The joy of life: The happily-ever-after of "Mamma Mia" may have been more generous than other women-focused films of '08. (Photo by Peter Mountain/courtesy Universal Studios)

The Year in Film: What did Women Want?

Matt Sussman January 1, 2009

Two thousand eight was the year Hollywood wanted to woo women badly. Two of the year’s biggest blockbusters, Sex and the City: The Movie and Mamma Mia!, were both heavily marketed towards female demographics whom the studio execs hoped would identify with the strong female characters at each film’s center. That both films were also based on highly popular and lucrative pop cultural franchises probably didn’t hurt either. In a strange moment of synchronicity, there was also Diane English’s long-belabored remake of George Cukor’s 1939 classic ensemble comedy, The Women.

So what, if any, spurious conclusions can be drawn from these three faces of Eve? To some extent, all three films are examples of what I call "aspirational cinema." Aspirational cinema functions along the lines of commercial womens’ magazines: They tell female viewers they can have it all. The price, though, is typically "by request." As Italian Vogue editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani recently told Women’s Wear Daily: "I think that you go through an image, that you sell a dream, and [then] the clothes." Aspirational cinema’s M.O. is an old line for sure, but it continues to support an entire segment of the publishing industry, not to mention mainstream romantic comedies. What makes these three films so interesting is where they diverge on what "having it all" entails.

Re-watching Sex and The City: The Movie now, as the economy implodes around us, makes it look like the sort of "wild party" set piece that late ’20s modernists used to foreshadow the inevitable fall that follows decadent folly. Having it all in Carrie-land means eventually marrying Mr. Right, receiving a couture bridal gown gratis from the designer, buying your African American assistant a Louis Vuitton purse to thank her for licking your stamps and having a gal-pal selfless enough to give new meaning to the phrase "shits and giggles" just to prop up your deflated ego.

Even as a department store’s worth of designer clothing, jewelry, bags, and shoes—not to mention some pretty miraculous pieces of Manhattan property— are rapaciously acquired and gaudily displayed across the screen with all the clueless entitlement of one of Sozzani’s Vogue spreads, the women doing all the acquiring proceed to meet life’s challenges with the psychological makeup and emotional range of spoiled 12 year olds. Sure, Sex and the City, the series, never pretended to be anything but escapist entertainment. But Sex and the City: The Movie manages to shoehorn what was likeable about Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charolette’s feisty cocktail klatches on sex and the working girl (the characters are smart when Michael Patrick King’s script lets them be) into a gaudy pair of Manolos several sizes too small.

In many ways Sex and The City had more in common with the original version of The Women than its 2008 remake: Both films are about a close-knit circle of wealthy New York girlfriends whose existence essentially revolves around gossiping to and about each other while looking fabulous and dropping catty zingers. Released on the heels of SATC mania and carrying the additional burden of inevitably being compared to a much-beloved original, Diane English’s update already had the odds stacked against it. But English’s choice to turn Clare Boothe Luce’s poison pen letter to Manhattan society ladies into a de-snarked, mash note to contemporary working women was a gamble that didn’t pay off.

The Women
2.0 also suffers from trying to have it all— it wants the Birkin bags and heartfelt, emotional bonding—while somehow seeming "more realistic" than SATC. Yet English’s attempts at relevancy weigh down the film, as she packs in as many issues—anorexia! the glass ceiling! infidelity! objectification of women by the mainstream media!— as there are extras (all female, of course). But by the umpteenth Fifth Avenue shopping bag and Dove product placement have been snuck into the frame, all the focus on empowerment and personal growth starts to sound like lip service. As Annette Bening’s Sylvia Fowler (who would make Rosalind Russel turn over in her grave) exclaims, drained after an emotional processing session with Meg Ryan’s Mary Haines: "I don’t want everything. I just want a little piece." Too bad English didn’t take this as advice.

So maybe "having it all" is precisely the problem. SATC and The Women are trying to say women can do it all—it just helps if you have an Amex black card, live-in maids or are bequeathed a large inheritance. As we all know, life is filled with compromise and sometimes requires having to do without, whether it’s love, material riches or emotional satisfaction. I don’t think it’s impossible for an escapist Hollywood film— even one as unabashedly fantastic as *Mamma Mia!*— to also touch on this.

For all the ways in which Mamma Mia! spectacularly fails— as a musical in which the songs don’t really provide relevant commentary on or serve to advance the plot; Phyllida Lloyd’s downright sloppy direction— its version of happily ever after is far more generous than Sex and The City’s or The Women’s. Mamma Mia! is a comedy of errors in which no one really cares if all the pieces don’t quite fit together in the end. Meryl Streep’s Donna Sheridan learns that being independent doesn’t require staving off love, while her daughter, would-be Bridezilla Amanda, comes to realize that marriage is not all there is to life and that having three loving father figures is better than one biological dad to walk her down the aisle. More importantly, Donna comes to the realization that she hasn’t failed as a mother because she never settled down with one guy. She hasn’t wasted brain cells and maxed out credit cards fretting over "the one." Donna has happily had many.

At the film’s ridiculous climax— during which the "font of Venus" bursts forth geyser-like, showering all the characters in a polymorphously perverse love bath— I couldn’t help but be reminded of the pool orgy in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which the cast sings, "don’t dream it, be it." Mamma Mia! stays true to that nugget of wisdom, and manages to spin something touchingly sweet from something as cloying as ABBA’s Euro-pop. When Donna and her visiting girlfriends turn "Dancing Queen" into an Amazonian procession that conscripts all of the island’s women into a celebratory dance, it’s hard not to smile along. Despite all the tears shed over cocktails and professed life lessons learned, Sex and the City and The Women miss out on something which Mamma Mia!—in all its corny, karaoke bar glory— clearly grasps: the joy of life.