This weekend, “The Other Woman,” directed by Nick Cassavetes and starring Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann and Kate Upton, comes to theaters. With a plot like a played-for-laughs “Les Diaboliques” (1955)—hey, wasn’t that “Diabolique” (1996)?—or an aged-down “First Wives Club,” or an aged-up “John Tucker Must Die,” it’s safe to say that it perhaps is not the most original story in the world. A woman discovers her dreamy boyfriend is actually married, and furthermore, is cheating on both her, and his wife, with other women too, and so teams up with the cuckolded wife (can wives even be cuckolded?) to exact revenge on the cheatin’ lyin’ no-good three-timin’ SOB (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
Producers, despite the hat-tip to dragged-along boyfriends and husbands in the comely shape of Kate Upton running in slow motion in a bikini, are clearly hoping to attract female viewers who are so underserved elsewhere, or so undiscriminating, that they presumably won’t examine too closely the shellac-thin glaze of female solidarity that coats the surface of this premise. After all, “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat” may have taught us that it is possible to have financially successful, funny, female-led comedies that are about something other than women relating to each other through men, but not everything can be “Bridesmaids” or “The Heat,” can it?
Well, actually why can’t it? “The Other Woman” may have some decent gags, and Mann and Diaz are both strong comic performers who can manage that difficult trick of appearing cute and aspirational even while self-deprecatingly face-planting in the shrubbery, but can that really distract us all from the fact that it’s a tired plotline that fits as neatly in the 1950s as it does today? Should it? In an effort to offer an alternative to anyone bothered by this sort of thing, and in an effort to convince ourselves that, appearances to the contrary, there is actually a wealth of richer, more interesting women-fronted comedies out there (well, okay maybe not a wealth, but some), we delved into territories outside the current Hollywood machine, to see what we could turn up. Here are five films, each featuring at least two female co-leads, that you might not have seen, to provide an alternative to “The Other Woman” which before you even go in is pretty much a film you kinda have already seen.
The European Hit:“Bagdad Cafe” (1987)
It’s rare that you revisit a film of which you have very warm memories and find that, if anything, you’ve underestimated it. But a recent rewatch of “Bagdad Cafe,” the English-language debut of German-born director Percy Adlon (“Rosalie Goes Shopping,” “Salmonberries”) had just that effect—this offbeat, beguiling film is a rare gem, or more appropriately maybe, a cactus flower blooming where little else grows. Ostensibly a culture-clash comedy of manners when stout, Bavarian Jasmin (Adlon regular Marianne Sägebrecht), having argued with her husband on holiday, trails alone into a run-down gas station/café/motel run by Brenda (CCH Pounder) and proceeds to gently, irrevocably change everyone’s life, her own included, for the better, really it’s an anthemic portrait of the transformative power of friendship—one that in this case is the more satisfying and resonant for being so hard-won.
Shot through with an undercurrent of sadness and hardscrabble desperation, the tiny community of Bagdad, which basically consists of the suspicious, quick-tempered Brenda (who has just thrown out her lazy husband), her pretty, flirty teenage daughter, piano prodigy son with a baby of his own, and the regular patrons (including an against-type Jack Palance revealing comic chops years before “City Slickers”) is initially wary, if not downright rude toward the comically overdressed, tweedy Jasmin (her make-under transformation is a gradual throughline). But as she tentatively discovers her real self in this, the unlikeliest of places, she becomes the heart and the hearth of the Bagdad Cafe, the place toward which everyone gathers closer to warm their hands. In fact, while the premise and even the shooting style is quirky and played for maximum comic effect (viz the silhouette of Jasmin in her feathered Bavarian hat scrubbing down the side of a water tower) there is no mistaking that Adlon and his actors are brimful of love for these characters, and never allow them to become grotesques.
Bursting with life, and rich with incident as it is, however the truly great moments are tiny, like Brenda’s wide smile when she first plays assistant to Jasmin’s magic act—maybe the first smile we’ve seen her give—or Jasmin delicately revealing a nipple to Palance as she sits for a painting. Funny, touching and almost absurdly charming, there is a romance subplot, but the real falling-in-love happens between the two central friends. And in case we’re in any doubt where the film’s, and Jasmin’s, heart lies, we get this perfect moment: in answer to an offer of marriage from a man who adores her, which will solve her visa problems too, Jasmin’s response is a small smile and “I’ll talk it over with Miss Brenda.” That is some BFF stuff right there.
The Ensemble Indie: “Clockwatchers” (1997)
Overshadowed in the recent reclamation stakes by the similarly-themed “Office Space,” the directorial debut of Jill Sprecher (who’d go on to make the also underrated “Thirteen Conversations about One Thing”) is this minor-key story of four women working in the same faceless company as the lowest of bottom-rung bottom-feeders: temps. Without offering the catharsis of revenge on offer in “Office Space,” “Clockwatchers” is an altogether more pessimistic affair, but no less funny for it, and perhaps a bit more truthful.
