I Feel Your Pain
Just Tell Me When It’s Over
by Sam Hurwitt
illustration by Salgood Sam
I CAN’T STAND this part. Even when I see it coming, it doesn’t help. I have to squirm down into my creaky cinema seat, convulse, turn my head, hide my eyes, stifle a whimper deep in my throat. Oh god, I can’t look, please, no no no no no.
Because, see, Frances McDormand is losing it. Not in a Kathy Bates sledgehammer-to-the-ankles way—that would be fine. I don’t mind people having their heads blown off or being impaled by a fireplace poker. I grew up watching horror movies from an early age, so for better or for worse (scratch that—definitely for worse), I’m desensitized to shock and gore. A guy gets decapitated by a pane of glass sliding off a truck? No problemo. A bunch of schoolgirls jump onto the bullet-train tracks, splashing onlookers with a wave of blood like bystanders at a theme-park log ride? Awesome. Somebody’s eye pops out and flies across the room into someone’s screaming mouth? Hilarity!
No, what McDormand is doing is much worse. She’s making a scene. Having spent most of Friends With Money (2006) grousing about crappy restaurant service or confronting an acquaintance who nabs the parking space she wanted, she finally throws a screaming fit about someone cutting in front of her in line at Old Navy. I may be inured to death and dismemberment, but I can’t stand to see people embarrass themselves.
That’s why romantic comedies are my Kryptonite. Not because of their mawkish meet-cutes (yes, there’s actually a term for the ridiculously implausible ways true lovers meet in rom-coms) and far-far-far-fetched happy endings. Even the sense that my balls might drop off and my cherished testosterone might bleed from my eyes is not really the issue. It’s just that I know it won’t be long before someone makes an ass out of herself.
You’re the Only One My Eyes Bleed For
Friends With Money isn’t a rom-com, but I suppose it looked like a “chick flick” in the sense that the poster showed four women standing side-by-side, best friends forever. Now, I have no real issue with chick flicks per se. It has much more to do with for whom the movie is packaged than for whom it’s actually made, and this one was clearly being marketed primarily to women.
But the four women on the poster were Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener and McDor- mand, any one of whom is sufficient reason to see a movie, plus Jennifer Aniston, about whom I really couldn’t care less. More importantly, it’s a Nicole Holofcener film, but it was the first of her films that I’d seen, so I didn’t yet know what that means. (I immediately Netflixed her previous films, 1996’s Walking and Talking and 2001’s Lovely & Amazing, so now I have a pretty good idea.)
Friends With Money is about the ways old friends grow together and apart, and the ways couples interact with each other, other couples and their single friends. And of course it’s also about money, and therefore about class. When Aniston tells her friend’s Latina immigrant housecleaner, “I do what you do now,” the gap between the two of them and their reasons for doing the same work is palpable. That’s what makes the moment funny, and it’s also what makes it excruciating.
So while I thought it was a great movie, I’m not sure I can honestly say I enjoyed it. Over and over, something would happen that would make me squirm in my seat. The well-paid lummox who demands a cut of a housecleaner’s paltry wages because he essentially hangs around and ogles her (or fucks her) while she works. The way the couples constantly snipe at each other. All the guys hitting on the one husband everyone assumes is gay. And worst of all, McDormand’s righteous indignation at the small injustices that are only unjust if you feel entitled to have the right of way 24/7.
The thing is, we’ve all been there. We’ve all been testy with people in the service industry, yelled at someone in traffic or at least cursed under our breath. Unless we’re Mary Fucking Poppins, we’ve all been the asshole. And unless we’re horrible people, we don’t particularly relish that feeling.
Writer/director Holofcener isn’t at all sadistic in the mode of Neil LaBute or Todd Solondz, but she excels in capturing the thoughtless gesture that suddenly becomes magnified, the unwarranted, muttered-under-the-breath “asshole” that makes someone say, “Excuse me?” Hers is a world of sympathetic losers, people who love their friends and family but are going through a really hard time right now and are putting everyone else through a hard time with them.
I’m particularly sensitive to this kind of thing. I’ve had trouble watching people do embarrassing things onscreen ever since I was a kid watching Leave It to Beaver. “Don’t listen to Lumpy,” I’d groan. “Your dad’s gonna yell at you.” I don’t think Ward Cleaver ever yelled on that show, but the anxiety was always there for me.
There are movies I loved the first time around but can’t see again because I know there’s that one scene I just can’t watch, like the string of answering-machine messages in Swing- ers (1996). When Joey Lauren Adams whispers “Don’t say it” in the scene in Chasing Amy (1997) where everything falls apart, I’m right there with her. Oh, don’t. Please, just don’t.
Sympathy for the Dumbbell
It’s a fine line, though. Shows like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm don’t affect me, because characters who do horrible and embarrassing things all the time aren’t sympathetic enough for me to be too concerned about how they acquit themselves in society. I don’t feel sorry for assholes. The same goes for any character played by Ben Stiller or Will Ferrell, because everything they do is almost by definition a stupid, stupid thing to do.
Felicity used to drive me up the wall. She kept doing things, and it would always have been far better if she’d done nothing at all. The show started with her giving up a plum educational opportunity to move across the country and stalk a guy who barely knew she existed. You go, girl! You follow your heart! You sublimate your own goals and promising future in hopes of maybe someday dating some jerk! At first I was embarrassed for her, then frustrated with her, and finally I just loathed her. The only character I liked on that show was her sullen roommate, because she didn’t like Felicity either.
Reality television for the most part is out of the question. I couldn’t even watch talk shows in the Oprah/Ricki/Jerry/Sally Jessy mode, because the guest would say something so unintentionally degrading that I’d feel like I’d just walked in on him taking a shit. I rarely make it a few minutes into one of those shows before I have to leave the room for the guests’ sake as well as mine.
So please, try to understand. If I beg off when you ask me to go see The Bartender I Boinked at My Cousin’s Bat Mitzvah Is Marrying a Law Student So Skinny I Hate Her, it’s not because I’m an insensitive male. It’s because I’m far too sensitive. I just can’t watch.
Reverse Angle editor Sam Hurwitt needs a glass of warm milk.