When a young woman in high school frets about the folks in Mogadishu–when, for that matter, she can spell “Mogadishu”–American moviegoers know she needs a fashion makeover, a boyfriend and an eventful night at the prom. She’s All That fully meets these expectations for its heroine, and exceeds them in ways that make me fear for the picture’s tender viewers.
These are likely to be in the 12-to-20 range. The 12-year-olds look ahead to the dangers and opportunities they will soon taste in high school. The 20-year-olds, if bored at the mall, will consent to glance back at embarrassments only recently escaped. Yes, our children are our future (I think Bill Clinton said that); but the future looks grim indeed if the makers of She’s All That have guessed right about their audience. Not only does the girl who can spell “Mogadishu” go to the prom–now she even learns to care about being elected prom queen.
I call these matters to your attention because high school is America’s great engine of normalization. Children in all their variety get dumped into its hopper, undergo processing and come out at the other end packaged as socioeconomic types. Acting as a safety valve for this machinery is the high school movie, which (among its other functions) vents the steam that can build up in the raw material. All that normalization can make kids feel odd. Pretty soon, they need to spend money at the multiplex, to watch other odd-feeling kids make peace with the social order. That’s what worries me. How meager is the pressure that builds up nowadays, if it can be relieved by She’s All That!
The symbolic oddball here is one Laney Boggs, played by a young actress whose parents certainly couldn’t handle “Mogadishu,” to judge from what they did to her name. (It’s Rachael Leigh Cook.) But, to resume: Our Laney suffers from being the middle-class kid in a rich kids’ school. Of course, she’s not so deprived as to lack a swimming pool; but since her father cleans pools for a living, we understand that she dwells in relative misery–a state aggravated by the absence of her mother, who died many years ago. Apparently, single-parent households are rare in the more affluent neighborhoods of Southern California, so Laney feels like a freak. She therefore shuns all contact with other students and spends her time painting dark, brooding canvases, in which she merges her own agony with a cry of pain for the victims of planned famines, or the ocean life killed off by waste disposal at sea.
In short, Laney has ideas and ambitions beyond those that are conventional for a young woman of her time and place. These needs, which cannot be understood by others or even expressed to them, compel her to put aside party dresses (though she looks fetching in them) and disguise herself in mannish clothes. But then, while giving a performance at a local theater, she is accosted by Zack Siler, a brilliant and sociable young man with a long face and dark, narrow-set eyes–someone who has “winner” written all over him and yet seems vulnerable, someone who holds forth the prospect of a love she longs for, while knowing it to be impossible.
But now that I re-read the last paragraph, it suddenly occurs to me that I’ve summed up Shakespeare in Love.
Can that, too, be a high school movie, slyly marketed to grown-ups? Perhaps that’s the source of its high reputation, which I would otherwise find inexplicable. Strip away the aura of prestige that comes with the name of Shakespeare–ignore the period setting, as the droll anachronisms encourage you to do–and Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love begins to look a lot like Freddie Prinze Jr. in She’s All That. Why not think of our latest movie Shakespeare as a senior class president and soccer team captain who (recently thwarted in love) now questions the talent that once flowed so amply through him? Only by seizing upon a woman and transforming her does this darling of the gods reassure himself of his right to greatness, and the rightnesss of the social order.
And so, in one film, Shakespeare converts Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) into his mistress, stage interpreter and fictional heroine, thereby growing into the writer he was meant to be. In the other, Zack remakes Laney as his prom queen and girlfriend, and so gets up the nerve to accept an invitation to attend Harvard or Yale, rather than his father’s alma mater of Dartmouth. Either way, it’s a tough business, being history’s greatest playwright, or a handsome rich boy who can take his pick of the Ivy League. Either way, it’s a necessary business for a young woman to accept her place in the world, as unhappy wife (Viola) or young chick who looks fetching in a party dress and no longer worries about Mogadishu (Laney).
I suppose Laney gets the better deal; 400 years have brought us a little improvement. I also suppose that an undisguised high school movie may proceed with a liberty that is denied when the genre goes incognito. Although Shakespeare in Love benefits from a delightful screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard–and a flattering one, for viewers who can congratulate themselves on recognizing this or that tatter of the Bard–the film’s virtues peter out beyond the level of verbal wit. The camera direction seems to have been bought by the yard; the supporting performances (for the most part) purchased off the shelf at some storehouse of British character actors. As for the leads: Although they catch the light beautifully, they may have something to do with my impression that Shakespeare in Love delivers everything it promises, except for the last two words.
But with She’s All That, we see how true garbage may nevertheless teem with a life of its own. The director, Robert Iscove, is a former choreographer who also has tried his hand at Shakespeare, with the televised extravaganza Romeo and Juliet on Ice. Although he has not imported from this background all the fluidity you might hope for, his training does seem to have contributed to two or three genuinely cinematic ideas in She’s All That. These are two or three more than you get with Shakespeare in Love: moments when two scenes glide effortlessly together, or when the camera loses itself in the pleasure of watching some outburst of physical energy. Matthew Lillard (known to the children who are America’s future as a bad guy from Scream) provides the funniest, most raucous of the latter moments in his role as a very minor TV star who hangs out around the high school. And as the leads, you have the lanky Freddie Prinze Jr. (who is so loose that his mouth sometimes wanders to the left while the rest of his face goes right) and Rachael Leigh Cook, who seems about nine inches too short to look like a star and turns it to her advantage. When Laney is supposed to be infuriated, her little frame quakes with rage. When Laney hopes to be kissed, she spills over with dark intensity.
I liked these people well enough that I left She’s All That wishing they had something better to do. Why shouldn’t Zack become independent from his father in a much bigger way–say, by taking up one of those causes that inspire Laney? (He could begin by protesting against the movie he’s in. Surely he did notice that the high school’s black kids are like figures in a Venetian painting, dancing attendance upon the whites.) And Laney, instead of dropping her causes (as she now does) could keep up with them, all the while plunging into the social whirl that Zack has revealed–maybe even getting together with more than one boy, for more than a single kiss. Artists do that sort of thing.
But having put up only the mildest revolt, Laney and Zack wind up settling for a mild resolution. Will it settle the 12-to-20-year-olds who go to watch? Maybe they’ll file out of the multiplex in full docility–their dissatisfactions, though unassuaged, rankling so slightly as to be unfelt. And someday, when needs left unmet since high school threaten to rise again, our citizens of the future will pass two hours with Shakespeare in Love, then comfort themselves by telling each other it was grand.
Screening Schedule: Grown-ups who don’t mind being challenged, and who happen to be in the New York area, might keep an eye out for the series “Empire and Memory” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. On view from February 17 through March 13, the series brings together films and videos that recall, evoke or carry on in some metaphorical way the 1899 war between the Philippines and its new possessor, the United States. The American side of the exhibition features everything from Thomas Edison’s filmed re-enactments of the Philippine-American War (made in 1899 with African-Americans substituting for Filipinos) to Peter Davis’s This Bloody, Blundering Business (1975), a satirical excursion through US intervention in the Philippines. The Filipino side includes Lino Brocka’s Dalawa (1976), a drama about a teenage mestiza in Manila and the ex-GI who is her father, and White Christmas (1993), Michael Magnaye’s highly personal reflection on the tackiness of Philippine popular culture and everything he loves about it. For information: (212) 360-4321.