Who We Really Are
As its title promises, Robert Iscove’s romantic comedy features a number of boys and girls. Or rather, it features a number of character sketches standing in as boys and girls, rendered by actors whom you’d expect to be more careful about selecting projects, including Freddie Prinze Jr., Claire Forlani (Basquiat), Monica Arnold (the excellent hiphop-pop singer), and Alyson Hannigan, who fortunately keeps a terrific day job as Buffy‘s enchanting Willow). Given the vagaries of film production, it’s certainly possible that none of these appealing young performers could have anticipated the eventual shape this movie would take. Still, there may have been signs along the way.
Take, for instance, the film’s premise, that boys and girls by definition have trouble communicating with each other. While this is fine, as convenient plot-establishing truisms go, it’s also tedious, as truisms tend to be. This may be the reason that the screenwriters, Andrew Lowery and Andrew Miller (a team of TV actors also responsible for writing the Dennis Rodman vehicle, Simon Sez, and who here go by the clever moniker, “The Drews”) have come up with a “twist” (which is in itself quite predictable). It’s not going to surprise anyone that the two protagonists, Ryan (Prinze) and Jennifer (Forlani), are opposites, in their attitudes toward sex, in particular. But the gendering of their opposition is inverted: Ryan is nerdy, uptight, and concerned with commitment, and Jennifer is promiscuous. Most importantly, for central conflict’s sake, she proclaims early on that she is loath to commit.
You see how this is going to work out, which is, much as the film’s precious tagline declares, “Opposites attack.” Ryan and Jennifer, though they begin as if they have nothing in common, will eventually fall into one another’s arms and live happily ever clinched. That this entails her coming round to his point of view to drop her (admittedly nebulous) career goals in favor of their relationship because, as Ryan puts it, no matter how “weird” their relationship feels, “We’re too good together to let that stand between us.”
En route to their inevitable coupling, Jennifer and Ryan encounter the requisite obstacles, namely, other relationships, with individuals and peer groups (i.e., high school and college cliques). They meet first as children (played by Brendon Ryan Barrett and Raquel Beaudene), on a first airplane ride that unnerves Ryan and so allows the slightly older Jennifer a sense of superiority from jump. They meet again during a high school football game, where she’s the homecoming queen and he’s the visiting team’s mascot, whose fake-furry head falls off and is squashed by the car she’s riding in. And they meet for the final set of hurdles when they’re at Berkeley. Here. They are assisted by “best friends”: his roommate is Hunter (Jason Biggs, who famously had his way with an apple pie in last summer’s American Pie) and hers is Amy (Amanda Detmer, last seen or rather, heard being splatted by a city bus in Final Destination).
When they first run into each other on campus, Ryan and Jennifer are dating other people. In fact, she’s living with a rock singer, who breaks off their “great” relationship with a song he performs at a local club. And Ryan, thinking that he’s happily in love with his now long- distance high school sweetheart Betty (Hannigan), receives a Dear John letter. He and Jennifer share their sorry breakup stories over designer coffee and she tearfully admits that she likes him, despite his annoyingly rigid ideas about committing and soulmating. On the most obvious level, the film is now (some 20 minutes into the action) setting up Ryan and Jennifer’s “friendship” as opposed to their “relationship.” As friends, they “talk about stuff,” ride the trolley, rollerblade, and go dancing at a bizarre retro club where everyone dances in synch like they’re in a Backstreet Boys video while being doused with shaving cream. In other words, it’s abundantly clear that they must move on in order to get to the moment you eagerly await, the film’s end.
But on another level, the film is setting up its most interesting and badly handled problem, which is, in a word, identity.
And surprisingly, it’s goofy boy Hunter who best embodies this problem. When Ryan first meets him, Hunter has inadvertently locked himself in his clothes trunk, in an effort to give himself a “great story” to tell “chicks” he’s hoping to pick up. Hunter wears slightly out of style punkish hair that he colors variously yellow, pink, blue in his ongoing effort to “find himself” during his four years at college. When he reveals to Ryan that his name isn’t even Hunter it’s Steve, for anyone who cares he explains the deception by telling his woeful backstory. Woe is him: he’s from the burbs and his parents are still agreeably married. In other words, Hunter believes he has no identity because he’s so typical and uninteresting. As a result, he plays at being a player, coming on with ridiculous lines and poses, and claiming the experience to be able to instruct Ryan in love and life. (His most preposterous escapade involves his telling a girl that he’s just left monks’ school, and needs her to teach him how to play this “strange game of sticks and balls,” i.e., pool.) By contrast, Ryan though he’s also white and suburban (we’ll overlook that Prinze is notably not “white”) does appear to have an identity, because he’s had trauma (his parents are divorced).
And yet, Hunter’s anxiety resembles the film’s, which is that identity for well-to-do white kids is a fearful vacuum. (And to this point, it must be noted that the only black character with face time, much less lines, on this version of the Berkeley campus, is someone’s friend’s date, played by Monica. At least she looks closer to college age than the ever-stunning Lil Kim did to high school age in her white-teens romantic comedy debut, She’s All That, which, in a cosmic coincidence, also starred Freddie Prinze Jr.). Hunter speaks this anxiety at a crucial moment. Ryan comes back to the room in a panic because he hasn’t been strictly honest with yet another in-between girlfriend (an airhead, flip-coifed, electrical engineering student, played by Blair Witch Project‘s Heather Donahue). Hunter observes, maybe even sardonically, “Being yourself, not being yourself. Welcome to my world.”
That Ryan has no such ambiguities makes him the most boring character in the film. And so, you wonder frequently why Jennifer is even considering being in love with him. She actually has another option, for about 15 seconds, when Amy comes on to her during a surprisingly heated moment on their couch. But this film, so nervous about identifying all its characters, isn’t about to let Ryan’s Intended go off on a lesbian tangent. So, Jennifer and Amy immediately deny what’s happened. While Jennifer’s path is clear and straight, Amy’s declaration that the kiss was a function of her fear of “losing” Jennifer is only half-convincing, as is her last-minute hook-up with Hunter (now calling himself Steve). Moreover, Jennifer’s self-certainty is short-lived, and she acts out her own identity-confusion quite hysterically in a scene she performs for Ryan (and several other customers in a coffee shop). After yet another breakup with another loser boyfriend, she launches into a sad and frantic speech: “I don’t think that any of us know who we really are,” she announces. “How do I know if he’s Mr. Right? What if that something we’re looking for doesn’t really exist?”
What if, indeed? It’s a good question, and one that the film can’t answer. Boys and Girls can’t admit that Jennifer is onto something when she sees that gender roles are unnatural, impositions we learnt to want. Instead, the movie sends her off into happy-ending-land with her designated boy. Problem solved.