Nick & Choose 20: Chick Flicks

Published Feb. 3, 2010

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Film School
Nick’s chick-flick survival guide

Women fully embrace the term “chick flick.” That was the first surprise as I began my research, and it’s the fact that may prove key to the whole enterprise.

For the ladies, let me explain the central conceit to guys’ movies: They appeal to our survival fantasies. Pit one man (Under Siege) or men (Hoosiers) against seemingly insurmountable odds (terrorists, South Bend Central High School), and you have a film that we’ll quote ad nauseam decades after its release.

For the men, deciphering what women see in chick flicks could help us endure the occasional saccharine overdose. So, like a cross between Roger Ebert and Jane Goodall, I took the apes to the movies. (First lesson: Women hate that analogy.)

My study began with My Sister’s Keeper, the story of a young girl with leukemia and the sister born to serve as her donor. With me was my friend Casey, who had read the book and informed me, “I started crying on page six. I couldn’t even finish the last chapter.” Can’t wait, I thought, opening the case to a film so sappy the DVD could’ve been made from candied maple syrup.

Before hitting play, I needed the ground rules. What should a guy do if his female companion starts to weep? “I would be insulted if you made fun of me—I know it’s ridiculous,” Casey said. “And don’t be like, ‘Oh, it’s OK.’ I’m not going to lose sleep tonight.” Yeah, but that wouldn’t be the worst time for a man to make a move, right? I mean, that’s part of the chick-flick appeal—there’s an element of romance. “I suppose you could take advantage if you really wanted to.” Well, that just makes it sound sordid.

As the cancer escalated and the voiceovers churned out lines like, “Everyone was so worried about my blood counts, they barely even noticed that Jesse was dyslexic,” the movie changed from chick flick to farce. So days later, I decided it was time to bring out the big guns: The Notebook and Susan, who had a feasible cinema theory of her own.

“You need relationship equality,” she explained. “In the bad ones, it’s mostly about the women, and the guy is a caricature: either Prince Charming or a dick.” Therefore Bride Wars = bad, (500) Days of Summer = good. In contrast, she had a second, less fair-minded idea: “I haven’t done the statistical analysis, but the people that champion crappy chick flicks are unhappy in their own relationships, or state of unrelationship—God, I sound like a horrible person.” Yes, you do, but it keeps me from stating such things.

Speaking of horrible, have you seen The Notebook? In terms of relationship equality, I found Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling identically irritating. Why is this the quintessential chick flick? According to Susan, “‘Cause Ryan Gosling is hot and manly and sexy and caring.” OK, OK, that’s enough.

Words delicately balanced between and advice and admonishment came as we settled down for my final trial. “It’s easy to make fun of The Notebook,” she said. “What’s not easy is letting yourself go.” It would be a task made difficult due to the next movie being The Proposal. I might like A-Rod more than Sandra Bullock.

But I found untapped mental muscle memory, developed through years of ESPN. Announcers like Joe Morgan make me want to ice-pick my ear drums, but I still watch sports. The key is active disengagement, a sifting for nuggets of interest amid intolerable sludge. While watching Bullock stomp around in red-soled heels, I compulsively uttered, “Oh, she’s wearing Blahniks.”

“No, those are Louboutins,” Susan corrected—she, clearly impressed, me, grateful I got that wrong.

Like a separate relationship issue, it helps to think about baseball. When you sit down and honestly pay attention to a game, there’s maybe four minutes of compelling content within a three-hour span of triviality. But you find what you like and accept the filler. And in the same way, women see the silliness in chick flicks. They just need men to do something we’re already trained for: Respect the absurdity.

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