“I kept thinking she was the ugly duckling who was going to turn into a swan,” a fortyish loudmouth complained as the crowd trudged out of a preview screening of The To Do List. “But she was an ugly duckling all the way through!”
He was talking to two women of about his age, both laughing politely.
“Her body was pretty rockin’ though,” he continued. “Especially after she got that Wonderbra.”
That only sounds like something a writer would make up to kick off a piece like this one. The women continued to laugh that obliging way people do when they don’t want to hurt feelings but also don’t want to encourage anyone, either. Perhaps they’ve grown used to the confounded sputtering of this man who is discovering that, increasingly, not everything is marketed to him.
He needs to get used to it. One of the most remarkable scenes in The To Do List is the scene that the movie omits. Aubrey Plaza’s valedictorian, Brandy, dedicates the summer between high school and college to mastering all of the sex acts she fears she’ll be expected to know when she goes off to Georgetown–right up to unburdening herself of her virginity with the most ripped older dude in Boise. In the process, she does don a Wonderbra and sometimes ditches her glasses, but her transformation is not at all of the She’s All That variety. Instead, Brandy is going from un-sensual to confidently sexual, a change that’s all about her experience of the world rather than her appearance in it.
Writer/director Maggie Carey smartly upends the expectation–after Pretty Woman, Identity Thief, The Princess Diaries, and a kabillion others–that every comic heroine’s journey to love must include a hotness upgrade by an eager squad of fashion experts who are part fairy godmother and part NASCAR pit crew. (Sometimes it’s not experts but a bunch of BFFs coming together, doing up their friend like seniors decorating the homecoming float.) Instead, Carey gets what everyone who ever laughed at the unintentionally comic parts of She’s All That does: It wouldn’t take a village to primp up Aubrey Plaza and Rachael Leigh Cook enough to score with the hottest dudes in a high school.
The To Do List and the upcoming–and excellent–The Spectacular Now (August 2) both demonstrate a rare awareness of how attraction actually works among young people. Both Plaza’s Brandy and Shailene Woodley’s Aimee (in The Spectacular Now) are, objectively speaking, beautiful women. But the characters are both high-achieving academic types who have spent their school years disinterested in romance–they’re shy, they’re possibly nerds, they’re conscientious objectors, too smart to risk losing who they will become in real life for who they might be in high school.
Neither is quite an outcast, though, and neither needs a movie makeover to land boys who are temporarily cooler than they are. Instead, as both late bloomers set themselves to blooming, both do what real women have always done: dress up for the big night out without subjecting themselves to some grand transformation. Aimee slaps on some makeup and lets her hair down before heading out to a low-key kegger; it’s enough. Brandy, meanwhile, straps on that Wonderbra, shows off her lean torso, and seizes command of sex every chance she gets. They’re smart–when both do get laid, they demand condoms. More to the point, both recognize there is nothing wrong with who they already are, so both they and us are spared the makeover scene and its most pernicious assumption: That expensive gloss of professional fairy tale prettiness doesn’t just make a woman more desirable–it makes her worthier of love. What does it matter if the Pretty Woman is a prostitute? Have you seen how well she cleans up?
Just this spring, the team behind the godawful Identity Thief resorted to that nastiest of old makeover assumptions. After traumatizing Jason Bateman’s twerpy character with the revelation that sex is enjoyed by people who aren’t size zeros, the movie runs Melissa McCarthy’s batshit crook through a make-her-pretty spa. McCarthy and Bateman then share a dinner scene in a romantic restaurant, and she’s suddenly sweeter tempered, a little vulnerable, hardly the comic criminal beast she had been the previous hour. At last, Bateman’s character can look her in the eye. He even smiles at her–and then spends the rest of the film helping her instead of fighting her.
Fortunately, McCarthy’s is spared a princess-ing in The Heat, directed by sensible feminist Paul Fieg. There, it’s McCarthy who tries to work a makeover on Sandra Bullock’s prim cop, scissoring away her pantsuit until she looks like a Road Warrior who works in HR. That makeover doesn’t take, because Fieg knows the same thing that the teams behind The Spectacular Now and The To Do List do: Changing the look doesn’t change the person.
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