Monday, August 23, 2010

A Decade of Dreck #27: All About Steve

Charge Shot!!! is celebrating the end of the decade in the most masochistic way we know how - by watching and writing about the 100 worst movies of the last ten years as defined by film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Click here to see RT's complete list, click here for more about the Decade of Dreck project, and click here to see all of the movies we've done so far.

AV Club head writer Nathan Rabin coined and codified the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" to describe Kirsten Dunst's character in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown . "The Manic Pixie Dream Girl," says Rabin, "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." Indeed, we the movie goring public have been subjected to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl for much of the past ten years of cinema: think Natalie Portman in Garden State or fellow Crowe muse Kate Hudson in Almost Famous. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that perfect object of desire for our hero to fall in love with and realize his potential. They bring "broodingly soulful young men" out of their shell and make them do amazing things, like listen to the Shins.

It's struck me as odd that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl hasn't been the subject of intense, direct parody yet (unless it already happened in Date Movie or something): the archetype is rife for satire. For some reason, the 2009 Sandra Bullock vehicle All About Steve might be as close as we get. And it's terrible.

Steve stars your mom's favorite actress as a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Girl of her own. Mary Magdalene Horowitz (what a funny name!) is an eccentric cruciverbalist (which is to say a crossword puzzle constructor, if I took away anything positive from this film it might be learning that word) for a Sacramento newspaper. She lives with her parents and is never seen without her trademark red hooker boots. Never. I bet she showers with them on, Tobias F√ľnke-style. She spends most conversations she has with other human beings by rattling off useless, un-asked for trivia, much to their frustration if not outright disgust. She has zero people skills and, perhaps most crazily of all, she talks to her pet hamster! Like a person! How charmingly eccentric!

After being set up on a blind date with the titular character (Bradley Cooper)...

One second here. This has almost nothing to do with All About Steve but I had to get it off my chest: have you ever realized that Bradley Cooper essentially plays the same character in the Hangover that he played in Wedding Crashers? Because he does. We're just supposed to root for him the Hangover because he's a protagonist. He still displays the same boorish behavior as in the other film, but the story is told from his perspective. Think about it.

Now back to your regularly scheduled misery.

Bradley Cooper goes on a date with Sandra Bullock. For some reason, Mary is so overwhelmed by Steve's beauty (admittedly, Bradley Cooper is an adonis) that she screws the whole date up by trying to have sex with him in his van before they can even drive away from her parents' curb. Steve interrupts the potential pre-first date coitus by faking a work emergency (he's a cable news cameraman) to get out of the situation, which begs the question: what straight man willingly passes up having sex in a car with Sandra Bullock? Sure she's weird but I've been fantasizing about having crazy van sex with Sandra Bullock since 1994. Regardless, Mary is in love. Or at least thinks she is, and spends the rest of the movie stalking Steve through wackier and wackier situations.

This film's success largely hinges on your sympathy/relatability with Bullock's character. The chief problem is that Mary is pretty much insufferable. Now, I myself admittedly share some qualities with Mary: we're both prone to rattling off useless knowledge and we're terrible with social cues. We also both once stalked Bradley Cooper (okay, I stalked Paul Walker, but whatever). But what the screenwriter wants us to take as misunderstood eccentricity comes off in practice as unstable insanity. Mary seems less like some sort of Manic Pixie Girl (note the lack of "Dream") and more like a psycho-killer. She probably has a Steve Hair Doll and hopes to one day make a Steve Suit from his skin so she can pretend to be him.

Mary's stalking takes her to a number of weird news stories Steve and his reporter (Thomas Haden Church, playing Brian Fantana's Non-Union Mexican Equivalent) and producer (That Asian Gentleman Ken Jeong, whose character is named "Angus". Get it? He's a Korean guy named "Angus"! You wouldn't expect that would you?) are following, such as two competing protests over the fate of an immigrant girl's third leg, a hostage situation at an Historic Deadwood-esque tourist attraction, and a mine collpase. At the mine collapse site, Mary manages to fall in the said mine while pursuing Steve, blah blah blah we all learn to accept different people for the good souls they are.

There was a lot of wasted potential to make a great dark comedy about crazy people stalking the washboard du jour as well as the bizarre bleeding heart do-gooder behavior brought out by the media circus. The third leg girl protests in particular are a treasure trove of truly pitiable grotesques of Americana presented as sympathetic supporting characters. In particular I think DJ Qualls' character, who carves celebrity likenesses into apples, has probably killed children. When Mary is rescued from the mine and is presented with a massive outpouring of support from strangers who "believe in her" and all that bullshit, the deaf black girl she was down there with is strangely ignored. Read what you will into that.

All About Steve desperately wanted to be a by-the-numbers romantic comedy with a twist, it ends up being a terrifying glimpse into the mind of a dangerous psychotic and the culture that spawned her. Bullock won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress for this movie, the same weekend she won Best Actress at the Oscars for the similarly grotesque lead in the Blindside...though I would totally still have sex with her in my van.

All About Steve is ranked #96 on the Rotten Tomatoes Worst 100 list with 7% freshness. Its RT page can be found here.