Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
After a hiatus that was too long by far, I had the good fortune recently to see two movies in two weeks. The first one was with my wife. Given her feminine sensibilities (read: dislike for too much “adrenaline” in her movies) and the fact that this was our first “date” in a long time, we went to see Stranger than Fiction (you can say that I went to see Marc Forster’s latest film, or screenwriter Zach Helm’s first feature, or even Emma Thompson’s most recent picture, but DON’T accuse me of seeing a Will Ferrell movie; this is the first movie of his that I have ever paid for, and I only allowed this choice because he was clearly doing everything in his power NOT to be himself.) While waiting for the movie to start, we naturally sat through the previews. Two of them stood out to me: The Pursuit of Happyness, and We are Marshall. In the former, Will Smith plays a down-on-his-luck man whose wife leaves him with a low-paying job and a son to care for. Desperate for a better life, he takes a competitive internship at a stock brokerage firm, while still trying to figure out how and where they will eat and sleep each night. It is “inspired by a true story,” and during one speech from father to son, my wife started crying. We are Marshall, also inspired by a true story, discusses the re-birth of a college football program after a tragic plane crash kills the entire team. Matthew McConaughey (this might be spelled wrong, but I refuse to look it up.) plays the devoted and father and coach who takes on the seemingly impossible task of starting over, and I freely confess that at one point in the preview, when the stodgy principal (David Straitharn) walks to his window and sees the entire student body chanting the film’s title over and over, I got chills.
At first, it occurred to me to wonder why two films with such a seemingly male bent would tease before what is clearly a “date” movie. We all know that the decision of where to show movie trailers is carefully made to ensure maximum exposure to the target audience; it’s why you don’t see Saw III teased before Happy Feet, or Santa Clause teased before Borat. What I concluded in this case was that, due to the sentimentality and inspirational nature of each movie, the studio had decided to push them as “family films” One might star a Man in Black, and the other might center around football, but in the end, they both offer audiences the chance to cry and exult in the power of love and faith. Fine.
The second movie I saw was Casino Royale. I saw it with a buddy of mine, on opening night, in honor of his birthday. As it has already been discussed in these pages , this movie deconstructs the James Bond mystique, and strips him down to his half-brutal, half-suave parts. It is exciting, action-packed, and about as far from Stranger than Fiction as you can get. And yet, during the previews for Royale, BOTH of the movies mentioned above were teased. I was confused; WHY would a studio cater the same films to both the family/date crowd, AND the action/adventure crowd? Had they made a mistake?
The answer hit me all at once: we have stumbled onto not one, but TWO examples of the elusive “Male Chick Flick”
The Male Chick Flick (or MCF from here on out) is very rarely attempted, and nearly impossible to pull off. Despite my earlier assertions , I am defining “Chick Flick” in this case as any movie that a woman watches KNOWING that it’s GOING to make her cry. Since women (by and large) like to cry, and are able to do so relatively easily, these sorts of movies come out pretty often. However, to make a MCF, the creative team has to find a way to tell a story that guys want to see DESPITE the fact that it MIGHT make them cry, which is something (by and large) that we do rarely, and after putting up a fight. You can see the challenges inherent in this task.
In an earlier article dealing specifically with the phenomenon of guys crying at a movie, I wrote:
“(I)f a movie is going to make a guy cry, it has to take us by surprise. It has to either deal with something very similar to our own lives, or at the very least, have whatever the sad part is sneak up on us. It can NEVER be BILLED as a sad movie or “tearjerker”; if we know it’s coming, we’ll steel ourselves way in advance. The sadness rather has to be merely one SMALL part of the bigger picture of the…picture. It’s a tricky balancing act, and there’s almost no way to predict what movie will do what to which guy.”
While I stand by this assertion, the difference here is that MCFs are not GUARANTEED to make guys cry, but they DO offer the possibility.
(The following mini-paragraph’s purpose is solely to make the author feel better about starting an article, and then remembering that he had written something similar almost a year ago)
There is no clear recipe to determining what a film needs to make it okay for a man to cry at them, and writing a list of movies that once made me (or guys I know) cry is revelatory only in that the movie in question worked on one guy, once. But a movie does not have to make a man cry to be a MCF, it just has to threaten to do so, and yet men to go see them anyway. We are Marshall and The Pursuit of Happyness almost certainly both fit this bill. Realizing this, coupled with my past experience with like movies, I have come up with some general rules about this tricky genre. Or, to put it another way, there’s NO WAY to predict what will make a guy cry during a movie, but IF a movie DOES make a guy cry, chances are it:
- Stars Men – This is a muddy point within a murky topic, but I feel pretty confident that the movie in question has to tell a man’s story, from a male perspective. This does not imply that men do not care about women or their problems, but rather that, since we were trained in our formative years that crying is “unmanly,” a story is going to have to resonate very strongly within us for it to have that effect. I also think that the choice of man is very important too. I remember once in sixth grade gym class, one kid who was considered to be “tough” got hurt and started crying. Rather than getting mocked, it was unilaterally determined that, if THIS kid was crying, than what happened to him must have HURT. From that point on, it was acceptable to cry if and when that injury occurred. In that same vein, the makers of a MCF have to cast guys that guys admire, or respect, or at least consider cooler than most guys are. There’s a reason why Ben Stiller has never been in a movie like this, that The Pursuit of Happyness is headed by one of the coolest guys in Hollywood, and We are Marshall took pains to get Jack from Lost in a lead role.
- Has a father/son dynamic – I can think of no more complicated relationship than the one that exists between father and son. For better or worse, a man’s father informs him about what it is to be a man, and thus gives us an idea of what life has in store for us. We typically idealize our fathers, and we feel their inevitable shortcomings and failures as epic disappointments. All this to say that, when a film even BEGINS to adequately capture this dynamic, and the enormously complicated psychology behind it all, that movie has a chance to reach past our defenses.
- Deals with the pursuit of, and/or the failure to achieve, lofty dreams – About the only thing that is consistent in all of us is that, no matter what we have and who we are in life, we strive for more. This is a very competitive world, and it’s also one in which men still judge one another by their careers and incomes. Add to THAT the fact that, like it or not, we have to at least entertain the fact that we might one day have children, and thus our success will directly impact their future options, and you can see why men, as a rule, are so very driven to succeed, and so afraid that we won’t. A successful MCF would tackle this feeling WITHOUT pandering to us, or making it seem like a fault.
- Features the power/importance/beauty of Sports – Guys love sports. We love watching them, we love playing them, we love talking about them. And yet, there are SO MANY OCCASIONS where we have to make excuses for this, or apologize for it, or admit that sports (and the teams we love) mean next to nothing in the grand scheme of things. This all might be true, but so too is our love for “the game” real and profound. The movies that really seek our loyalty know this, and will either use sports as the central theme of, or the background for, their story. Bonus points if, in addition to sports being in the movie, they are there to show the importance of teamwork, or family, or passion, or any other theme bigger than the game itself.
So there is my unofficial list to define a genre that cannot be listed or defined. However, while this is as unscientific as it gets, using this as a checklist to determine whether a film is an MCF, we see that The Pursuit of Happyness scores three checks, while We Are Marshall scores a whopping four. That’s as close as I can get to a conclusion on this one.
So, the next time you catch a preview for a film that can just as easily have been made for those who need someplace to take their women and families, AND those who need somewhere to go with other guys to get AWAY from those same women and families, check the above list. If you see one or more, you might want to prepare yourself for some unintended feelings, and bring a hankie.