I hate family comedy-dramas. I’d rather put my balls in a waffle iron than watch stuff like Dan in Real Life and The Family Stone again. So when I was invited to partake in this blogathon where I would have to watch something I’d normally pass on, I went to Firecracker for advice. We’d already conquered the Romantic Comedy; there are plenty of good rom-coms out there. I’ll even admit to liking Bridget Jones’ Diary enough to watch it twice. (Maybe I’m a little gay for Hugh Grant; note to self: never dress like a transvestite prostitute around Hugh Grant) So that left the family comedy-drama, where laughter and tears meld into a melange of happy misery.
I like me a good sad film. Like any boy raised in the 70’s, one of the first times I cried was at the end of Brian’s Song; but show me a Hollywood family, who all seem to be Kennedy-fetish New Englanders in big sweaters with huge summer houses on lakes, and so much money that they need to invent their own misery by falling in love with married people, or boating in bad weather, or playing Krokeno, and I just can’t be bothered to care about them. I thought Steel Magnolias was the same sort of story transplanted to the South; boy was I wrong. It is certainly tailored to be a laugh-a-minute, down-home comedy tempered with tragedy, but it fits so comfily you don’t seem to mind.
The story centers on ladies who meet at through Truvy, the town beautician. You’ve got insanely crabby ‘Ouise (Shirley MacLaine); gossipy and demure Clairee (Olympia Dukakis); straitlaced mom M’Lynn (Sally Field) and her soon-to-be-wed daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts); Dolly Parton as Truvy, and Daryl Hannah as Anelle, her jittery new employee. The movie begins on Shelby’s wedding day and traverses the seasons as we slowly learn that she has a dangerous form of diabetes; Daryl Hannah’s husband is on the lam and has left her penniless; and Dolly’s hubbie Spud (Sam Shepherd) is a depressed lump who barely talks when he’s not away on the oil rigs. Sally Field’s husband, Tom Skerrit, is a bit wacky- shooting fireworks into the trees to rid the yard of pigeons, for a birdshit-free wedding day- but he’s an okay guy, when he’s not tormenting Ouise’s dog. The men aren’t bad, just… slight. You know, like the women in most male-centric movies. Shelby’s new husband Jackson (Dylan McDermott) is a smart-ass, but decent enough; he wants kids, and marries her pledging they’ll adopt- since the docs say it’s too dangerous for her to have kids; but of course, she decides to anyway.
So you can see where this is going; the movie picks up a year later when little Jackson Jr. turns one, and the fiery and funny ladies’ personalities collide like pinballs, with witty lines aflutter. It’s based on a stage play but only the device of measuring time by the seasons in the set decoration really carries over, and perhaps the preponderance of sharp dialogue, which can hardly be held against it. If the film has one flaw, it’s that when the inevitable tragedy finally occurs, and M’Lynn gives a heartfelt and painful speech, asking God the always unanswered, single-word question, “Why?,” we are given too little time for the ache to sink in before the laughs resume. The characters are eternal, well-written and well-played; we see each woman’s life move on; a grandson here, a crabby lady finding that her dog isn’t company enough, there; Truvy coming to terms with her husband, and Anelle finding someone who’s not perfect, but will at least be there for her. In the end, it’s a satisfying movie, and the predictably painful ending is deftly shrouded so we forget that we know it must occur.
There’s plenty of humor throughout the film- we get to see Shirley MacLaine bluster through scenes like a force of nature, and insert herself into a football locker room scene so she can peer in her compact; watching her spar with M’Lynn’s husband Drum (Tom Skerritt) never gets dull. What they lack in wit they make up for with sharp tongues. The witticisms fly plenty, and we know Anelle is fully inducted into the group when she finally makes a smart-ass comment.
The film was based on the playwright’s sister’s life, and set in the small town of Natchitoches in Louisiana. They try to keep things authentic, and include a local Christmas festival, Cajun dancing at the wedding, without overdoing the accents or heaping on too much lagniappe as is Hollywood tradition. I’ve heard it compared to Fried Green Tomatoes, and while it doesn’t have the same story structure, it does have the same homespun feel, like The Shawshank Redemption; we know what will happen, we know it will be satisfying, but the storytelling and characters are good enough to distract us along the way. There’s not a lot for guys to relate to her, but it’s a good story; and it had me wanting to scare birds out of trees by shooting fireworks into them with a crossbow, which is a definite plus.
P.S. I cried, and only found my balls later, under the couch, where the cat had been playing with them. I had to watch Scent of a Woman and a few 70’s crime films to reattach them.