Busy Philipps: He's Just Not That into You (2009)
By Mark Abraham· Sep 24, 2013
As I’ve discussed before, He’s Just Not That into You is the most annoying of the spate of big box rom coms we got a few years ago. I don’t think that’s because He’s Just Not That into You is irrevocably bad so much as it’s just plain aggravating to see good production values and a decent cast so obviously wasted on this script—which is either totally lazy or totally compromised, depending on whether you think its few charming moments are evidence that it was once something better—which itself is nothing more than a silly attempt to adapt the primary argument of the reference book of the same name. More recent flops like Movie 43 that aren’t even trying to do anything more than piggyback on the success of films like He’s Just Not That into You are of course worse, but of the few that presented themselves as cultural phenomenons, He’s Just Not That Into You is the most flummoxing, and not just because it goes out of its way to make the always-likeable Ginnifer Goodwin—who’s likeable even in crap like Something Borrowed—wholly unlikeable. This movie is magic, I think is what I’m trying to say. Let’s get captivated by its voodoo!
Goodwin plays Gigi, a character who is right off the bat taken out at the knees by her too-precious name. Do you think it’s short for “girly girl”? Gigi’s story is the one that is most clearly meant to narrative-ize the stuff in the book, so it’s made clear early and often that Gigi’s primary flaw as a human being is that she invests way too much importance in casual things that men might say to her, like that they’ll call her. This basic point is complicated by the fact that the film can’t seem to decide whether these non-committal men are just being polite or whether they’re all secretly assholes, because the film wants us to laugh at Gigi’s love-fails at the same time that we root for her to find love, which means that every single potential hookup—other than her OTP, Alex (Justin Long)—Gigi comes across has to be pitched at this weird tone: each is affable enough that we can assume it’s Gigi who mucked things up, dickish enough that we can think he wasn’t right for her anyways, and looks-agnostic enough that he believes that Ginnifer Goodwin is merely averagely attractive.
Gigi’s story is the primary thing, but outside of it—well, “outside,” since like all films of this ilk all the characters know one another—there are several points where the film sort of attempts to undercut the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus vibe that is the book’s bread and butter. It’s these “sort of attempts” that make the film interesting, and all the more maddening for it. For example, Anna (Scarlett Johansson) is not a he but still manages to be not that into Conor (Kevin Connolly), and he misreads her signals and cues in a similar fashion to Gigi. Which would be a neat subversion of the book’s message, except that:
- This plot gets substantially less screen time than Gigi’s does.
- The autonomy inherent in Anna’s casual approach to relationships is completely undercut when she falls for Ben (Bradley Cooper), who is a) a married man whose affair makes him b) the one true villain of the film and is c) written and played so forthrightly as a jerk that it’s ludicrous that Anna would like him in the first place, leaving us with a whole host of questions. Are we supposed to assume that Ben is an aberration for Anna? Or are we supposed to assume that Anna is the aberration? The movie suggests, intentionally or unintentionally, that women like the Anna of Conor’s scenes don’t actually exist because they are all secretly the Anna of Ben’s scenes. In other words: women who fall hopelessly for unavailable men.
- To rephrase the entire previous bullet point in simpler terms, this whole plot merely plays the old “why do women like jerks and friendzone nice guys?” saw straight.
- The lameness of Conor’s misinterpretations is pretty minor when set against the full litany of Gigi’s. Which is said to be silly, over and over and over, by her eventual OTP Alex, who also just happens to be Conor’s BFF. This may surprise you, but Alex merely gives Conor a “sorry bro, but ‘cha gotta move on.”
Another example: Beth (Jennifer Aniston), disappointed that her 7-year live-in boyfriend Neil (Ben Affleck) is still resistant to marriage, finally breaks up with him, only to discover—when Neil shows up like a knight in shining armor, of course, after her father has a heart attack—that her unmarried relationship is stronger than those that her sisters have with their husbands, or that her friend Janine (Jennifer Connelly) has with cheating Ben. (Incidentally, is the point that Beth’s three brother-in-laws are not that into her sisters? Should she tell them? Should she get Alex to give them all a lecture?) At the moment of this revelation, it seems like the movie is saying that maybe it’s okay for two people who love one another to eschew the societal convention of marriage and just be happy together.
So of course when Beth goes back to Neil he immediately proposes. Which not only undermines Beth’s decision, and the movie’s portrait of the lukewarm states-of-marriage of her sisters as being undesirable that led Beth to her decision, and Neil’s whole character up to this point, but also it serves to reiterate Alex’s assertion to Gigi from earlier in the film: that a woman should play hard to get because if a man wants to be with her he will literally do anything to ensure that it happens. Which is what we’re all looking for in a partner, right? The willingness to give up their fundamental beliefs! …right?
