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Girl Sour

Gag order silences clever comic potential

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While there are dozens of movies each year that can be called box office hits, there are only one or two that can be deemed influential -- that is to say, the sort of picture that's not only financially successful but is endlessly aped by every fledgling filmmaker hoping that lightning will strike twice. Quentin Tarantino's 1994 Pulp Fiction is the most recent obvious example, as viewers were subjected to an endless flow of violent, "hip" crime dramas in its wake. Similarly, the 1998 blockbuster Saving Private Ryan has recently seen its sway come into play, as the last year (as well as the present one) has given rise to a substantial number of gritty war flicks (a genre that, incidentally, had all but disappeared from theater screens before Ryan's assault).

But another film from 1998 is arguably even more of a trendsetter than Saving Private Ryan: the Farrelly brothers' There's Something About Mary. A hilarious gross-out comedy that also doubled as an offbeat love story, Mary was a breakout hit that scored with both audiences and critics. Unfortunately, its rampant success convinced many novice filmmakers (and the studios that back them) that all it takes to make a good comedy these days is a ceaseless stream of vulgar, sophomoric gags. That misconception has in turn led to such inane juvenile features as Saving Silverman, Say It Isn't So and now The Sweetest Thing.

Two things are apparent after watching this feature from the director of Cruel Intentions (Roger Kumble) and one of the writers of South Park (Nancy M. Pimental): 1) Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate and Selma Blair clearly are all gifted comediennes; and 2) all three deserve to have their efforts showcased in a movie much better than this one. Billed as a romantic comedy, The Sweetest Thing instead proves to be about as romantic as a gas station urinal (one of which is featured prominently at one point during the film). Ostensibly a keen analysis of what happens when a party girl (Diaz) realizes it might be that point in her life when she should stop fooling around and settle down into a committed, long-term relationship, the film quickly chucks this promising idea in favor of lathering on a series of sight gags so ineptly staged by Kumble that they produce apathy rather than laughs or even disgust.

Take, for example, the scene that's clearly meant to be this movie's equivalent of the already-classic zipper scene from Mary: Blair's character, while performing fellatio on a boyfriend with a pierced penis, gets the protruding stud stuck behind her tonsils. Unable to remove themselves from this delicate situation, Blair and boytoy have to mark time in this compromising position as a mob of neighbors, cops and emergency workers crowd the bedroom to examine the situation. One of the reasons the similar scene worked in Mary was because Peter and Bobby Farrelly allowed it to build in a smartly timed comic style that would have made the Marx Brothers proud (think the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera), also throwing in some priceless reaction shots (as well as one totally unexpected close-up) to help sweeten the pot. But because of Kumble's directorial decisions (repeatedly cutting to a shot of the top of Blair's head ain't exactly a gutbuster) and Pimental's inability to pace the sequence, the whole set piece falls disastrously flat.

Other gross-out bits -- Diaz getting poked in the eye by a penis protruding through a hole in the restroom wall, a drycleaning employee licking a mysterious stain on a dress (think Monica Lewinsky), etc. -- are purely puerile, but what saves the film from utter ruin are the deft turns by its three leading ladies. The movie as a whole is designed as an ode to Ms. Diaz -- indeed, considering that the actress co-starred in Being John Malkovich, you'd think the filmmakers would have built on the joke by tagging this one Being Cameron Diaz -- and her high spirits and boundless enthusiasm are indeed infectious. As Diaz's assertive roommate, Applegate has the right wry demeanor for the part, and there's an amusing moment in which she does a priceless exaggeration of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (unfortunately, Kumble spoils it by playing the bit again and again. . .and again). And although she's stuck in the potentially limiting role of the dowdy pal, Blair displays nice comic instincts even in scenes that go woefully astray.

As a team, these three leading ladies click -- so much so that, if for any reason Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu are unable to commit to another Charlie's Angels movie, Diaz would already have her new co-stars in the can. *

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