Chloe Grace Moretz and Keira Knightley in action.
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Introducing the Woman-Child: the continuing death of adulthood in American culture

The cinema of amusing male arrested development has been a familiar subgenre for some time, but recent releases demonstrate that there’s gold to be found in femme floundering.

Early in the equal-opportunity arrested-development comedy Laggies [released in the UK as Say When], three women in their late twenties gather in suburban Seattle for the bridal shower of a fourth. Framed photos convey that the quartet have been friends since childhood. One of them, however, makes it clear that she is not like the others: while the rest of the gang – one of them grandly pregnant – gush and fawn over chaste bridal sex jokes as if Ms. Magazine never changed the world and the winds of feminism had yet to ruffle the Pacific Northwest, Megan Burch (Keira Knightley) wallows in gawky asexuality. Her jokes are as dorky as those of a 13-year-old boy. Knightley slouches in hoodies and an American accent like a skateboard kid, all limbs and scrunchy faces, counting on audiences to forget that the very English, 29-year-old actress now models for posh Chanel perfume ads.

Megan is the laggy under review, a girl who won’t grow up. (The plural, “laggies”, packs more comedy punch, but the title is grammatically incorrect: there is only one exotic late bloomer on display, not the kind of clubhouse full of guy goofballs that characterises so many comedies of male emotional retardation.) And possibly because Laggies is a comedy of female emotional retardation (and girls traditionally mature more quickly than boys, and yada yada), Megan is – on paper at least – further along life’s circuit than an equivalent male dawdler. She has, for example, a graduate degree in psychology. But apparently she hated doing psychology work, or something. So now she does idiotic, only-in-the-movies work as a human billboard advertising the services of her father’s accounting firm.

Megan does have a longtime boyfriend (Mark Webber), a perfectly pleasant, decent fellow with whom she presumably has an adult sexual relationship. But she feels icky about marrying the man, or something. So when he proposes – at the wedding of the aforementioned friend – she panics. She flees. And, dressed in wedding-party wear outside a liquor store, she meets Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz, always sharp), a 16-year-old high school girl hanging out in a local gaggle of kids while trying to score some booze.

Megan is not quite a cliché runaway bride (Julia Roberts got there first), but she is certainly, tediously cliché adjacent as she hikes up her fancy dress to demonstrate her rusty skateboard skills to the admiring mallrats. Something about Annika’s teen behavior, her amalgam of swagger and insecurity, snark and vulnerability, feels like relief and a return to innocence for Megan. The twentysomething gloms onto the teensomething.

I want to unfriend the lot of them.

***

The cinema of amusing male arrested development has been a familiar subgenre (as well as a topic of ardent cultural think pieces) for some time now. The Farrelly brothers torque the humour one way, Adam Sandler another, and Judd Apatow – the current reigning mogul of man-boy buffoonery – yet another. The cinema of funny femme floundering, though, is more unstable creative ground. Lena Dunham is certainly doing a great job of excavation with Girls; screenwriter Diablo Cody together with director Jason Reitman did a brilliant study of the condition in the extraordinary dramatic comedy Young Adult; and the creative genius (as well as box-office success) of Bridesmaids, which also came out in 2011, demonstrated that there’s gold to be found in femme floundering.

But the low-grade witlessness of so many current mainstream romantic comedies – a mediocrity persistent enough these days to have audiences as well as critics complaining – suggests that a good woman-girl is harder to find. (Rom-com queens Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston, and Katherine Heigl have the scars of social-media lashings to prove it.) And in such a semi-arid landscape, with the fertile serio-comic possibilities of female developmental lag still under development, interest is all the livelier in any project that advertises a fresh way of looking (and laughing) at Women Troubles. And if the movie is made by women? All the better.

Laggies should be one of these projects. It is, for starters, directed by Lynn Shelton, the sharp indie filmmaker with a great talent for dramatising ambivalence, her deft touch on display in such sex-perceptive movies as Hump Day, Touchy Feely, and the marvellous, acutely tuned relationship study Your Sister’s Sister. But the script, by Andrea Seigel, is both the screenwriter’s first produced project, and Shelton’s first time directing a movie she did not write herself. And whatever the reason for the misfire, the movie staggers from preposterous middle to dumb end, cancelling any possibility of extracting insight, emotional worth, or earned pleasure along the way.

The opening premise – doltish and grating in its faintly insulting binary of frivolous bridal-shower enthusiasts versus marriage-averse outlier – is nevertheless within range of the identifiable: behold a 28-year-old woman who doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, personally or professionally. Plenty of such Millennials exist – even some, I’ll take your word for it, with parents as spinelessly indulgent as Megan’s father (Jeff Garlin), who is as happy to support his daughter, financially and emotionally, as she is happy to evade fiscal and emotional responsibility. (Mom, in her few brief moments on screen, is less tolerant of the situation, but does nothing to interrupt the father-daughter enabling. Presumably Dad also paid for the graduate degree his princess no longer feels like using.)

But then the movie barrels into territory both preposterous and lazy. And the decline is all the more exasperating for presenting itself as an indie antidote to Hollywood inauthenticity. As Knightley telegraphs Megan’s psychological crisis through a collection of lip bites and gawky-girl physical mannerisms, Laggies sags into a forced, movie-shaped procession of arbitrary behavioral decisions made by characters who – if they had any resemblance to life on planet earth – would know better. Or should be slapped.

There is this, for instance: flustered by her boyfriend’s proposal of marriage (why? she has been with the guy for years), Megan says no, then she says yes, then she skedaddles again, this time hiding out for a week in Annika’s house while attempting to wind back the clock to a simpler age. That’s where she meets Annika’s fortysomething father, Craig (Sam Rockwell), an attorney, raising his daughter alone. (Why? Because Annika’s mother bailed on the family years ago. Why? Because women can’t be trusted to stick around, even for their little daughters.) Craig is amiably sceptical about the strange adult woman sleeping on the floor of his teen daughter’s bedroom. What does she want with Annika? Then he decides, Whatever. Rockwell is one of the finest character actors working today, and he does what he can to make an approximate believable human out of the material he has been handed, but not much can be done. Craig accepts Annika’s creepily overage playmate as a houseguest; Megan licks a peanut butter spoon (the universal symbol of regressive behavior). And at some point, too, Megan sneaks out to do some seriously adult drinking and flirting and snogging with the father while the daughter is sleeping. (Why? Because any red-blooded, attractive man in midlife would be wowed by a woman some two decades younger, wearing his daughter’s T-shirt.)

In one more mark of what I hope is inadvertent glibness, the filmmakers embed casual meanness in the narrative, especially about the reliability of parents. I give this detail away because it is so gratuitous and, in the end, spoils nothing: at the same wedding where she shrinks in horror from commitment, Megan catches sight of her otherwise menschy father liplocked with a woman who is not his wife. Why? Because adulthood equals treachery? Because if a girl can’t even rely on her daddy, how can she possibly believe in marriage? Because everybody needs to learn a lesson by the time the credits roll?

Annika would call such a plot development, minor and ultimately superfluous as it is, lame. So would I. Laggies elbows its way into the lively Millennial conversation about growing up, then flubs the opportunity by having very little smart or funny or honest to say. The disappointment is enough to reduce this grown woman to girlish tears. 

Lisa Schwarzbaum, a former critic at Entertainment Weekly, is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear