Bechdel Test Canon: Spring Breakdown
Monday's inaugural entry focused on a Palme d'Or winner. Thus it seems only appropriate to switch gears today and discuss a movie that was shelved for three years before it went straight to DVD in 2009.
Actress Missi Pyle believed Breakdown's shot at the multiplex potentially hinged on the box office performance of Poehler and Tina Fey's mediocre buddy comedy Baby Mama also reveals industrial bias toward clogging theaters with male comedians' output while being hesitant with their female counterparts. The movie developed a modest feminist cult. It came recommended to me by a Bitch contributor and was seen by several feminist friends. It also has the interest of many people of my acquaintance who haven't seen it yet but cotton to the premise of Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, and Parker Posey playing beta female geeks who accompany a like-minded co-ed (Amber Tamblyn) on her spring break at the behest on her hot-shot senator mother (rendered by the peerless Jane Lynch). One wonders if it would have gotten more of a reception had it been made earlier in the decade or if the problem was a lack of an A-list star who wasn't funny but was conventionally sexy. It is galling that 2002's post-feminist gross-out road movie The Sweetest Thing got a release but Spring Breakdown didn't.
We must turn our attention on the leads to tap into Breakdown's recent feminist intrigue, which is directly attributable to the cast. Poehler's presence on Upright Citizens Brigade and Saturday Night Live received attention, which ultimately led to her role as optimistic, feminist civil servant Leslie Knope on the Bechdel-approved Parks and Recreation. Along with the development of Nickelodeon animated program The Mighty B and Web series, Smart Girls at the Party, Poehler foregrounds her comedic persona with a commitment to feminism and a consideration for girls' political agency.
Posey's flair for improvisational comedy has cache, as does her status as an indie darling. She's also beloved amongst certain demographics within my generation, who latched on to her work in Dazed and Confused (which had a Bechdel-friendly scene Posey co-wrote with Joey Lauren Adams that the producers cut), Party Girl, or through Christopher Guest's movies. Many are compelled to follow her in box office candy like Superman and art house fare like The OH in Ohio, Fay Grim, and Broken English, a movie buoyed by her wrenching depiction of a woman living with depression.
Dratch developed the story with writer-director Ryan Shiraki. She is best known as a colleague of Poehler's at SNL, who I loved as Debbie Downer. Unfortunately, she hasn't lucked into the success shared by peers like Poehler, Fey, and Maya Rudolph. She was originally cast as Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock and was replaced by the blonder Jane Krakowski, but made several cameos as various characters early in the show's run.
Tamblyn garnered praise for her work on Joan of Arcadia and is my favorite member of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Pyle is a character actress who I've enjoyed since her performance as Alexandra Cabot in the woefully underrated Josie and the Pussycats. We even get Mae Whitman and Sarah Hagan as Tamblyn's friends. And what need be said about Jane Lynch?
Breakdown's premise is intriguing: nerdy women navigate spring break's aggro-party atmosphere. Office manager Becky (Posey) is asked by her boss Senator Kay Bee Hartmann (Lynch) to keep tabs on her daughter Ashley (Tamblyn), as Hartmann wants to avoid bad publicity. She is accompanied by Gayle (Poehler), a dog trainer, and Judi (Dratch), a romantically unlucky woman about to marry William (Seth Meyers), who is clearly a homosexual. The opening sequence clues us in to their social ineptitude. It is a talent show performance of Wilson Phillips' "Hold On" from their college days, which is recalled at the end of the movie. It also hints at where this movie fumbles.
While certainly funny, this performance would signal them as teenage outcasts. I'm not convinced it would signpost their lack of personal or professional success as adult women. In general, much of Breakdown plays like a high school comedy with thirtysomething women as the geeks in need of makeovers, which I find unrealistic. I had little trouble finding my niche in college away from frat parties and wet t-shirt contests. And while the movie could provide nuance into the pressures women face to be young, attractive, and socially successful, few insights can be found. Ashley's nemesis is sorority queen bee Mason (Sophie Monk), but I don't think either of them would interact with one another in college. Poehler's blond hair and nubile body make it easy to ingratiate Mason's clique during spring break. Dratch gets wasted and mistakenly thinks she fooled around with a male co-ed. I cringe at the idea that an adult woman would need this kind of approval and that their behavior is played for laughs. Couple it with an erratic script that often dips into regrettable stereotypes around race and homosexuality and Judi's regressive preoccupations with men, and Breakdown is a mess peppered with occasional funny moments. Again, no better than Step Brothers.
What saves the movie for me are certain performances and small moments. Lynch nails her role as a hot-shot Southern politician. Pyle mines her supporting role as Charlene, a drunk bartender who befriends the group, for strange and unexpected laughs. Posey takes an archetype—a progressive cat lover with second-wave ideals—and manages to situate her invocations of the goddess as a light jab against feminism's inclinations toward woo-woo spirituality while having compassion for the character she's playing. When they are away from the beach, that's how the three leads justify their characters' friendship. At the core, Becky, Gayle, and Judi are committed to each other, best demonstrated with craft nights and weekly homemade pizza parties. These are the movie's best moments and an indication of why I feel compelled to build a pie and curl up on the couch with them.
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