All the Pretty Courses

Hollywood's holiday menu is impeccably presented but predictably low in nutrition

If planned well, the holidays can be a time of hiding minimal value and negligible effort behind the allure of massive excess. Rewrapping last year's unwanted cardigan kills two birds with one stone, while every pound of bulk fruitcake consumed in December staves off your impending scurvy with another sweet sugar-bloat. This winter's lineup of blockbuster movies seems to work the same way: All the pretty courses are pretty indeed, but none too filling. While at first you think your heart is pounding from the riveting performances and the intricacies of plot, you soon realize it's that your arteries can't take the flow of all that eggnog. No matter. When making conversation with the extended family grows old, even the worst movies will make you feel warm inside. That's why this year I'm sending my wish list straight to Hollywood.

1. I wish for world peace.

If only making a wish list could be as simple as it appears in beauty pageants, where every girl knows that offering the sentiment above is the only acceptable way to respond to the final interview question: "What would you wish for most in the world?" In Miss Congeniality, Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) squeezes all of her hopes and dreams, like so much cellulite beneath bikini casing, into a similarly poignant fantasy for the good of mankind. Only for Hart, world peace means stretching her job as a frumpy undercover cop and masquerading as Miss New Jersey in order to kick some terrorist ass with her stiletto heels.

Alas, it's disappointing that the only real violence the audience gets to witness in the movie is Bullock's horrendous make-under, which is glorious enough to share the ugly crown with Cameron Diaz's cafeteria-worker chic in Being John Malkovich. Bullock seems to exult in doing all the unglamorous things that audiences never get to see women do onscreen: She spends the movie snorting and tripping over things as if she could trade her lipstick for slapstick. Such empty fun could have kept us entertained if Miss Congeniality didn't result in the same moral to which the current trend of pageant-spoof movies always succumbs: Even superficial people have some virtues. If this seems a little too optimistic for your tastes...

2. ...I wish that all movie stars wanted was to lead a dull, rotten life like mine.

As an antidote to Miss Congeniality's model behavior, Nicolas Cage slips the audience a little present under its family tree by dispelling myths of good genetics in The Family Man. After encountering a ghost-of-Christmas-past-type angel (Don Cheadle) at a convenience store, Wall Street tycoon Jack Campbell (Cage) discovers that sleeping with supermodel Amber Valletta is less than fully satisfying. And he realizes that even though he's attractive enough, theoretically, to pull it off, singing aloud to opera makes him look stupid. In light of these circumstances, and with a little prodding from the angel, Jack exchanges his privileged existence to go back in time and watch his old girlfriend Kate (Téa Leoni) hum along to the Rolling Stones in the shower. But in his efforts to reconstitute the bourgeois life he might have had, Jack finds himself unprepared to deal with caretaking some cute doggies and a daughter with an awwwww-inducing lisp.

Watching Nicolas Cage change diapers and Téa Leoni wear soccer-mom sweatsuits is almost enough to make you feel complacent throughout the movie's attempts to update It's a Wonderful Life. But there are more than a few unexplained gaps in the story line. For instance, after the first few minutes of the movie, why is Cheadle's black angel suddenly nowhere to be found in this new suburban utopia? And why would a supernatural black man's entire identity hinge upon leading his white counterpart to glory in a cheap stereotype already played out this winter in Bagger Vance and Unbreakable? If you're the type of person who's easily confused by such details, there's a strange solution for you.

3. To hell with it--I don't really know what I want, but I know that Mel Gibson can tell me!

Compared to The Family Man's ambiguities about character motivation, What Women Want provides sweeping generalizations about the drives of humankind. With a title that could headline an article in Maxim, What Women Want is as much a movie made for women's needs as a scene of two cheerleaders tying tongues in a porn flick is aimed to arouse a lesbian audience. Mel Gibson plays Nick Marshall, an advertising executive who, after getting electrocuted(!), can suddenly read every premenstrual syndrome, from the head of his boss (Helen Hunt) to the hydra monster of women everywhere. Having his hairdryer fall into the bathtub is only the first fizzle that Marshall hears before the audience likewise tunes in to the crackling of synapses that this no-brainer has to offer.

Appropriate to its ad agency setting, What Women Want functions like a TV commercial. It simultaneously intimidates its target audience of females by intimating that men ridicule them behind their backs, and promises escape from their insecurities with the purchase of its product: a movie date with Mel Gibson, who really does understand your wacky ways! It's a shame, too, because every time Gibson dances to Frank Sinatra or adjusts his voice to match Sean Connery's, we're reminded that the movie could have been a campy study of how masculinity can be a performance rather than an identity. Instead, its essentialist gender commentary is as useless as an expired Viagra pill.

So this mediocre trio of winter movies leaves the average moviegoer in a familiar post-holiday slump. All the surprises have been unwrapped, leaving waves of gluttonous nausea combined with disappointment about the year's meager offerings. Of course, you can always program your own seasonal slew of movies at home--maybe a President's Day lineup of Oliver Stone films, or a Groundhog Day triple feature of Bill Murray classics. But if not, take heart: There are only about 150 more days until summer.

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