason to throw out The Odyssey.

More to the point, there are good romantic comedies (and John Cusack has been in most of them; if you haven’t seen Grosse Point Blank or High Fidelity, you’re missing out). I've highly recommended Juno as a great version of the genre (regardless of what my colleague may think, thppt!), but I can't equate Forgetting Sarah Marshall with Juno, smitten or not. But it is a good romantic comedy, just worth the matinée price I paid.

And that brings me to my reasons for choosing this particular film. I have no shame in going to see a romantic comedy, because I want to see another Annie Hall. I want the genre to succeed. I think Apatow Inc. stresses writing and comedy talent more than most producer-driven entourages, so they’re producing films that, in the very least, are funny and entertaining. Plus, I was bored and M. Faust gave it a good review, even though he doesn’t mention Mila Kunis (Bastard! Did you not see her awesome tan?).

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