[4 September 2009]
Early in All About Steve, workaholic cruciverbalist Mary Horowitz (Sandra Bullock) succinctly sums up the fate of an unmarried woman in her 40s: she’s the reluctant object of set-up dates with men whose mothers fear they are gay. On the one night that Mary does not cancel the date her parents and their friends have concocted, she falls ecstatically in love with Steve, a cable news camera operator. When he heads off to work, zigzagging across the United States in pursuit of news, she follows, in pursuit of Steve. The result a series of dreadful comic gags, acting from the school of the living dead, and an atavistic vision of who and what a woman should be.
Mary suffers every humiliation that can befall a clever woman unlucky enough to fall in love, while Steve (the perpetually puckish Bradley Cooper) and reporter Hartman (Thomas Haden Church), stagger from disaster to disaster with ego and amour propre intact. In fact, they flourish. The first, fleeting encounter between Mary and Steve sets the movie on its misogynistic way. While this scene briskly condemns a woman set up on a date by her parents as a social misfit, it glorifies her male counterpart, also sent on the date by his mother, as a high-functioning media type so hot that that he literally robs Mary of speech, although conveniently not of lust, which leads to some fantasy sex in the back of a 4x4. This counterpointing of the sexes drives what little plot director Phil Trail and writer Kim Barker (who also penned License to Wed, another failed comedy that fetishized love) throw on screen.
The movie bristles with the playground bully’s hostility to intelligence. Mary’s dazzling vocabulary and arcane knowledge of the world trigger repeated mockery and cruelty. When Mary’s observation deliver a network scoop to Steve, or she turns her abstract knowledge of mechanics into the successful rescue of a lost child (and the clueless Hartman), both men quite naturally assume the credit, and Mary passively lets them. Ninety-three minutes of such drivel makes it hard to remember that outside the cinema, it really is 2009.
That’s not to say the movie is completely one-note. It offers a half-hearted satire of the spoilt star reporter after an anchor’s desk and the voracious vapidity of 24-hour news. Haden Church manages to change expression a couple of times when Hartman is abused for his tan and lack of talent—points delivered as if Broadcast News had never happened. Cooper almost manages to quell his trademark impish smile to deliver Steve’s regrets about his treatment of Mary when it looks as if she might actually die. And wholly at odds with the trajectory of the movie is the bizarrely politically correct, “It’s okay to be different” ending, whose sincerity even gullible five-year-olds might suspect.
By its end, All About Steve achieves only one success, in its illustration of the plight of the talented comedienne in Hollywood today. It may make economic sense for actors to pick up scripts that lock women into social structures so rigid that love and heterosexual partnership, regardless of object, are worth any sacrifice.
But the result is a string of movies in which beautiful, bright women abnegate themselves to juvenile, misanthropic men. Katherine Heigl’s Alison, for example, in Judd Aptow’s Knocked Up, is wholly capable of economic survival as a single mother, yet passively moves in with the pathologically immature Ben (Seth Rogen). In Smart People, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Janet inexplicably succumbs, after two rational break-ups, to the gloomy, self-centered Lawrence (Dennis Quaid), whose potential as fulfilling life partner seems permanently set at nil. And then there’s Mary (in both here Bullock and Diaz incarnations). At least in the 1930s, Carole Lombard and Katharine Hepburn gave as good as they got before choosing to marry (and discipline) the poor chaps who had stumbled unwarily into their lives.