Alex, I guess, is also maybe an attempt to subvert the whatevers of the film. Gigi meets him when trawling for Conor, who after a quick date turns out just isn’t that into her, and Alex’s advice—which is essentially “stop trying so hard and caring so much”—works pretty well for her, so they become friends. Of course, Gigi can’t help but be Gigi, and almost immediately decides that Alex must like her, because otherwise why would he be so nice to her? Which makes for an awkward revelation that he doesn’t, after which he almost immediately realizes that yes in fact he does. Which makes it seem like maybe he’s saying that he was wrong all along? I dunno. He professes his love by making some claim about how Gigi is an exception that proves his rule, which semantically echoes his earlier statement that there are no exceptions to his rule, but it doesn’t really make much actual sense if you think about it, so you probably shouldn’t bother.
Also, Conor eventually gets together with Mary (Drew Barrymore). It’s boring.
So, yes, He’s Just Not That into You is willing to play a little with its source material. In every story, though, the film defaults to heteronormativity and the immutability of gender, and these things on top of the fact that the cast is overbearingly white and middle class. Men are all stupid, allowing their dick-thoughts to cloud their heart-thoughts, and though the right woman—maybe; the movie is real sloppy about whether these are One True Loves or whether any woman can do this with any man—does possess the ability to trigger a torrent of a man’s heart-thoughts so overwhelming that it will subsume a man’s dick-thoughts, the only way to do that is to leave a man alone, because women too often let their heart-thoughts and their brain-thoughts intermingle and cannibalize their common sense-thoughts, and so the onus is on women to not interfere or something. I don’t fucking know. That’s a paraphrase of what Alex says, and this part is the book part, and it’s just as poorly thought out as any other explanation ever about how women are somehow simultaneously too emotional and too cerebral about…stuff. Like, one of the best parts of male privilege has got to be how we can ignore all the clear and blatant contradictions inherent in how we’ve explained the world around us to each other, right guys? High five!
I don’t want to harp on the sexism—and here I mean against the women and men in the film, ‘cause: geez—both because it’s just so obvious and because this is a film with a lead character whose name is a four-letter word that is almost “girl” based on a book that has as its primary message that women who aren’t in a functional relationship only have themselves to blame. Nobody needs a male author to explain why that’s silly: you either agree or you don’t, and for those that agree I hope that my above attempts to parse the intentions of some of these plots haven’t buried the lede. But it’s the fact that the movie allows these rote ideas to stand in for actual characterization for its characters that really grates, because nobody in this film is allowed to act like an actual person, and ultimately the film’s argument seems to be that at the heart of all of our differences is an utter lack of difference. Witness how the film sets all these seemingly distinct scenarios up only to knock them down and erect one scenario in their place: women who play it cool and men who consequently give in and give those women what they want. Like, even if it’s true that men are all commitment-phobes but when held at arms-length become motivated by lust, control, and ownership, well…isn’t that absolutely gross and absolutely the fucking problem? And not that some women are poor at navigating that bullshit?
Only Ben, Anna, and Janine end up alone, and even though Janine gets this kind of uplifting moment about finally being out of her awful marriage to Ben, the explanation of why her marriage was awful that the movie seems to advocate is that she wasted too much time trying to make it work. Which, sure, it turns out that was wasted time, but only because Ben might as well have had a twirly mustache. Like, I’m not sure you can really draw a clear line from Gigi’s delusion that a casual-but-positive comment = true love and Janine’s attempt to cling to her marriage because she either a) still loves Ben or b) at the very least believes in the sunk cost fallacy. A notion underlined by the fact that it’s Janine and not Gigi who gets the most embarrassing sequence in the film when she shows up to Ben’s work to seduce him while Anna hides in his closet. Plus, this movie acts like Ben’s affair is just a symptom of Ben’s indifference; that all of his other little lies that are unrelated to the affair are just as bad. The film’s argument seems to be that the moment any wife in a heterosexual marriage discovers that their husband has lied to them about anything the conclusion they should draw is that their marriage is a sham!
It’s not that this can’t be true. And it’s not that He’s Just Not That into You is the only film or property ever to poorly depict how people who cheat on their SOs actually act. It’s that Janine’s story is just another example of how all of the conclusions in this film iterate the notion that following the advice of one reference book—a book that may or may not even exist in the this universe that shares its name—is the correct way to be. Beth and Neil and Alex and Gigi get happy endings but that’s only because Gigi and Beth, intentionally or unintentionally, acted exactly like a book said they should. Janine didn’t, and her world blew up, and her moment of empowerment there at the end could very easily be read to mean that the little bit of hope she now has is only due to the possibility that she can now follow He’s Just Not That into You’s rules! It’s like if they adapted The Joy of Cooking and the characters who got bad endings were the ones who tried to cut down on the butter in the recipes. But so the thing this film is best at is demonstrating how situating the book’s message inside stories is really problematic, because the book’s sole saving grace is that at least it argues that if a little playing hard to get doesn’t work women should stop wasting their time on a potential partner. Because this is a romantic comedy, though, Gigi has to waste her time with Alex and Beth has to waste her time with Neil, meaning that a) the fact that their stories work out happens purely due to traditional rom com logic and b) the climax to both of their stories is a man reasserting himself by locking that shit down because he was denied access for about 10 minutes. Like: great? Does any woman really want their forever-relationship to be one they tricked their partner into by exploiting his own worst traits against him?
