PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Imagine this: Freddie Prinze, Jr. is lip-synching Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of your Love,” with spoon-as-mike in hand. In a reverse shot, Julia Stiles smiles warmly, obviously touched by his efforts. Then, as Prinze dances over to her, the camera shows them nestled up against each other in the frame, the perfect couple, united in a deep soul love.
The image is too precious and too silly, a conspicuous parody of nice boy Prinze’s lack of fit with White’s oozy sexuality that’s not as funny as someone thought it was. As the final image in Down To You, a pop romance with a tie-in compiled CD, it underlines the film’s half-baked white-breadness, its simultaneous aspiration and failure to be different enough to surprise anyone. On one level, it’s the first feature for writer-director Kris Isacsson (whose resume includes serving as assistant director for Barbra Streisand on The Mirror Has Two Faces, which might explain his predilection for predictable drama and quirky personalities passing for characters). Presumably, this guy pitched an idea that sounded new enough to get funding from Open City Film and distribution from Miramax, both companies with stated aims to support “independent visions.”
But on another level, Down to You is also very Hollywood, a formula flick designed as a Star Vehicle for pre-stars, performers who aren’t yet surefire enough for, say, a Julia-Roberts-and-Richard-Gere all-stops-out treatment, but popular enough among a specific “target demographic” (teens-to-twentysomethings) to warrant posters featuring their smiley embrace. That is, the movie is a combined launching pad and proving ground for its stars-on-the-verge, each coming to the table with recent hits, he with I Know What You Did Last Summers and She’s All That, and she with the adolescent version of The Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things I Hate About You. Playing a couple destined to be together by the last reel, Stiles and Prinze are up against it: there’s not much tension in their fights or passion in their make-ups, mostly because their conclusion is so foregone. Prinze plays Al, an aspiring chef, in love with Imogen (Stiles), an art student. Lack of plot or action is not a problem, however: the film is geared for girls, who according to “research” are more concerned with stars.
Accordingly, the film’s promotional campaign has been more selective than wide, and it has assumed a specific emphasis-on-the-couple shape, showing scenes with ostensible girl-appeal (he’s on tv proclaiming his love for her, she’s responding with appropriate shyness: the deal here seems to be that a public forum legitimates and somehow enhances the declaration, as any number of lucrative dating and confessional tv shows attest, and girls are the target viewers for such declarations and confessions). The story covers the couple’s ups and downs, much like a standard high school romance, and features players who have previously been in high school movies. But it’s not a high school movie. It’s actually set just post-high school, which would appear to be its most prominent claim to “newness.”
There are several interesting points to make about his claim, not the least being that it’s clearly part of a marketing-to-girls trend, seen mostly in magazines, like Cosmo Girl and Teen People, which exploit the recent “discovery” that girls are major consumers with much disposable income. The temporal marker for this discovery tends to be Titanic, whose phenomenal success was premised on girl viewers returning again and again to see Leo and Kate in a grand romance. Since then, big- and small-screen teen romances have played to this market in increasingly sophisticated ways, including appeals to girls’ desires to be (seen as) older. Thus, the established magazines reoriented for girls. And thus, high school romances that feature characters no longer in high school.
Down to You overtly pitches to girls imagining themselves beyond high school. One of the first signs of this appeal is that the story is sacrificed for the star showcasing (appealing to kids usually means a focus on a minimally grabby plot, The Phantom Menace notwithstanding; appealing to older viewers often depends on celebrities for their own sake). Stiles and Prinze are asked to carry a lot of weight in Down To You, which never seems to figure out how to make its protagonists more interesting than their supporting characters. Their many duties include appearing in every scene (one or the other or both of them), and repeated talk-to-the-camera moments, apparently the most popular thing to do these days to make your movie or tv series look self-aware. It’s hard to overstate how corny this device has become already, but Isacsson’s movie is all over it, as if it’s the coolest thing going. Al (Prinze) is the first to face the camera, while standing on line in a gourmet coffee shop, presumably to give the impression that he’s “just like everyone else.” He uses the public place as an opportunity to comment on a cuddly couple, essentially saying, “Enjoy it while it lasts.”
Al knows, you see, because he’s been there, and he proceeds to narrate his own experience with first love gone bad. That this young person is looking back on his life with some assurance and humor suggests that the movie is granting him and by extension, his young audience some measure of respect. The twist would seem to be that Al is actually not so self-aware and wise as he suggests, and that his experience is generally ridiculous, if comedic. At one point when he’s feeling especially pressured by Imogen’s moodiness (she’s anxious about being pregnant but he doesn’t know that: it’s a girl thing), Al dreams that he’s on an episode of The Man Show (“Men Who Wear Skirts”), whose hosts and studio audience members ridicule him for being whipped. The show is certainly familiar, as is the general anxiety that informs it: fed up with trying to be “sensitive” and feeling disenfranchised (see, for instance, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed or David Fincher’s Fight Club, in addition to The Man Show and The X Show), guys just wanna drink beer and get head, without flack from their women. Al’s anxiety, however, is more complex, because he actually is a sensitive guy, and feeling a mix of guilt and resentment about it.
Al’s anxiety is compounded by the examples of his buddies, best friend Monk (Zak Orth), a part time porn star and aspiring Orson Welles, and college dorm-mate Eddie (Shawn Hatosy), who pumps iron to build a chick-magnet bod. As if these anti-examples weren’t enough to make Al nervous, he also must deal with the apparently good role models offered by his sensible, liberal-minded parents, Judy (Lucie Arnaz) and Ray (Henry Winkler): she’s a DJ (as Al puts it, “She spins”) and he hosts a long-running tv cooking show. Surrounded by people dispensing advice, Al hardly knows how to rebel or conform, both options seeming equally uninteresting.
The film offers two slight torques on the high school romance formula, aside from the fact that its protagonists are too old to be doing this. First and this seems addressed at the girl audience members, who can “relate” Imogen, fearful of Al’s infidelity throughout the film, cheats on him (how ironic!), but feels horrible about it and so, the whole episode that only makes his sensitive guyness more appealing. (Note: you don’t see her family life or friends, so no matter how much talking she does at the camera, it is his movie). Second, and much less visibly, unless you’re paying attention, Prinze is, as you know from his personal history as Freddie Prinze Sr.‘s son, a Latino actor (actually, as he reminds interviewers, his father was half Puerto Rican and half Hungarian, and his mother is English, Irish, and Native American). His movies are so far positioning him as “raceless” (that is, white), and in this respect, he’s had no publicized problems with the stereotyping that so troubled his father or that continues to trouble other young Latino actors like Jacob Vargas and Jesse Borrego. Let’s hope that Prinze’s luck holds and more, that it spills over enough for others seeking to get past homeboy typecasting.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/down-to-you/