Last Sunday night, Chris and I decided on the spur of the moment to go see a movie; at 10:30 on a Sunday, however, the only thing showing was How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. This blip of a film may remember itself to you from its preview (which ran before Pineapple Express, Burn After Reading, and a number of other summer hits), but I doubt it’ll be in theaters at all come this weekend: it opened at a dismal #19, which is shockingly poor for a major-studio film in its first week of release. And I’m not going to insist that How to Lose Friends has much to recommend it, either; it’s a trifling romantic comedy that skirts some interesting moral issues in favor of being likable. Frankly, it’s not that likable. Simon Pegg (one of the impresarios behind the brilliant Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, as well as Spaced, which is on my to-watch list) gives the character his all, but it’s underdeveloped, and Kirsten Dunst’s perpetually-pissed-off love interest (the opposite, really, of her Manic Pixie Dream Girl turn in Elizabethtown) doesn’t really win a lot of affection from the viewer.
The interesting thing about How to Lose Friends, for me, was the handful of sly references that it dropped in the background. A minor plot point in the film is that Dunst’s all-time favorite film is La Dolce Vita, which, like How to Lose Friends, is about the simultaneous allure and peril of celebrity journalism. From my perspective, at least, this is weird. If you’re writing a crappy studio comedy about celebrity journalism, why would you drop in constant allusions to a film that is not only one of the greatest of all time– but also does a much better job making comedy out of celebrity journalism? And that’s not the only allusion in the film; Jeff Bridges’ editor character has the French poster for Godard’s peerless Contempt in his office, another film about…the simultaneous allure and peril of celebrity journalism.
“Maybe they just want to prove that they’re smart,” Chris noted, and while I do think that’s a relevant point, I think it may be even worse than mere ego. I think these little references are a cry for help– and this isn’t the only place I’ve seen them, either.
Almost every major-studio romantic comedy has some kind of tiny plot point revolving around a beloved piece of high culture. I remember almost nothing about Jennifer Garner’s Big clone 13 Going on 30 (including why I saw it), save that it had a number of references to Talking Heads in it. (They were the favorite band of the love-interest character, played by Mark Ruffalo.) My favorite movie around age 10 or so was the Uma Thurman-Janeane Garofalo rom-com The Truth About Cats and Dogs, a diffuse 90’s take on Cyrano de Bergerac. That film prominently featured Barthes’ Camera Lucida and the letters of de Beauvoir and Sartre among more relevant plot devices, like a dog on roller skates.
I’m really not making that last part up.
So why the breadcrumb trail of high culture amidst the low? To me, it seems almost like a cry for help. Most young scribes don’t head out to Hollywood with dreams of writing 13 Going on 30. To put it in the terms of the best work on this subject, Barton Fink, they want to inspire the proletariat, and they usually end up writing a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. But if one person who goes to see their middling romantic comedy picks up a Fellini DVD or a Talking Heads album, perhaps they can feel a little better about what they’re doing. And yes, proving they’re smart does have something to do with it, but I think it’s less grandstanding and more “Please realize that I have good taste and let me out of this cinematic ghetto.”
Or maybe all one incredibly savvy recruiting tool devised by studios: sneak a few brainy references into some dinner-and-a-movie pabulum, let one or two people follow the trail and become culture snobs, have those people come out to Hollywood with Big Dreams of being A Real Writer, assign them crappy movies to write. Repeat cycle indefinitely.
Either that, or let them become amateur film critics who warm slightly to crappy movies because of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references to things they actually like.