A Guy Thing (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

A movie of this sort depends on a relentless illogic.

A Guy Thing

Director: Chris Koch
Cast: Julia Stiles, Selma Blair, Jason Lee
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: MGM
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-01-17

Julia Stiles reportedly spends most of her time these days in school at Columbia. So you'd think that when she does decide to make a movie, she'd be careful about what she picks. You'd think.

Given that Stiles has had recent experience with a tepid romantic comedy -- the one she made with Mr. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Down to You -- it's hard to imagine why she signed on for A Guy Thing. Maybe it's that the script borrows heavily from Meet the Parents (by one of Guy Thing's credited writers, Greg Glienna, along with three others), wherein a hapless and anxiously offbeat groom-to-be endures wearing physical and emotional abuses in order to keep secrets from his fiancée and her parents.

In this case, the wannabe groom is Paul (Jason Lee), and the bride-to-be is Karen (super good sport Selma Blair). He's from the tacky class, with big-hearted mom (Julie Hagerty) and John Wayne-loving stepdad, Buck (David Bocehner). They love their boy, and gee whiz, just can't get over that he's marrying the ultra tasteful Karen: she buys Paul's clothes for him, neat button down shirts and expensive shiny shoes. As you might expect -- if you've seen any newlywed/wedding comedy recently -- her more affluent background means that her sniffy folks, Ken and Sandra (James Brolin and Diana Scarwid), are less than thrilled about her choice. Perhaps they're worried that he doesn't have a job that A Guy Thing bothers to mention.

A movie of this sort -- whatever sort that might be -- depends on a relentless illogic: all the action follows from a first, silly and highly reversible step. Paul takes this first step in the first scene, at his bachelor party. Immediately, Paul seems awkward, not nearly so enthusiastic about the hedonism as his best buddy Jim (Shawn Hatosy). And so, he's enabled by Jim's decision to invite a squad of Tiki dancers, among them, the lovely Becky (Julia Stiles). Their eyes lock, and since he's pretending not to be the bachelor (being too embarrassed by girls who want to sit in his lap), Paul passes for just a regular guy. He buys her a beer, and next thing you know, he's waking up in his bed with Becky beside him. A phone call from Sandra alerts him that Karen is on her way over. He hurries Becky out the door, and on her way, she lets drop that she's lost her panties. No surprise: he finds and hides this dainty item, only to have it come back to haunt him later in the film.

Paul's frenzied running from one lie into another is even less clever than this knotty set up suggests. It turns out that Becky is Karen's cousin, which means that he encounters her repeatedly at family get-togethers and rehearsal dinners. His initial attempt to avoid her is painful -- he spends an entire evening in the bathroom, pretending to have diarrhea, allowing for lots of squirting and groaning. And oh my goodness, when he tries to escape out the bathroom window onto a tree limb, well, the jokes don't quit.

As Becky is something of a free spirit -- she's not really a Tiki dancer, only trying it out, as she also tries out working as a highway toll-taker, a bartender, and a cd store clerk -- Paul must show himself to be the ideal male type, not too wussy and not too aggressive. To make this middling standard clear, A Guy Thing provides characters on the two poles: Paul's pleasant but rather too precise brother Pete (Thomas Lennon), and Becky's ex, whom she calls "the psycho."

Ray (Lochlyn Munro) is a cop with a "steroid rage problem" (to be fair, the film notes this rather visible bit of illogic when Paul asks Becky how she ever connected with him, but she has no answer, save for, she made a bad choice). Whenever you see Ray, he's brutalizing someone -- some guy down at the station who's stolen a donut, or, most often, Paul, whom he accosts on the sidewalk, while Paul is carrying his groceries. Ray stuffs a cheese puff up his nose, smashes eggs into his head, then pours chocolate milk over him. Paul whimpers, then climbs into the dumpster when he's told.

Paul is inspired to come to terms with his tendency to acquiescence by Becky. Oddly, he's most sympathetic when he reminds you of Banky (Lee's character in Chasing Amy), that is, when he's puzzling over his sexual desires. Most charmingly (and unexpectedly), Paul is (very vocally) enamored of the male dance instructor, Howard (Jay Brazeau), repeatedly recalling his elegance and grace o the dance floor. These reveries trouble Karen, and must end, of course -- he's destined to do the guy thing, to find the proper girl and marry her.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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