Sunday, January 13, 2008

Love in New York

Prime (2005)

Trust the Man (2005)

What do two of the greatest chick flicks of all time have in common? Well, for one, both are set in New York City, and in both, the city is more than just a backdrop; it becomes a part of the fabric of the story. For another, neither are really chick flicks: their appeal is near-universal. Even the term ‘romantic comedy’ doesn’t really fit. Both are comedies in the same way that life is a comedy; sure, they have funny moments, but they’re also touching, sad, complex, and above all, honest about the way men and women interact.

I am talking, of course, about Annie Hall, the Woody Allen classic that was the last comedy to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally. Together with Allen’s Manhattan, they set the gold standard for an entire sub-genre of chick flicks, the New York City rom-coms. Trademarks of the sub-genre include lengthy montages of Manhattan scenery, and lead characters in their late 20s or early 30s with demanding high-powered careers and/or artistic aspirations, regular visits to therapists, and, often, an ‘urban family’ of like-minded friends doling out advice. Many of these movies also attempt a higher degree of wit and insight than your average chick flick; however, since the bar was set by Allen and Reiner in decades past, few have really pulled off this last trait.

In 2005, two fresh attempts were released: Ben Younger’s Prime and Bart Freundlich’s Trust the Man. Both directors consciously attempted to re-create the magic of Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally (thank you, DVD bonus footage) and while neither is perfect – and both were largely overlooked at the box office – they are, for me, two of the better efforts I have seen in recent years.

Prime stars Uma Thurman as Rafi Gardet, a recently divorced professional who is just starting to put the pieces back together when she meets David Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg - I heart him!), a twenty-three year old aspiring artist. Rafi’s shrink Lisa (Meryl Streep) is thrilled about the relationship… until she learns that Rafi’s new flame is her son. This is where Prime went wrong in the lead-up to its release, I think – the trailers billed it as a silly riff on the old mistaken-identity, who’s-who theme. From the previews, I expected it to be all door-slamming, closet-hiding, hilarious-costume type stuff, but while there’s some of that in the movie, there is so much more to Prime than goofy confusion.

The movie tackles real issues head on – from the problems that can crop up when two people love each other but are at very different stages in their lives, to the expectations of parents and family members about who their children ought to be settling down with. Uma Thurman and Bryan Greenberg have great chemistry, and Meryl Streep is, as usual, fantastic as a woman forced to think about supporting her son’s choices the same way she does her clients. Smart, funny, moving, with a great ending that got me a little teary – I think this one will become a required annual re-watch for me.

Trust the Man stars David Duchovny, Julianne Moore (director Bart Freundlich’s real-life wife), Billy Crudup, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as two inter-connected couples, both at crossroads in their relationships. Duchovny and Moore’s Tom and Rebecca are married with children, and Tom is adjusting to becoming a stay-at-home dad as Rebecca pursues her theater career. Billy Crudup plays Rebecca’s younger brother Tobey, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is Elaine, children’s book author and Tobey’s long-suffering girlfriend of eight years. As both relationships begin to unravel, the friendships between Tobey and Tom, and Rebecca and Elaine, are put under strain as well.

The cast is amazing and the script is fantastic, full of those slightly grim, funny-because-they’re-true relationship moments. Tobey and Tom in particular feel like real, flawed, authentic characters, and Freundlich does a great job of explaining them without necessarily forgiving them too easily. The movie lost me a little towards the end (I can rarely survive public confessions of love or any use of slow-motion), but still, all in all, it’s worthy of being called a descendant of the classics.

Both make great solo viewing (Prime especially – grab some Kleenex) and Trust the Man is probably one that the lads can enjoy as well. Trust the Man might also make good mother-daughter viewing, but I wouldn’t watch Prime with my mother unless I was trying to send her a message. (And even then, I’d find a convenient excuse to leave the room during the steamier scenes… but that’s me being kind of uptight.) Both these movies have been tragically overlooked – if you like smart movies about the way people really relate to each other, go out and rent them asap!

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