Plus, I get the distinct sense that the only reason the Beth, Janine, and Anna arcs even flirt with subversion at all is to create enough diversity-of-experience points to allow the film to go hog wild with Gigi’s Giginess, which is seriously off the charts. Our brief sojourns with the stories of How Janine Got Her Groove Back and Four Murphy Sister Weddings and a Funeral for Neil’s Unconventional Views on Marriage are only there as bulwarks to allow Gigi to be what she is at the length at which she is that way. Which is why all of the other plots in this movie come off as half-baked: because they are. They aren’t there to tell stories. They’re there to make us feel okay about laughing at Gigi being sad that a guy who made eye contact with her once hasn’t proposed yet, because all the other characters are far more bland. …whoops. I meant “even-keeled.”
Which is not to say that “Gigi” the character can’t be the lead in a movie. She just probably shouldn’t be the lead in this movie. Consider that How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days exploits the exact same characteristics of a stock female caricature for humor, but at least demonstrates that all women don’t really actually act like this all of the time, and that most women don’t really act like this at all. He’s Just Not That into You isn’t asking us to laugh at Gigi as some anomalous, specific character; it’s asking men to laugh at Gigi as a stand-in for all women and for women to laugh at what they recognize about themselves in her. Which is asking a lot, I think, even outside any sexism you perceive in that, because we aren’t all the same.
Anyways, Busy Philipps, who is in this movie for about five minutes and whose role simply exists to ask Alex if he wants to have sex, only to determine from his distracted attitude that he must lurve Gigi, is pretty funny, which is a miracle when she has that role: you know, the cab driver whose car a lead gets into when the movie’s about to end and asks something like “where do you want to go?” and the lead wistfully says “home”? The nurse who checks a hospitalized lead’s vitals at the end of a movie and says “I think everything is going to be okay” meaning physically but the lead gets a smile on there face and says “yes they are” and means something else entirely? Where do these cab drivers take these people without an address, right?
Maybe Philipps gives this 5-minute serendipity character the same gusto she gave slightly more substantial but equally dumb characters in Made of Honor and I Don't Know How She Does It because her husband wrote he’s Just Not That into You? I dunno. But with all the gaff I’ve given the script in this review, I’ll follow Philipps’ lead and give Mr. Philipps, aka Marc Silverstein, and his writing partner Abby Kohn, a little slack. They’ll also get slack because their short-lived television series The Opposite Sex was fairly cute—though it too played with strict notions of gender—and both that and Miss Match, the other television series they worked on for Darren Star, were cancelled after only one season apiece. If you were them, wouldn’t you broaden every thing up and make He’s Not That into You and Valentine's Day and The Vow? And would it surprise you at all to know that their very first film was Never Been Kissed?
You may have noticed that studios aren’t exactly producing rom coms like they used too, largely because they don’t make much money. You can’t put 3D in them to charge a premium price, and they don’t do numbers like big budget action flicks in the international market. So these kinds of rom coms, which are little more than marketing ideas—an all star cast in a property based on some cultural touchstone that will get asses in seats, because “adapting” something like the book He’s Just Not That into You is the rom com equivalent of remaking Total Recall, because it is a thing people recognize—are what will get made now, for better or worse. And you can’t really blame screenwriters for writing them, because: money. I mean, you can blame them for the content—see above—but it’s increasingly hard to get too angry about what screenwriters do or don’t do because to be a working screenwriter you have to write something that will actually get made. And a really good, well-written rom com? Is the exception, not the rule, because most scripts have several writers attached to them, and often feature uncredited script rewrites, and that’s before you take into account studio notes and forced product integration and things that actors demand and being focus-grouped into oblivion.
Point being, if you get pegged to adapt He’s Just No That into You, and you’re suddenly saddled with making a reference book into a movie, and the two authors of said book are also getting writing credits, you’re going to very quickly fall into a trap where you can’t actually criticize the source material even if you wanted to. I’m not sure that’s what happened, to be clear; it’s just likely enough that straight-out criticizing the writers as if they themselves advocate the limited view of how people are that is advanced in this film might be unfair. So the real conclusion, I guess, is just how sad it is that rom coms are now essentially being made by committee, because any creative process is ultimately constrained institutionally by any number of things. Certainly, no studio seems to be in a rush to drop money on a project that openly challenges a heteronormative, gendered worldview. So we get stuff like this instead, where the funniest moment in a movie that is ostensibly about relationships is a server at Alex’s bar getting his back up because the hostess wants him to change his shirt.