Something of a superhero team-up of female indie actors (this list could have been made up entirely of films starring members of this cast), the laconic but sharp-fanged workplace comedy stars Toni Colette, a couple years after her breakthrough as Muriel in “Muriel’s Wedding” playing Iris, similarly a mousy introvert transformed by friendship with a brasher, brittler woman. That cynical, staccato presence is Margaret, played by Parker Posey, whose witchiness is tempered here by a wide streak of real sadness that makes this one of Posey’s best roles, and largely her film. Indie film royalty Lisa Kudrow plays Paula, who boasts an ever-changing hairstyle and dreams of being “discovered”; while prolific film and TV actress Alanna Ubach rounds out the quartet as Jane, the “good girl” biding her time until her fiance, who is probably already cheating on her, marries her and whisks her, and her OCD away, in his sports car.
The foursome become lunch buddies, loosely allying behind Margaret, who uses the smarts and wit that the company fails to exploit, to find little ways of undermining or sabotaging it, until an accusation of theft threatens to break the fragile bond apart. However the real pleasure of the film is not in its plotting, but in the well-observed insights into life on the corporate hamster wheel—often laced with a real sense of anger and injustice—the quotidien misogyny the women face, the drudgery and the petty tyrannies of those a micrometer higher up the food chain anxious to flex their tiny little bit of power on the only people more disenfranchised than they. It’s the mind-numbing, all conquering power of gray partitions and the gray men that patrol them that preaches an irresistible conformity, so much so that although events conspire to end the blossoming friendship between Margaret and Iris in a cloud of suspicion and betrayal, it’s hard to read Margaret’s exit from this bland vision of hell as anything other than an escape. “Clockwatchers” may feature four women specifically, but it is really a rallying cry for anyone who’s ever been undervalued at work, or felt crushed beneath the weight of a corporate hierarchy pressing down on them from above.
The Chick Flick That Defies The Tag “Chick Flick”: “Waitress” (2007)
On paper, this may be the chickiest of chick flicks (and incidentally, can whoever coined that term please come forward to receive our deepest gratitude? You can collect it in this dark alleyway where we’re waiting with a tire iron.) But then, on paper there’s no reason why this should-be schmaltzy tale of a waitress with a talent for baking getting pregnant by her no-good husband and embarking on an affair with her hunky doctor should work at all. But that’s possibly because that logline doesn’t capture the absolute best aspect of this little gem: the warmth of the characterization of the titular waitress Jenna (Keri Russell) and of her two waitress friends Becky and Dawn (Cheryl Hines and director Adrienne Shelley).
As pink-frosted and candy-colored as the film is styled, there’s a strong dose of melancholy in it, and a wisdom about the sometimes self-defeating tactics women use to get by. These observations range from the very serious, like sticking with an abusive partner, or embarking on an obviously doomed affair in Jenna’s case, to the less serious but still insidious, like becoming ferociously critical of one’s own appearance, as in Becky’s hilarious and obviously false idea that her boobs are grotesquely uneven (“my right boob is way up here in Maine and my left boob is danglin’ down here in Florida”). If you can’t even trust your own self to be on your side, then friendship, as a wellspring of courage and support, becomes all the more important. Building out from this core trio, though, the film has plenty of warmth to spare for its other characters, men and women: no villain is irredeemable just as no hero is unblemished in this little community, because the characters in “Waitress” aren’t split into bad and good, let alone into bad men and the good women they do wrong by. Instead it’s divided into people who know who they really are, and people who do not, and therefore into people who are deserving of your admiration, and those deserving of your pity. No one deserves your hate or derision.
In fact, the story is not really about overcoming outside obstacles or defeating adversaries, it’s actually one of transcendence. Ultimately it’s not the baby who saves Jenna, nor her affair with Dr Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), nor the deus ex machina stroke of financial good fortune, nor even the support of her gabby, sweet girlfriends (who are after all involved in their own romantic and personal dramas). Jenna actually discovers the truth of who she is by herself, an act of personal expression and creativity like the baking of a pie to her own new recipe. And, in a development so atypical as to be almost revolutionary, when she finally gets to take a look at herself, she likes what she sees. We’re never going to stop being sad about the tragic early death of Adrienne Shelley, and the sweet, wise, heartfelt “Waitress,” and the promise it showed for future films too, is one of the chief reasons why.
The Relationship Dramedy From The Consistently Underrated Mistress of Relationship Dramedies: “Friends with Money” (2006)
We could have chosen any one of several other Nicole Holofcener films, especially her great debut feature “Walking and Talking” or its 2001 follow-up “Lovely & Amazing,” but there was never any doubt that she was going to take one of the slots. But we opted for this one partly out of contrarianism: while Holofcener herself is one of the most frequently unfairly overlooked filmmakers working today, she has a small (and growing, especially since “Enough Said”) cadre of supporters, yet even amongst them, the general consensus is that “Friends With Money” is a weaker offering. And perhaps it is, but it’s still pretty good, which just goes to show the baseline we’re working off.
Relationships between white, middle class, well-educated, distinctly grown-up women are Holofcener’s stock in trade, but “Friends with Money” tackles social standing and wealth disparity issues within this group head-on: an uncomfortable topic that goes unremarked-upon in many more hard-hitting dramas, let alone films at the more comedic end of the spectrum (how many times have we wondered in rom-coms how the ditzy lead can possibly afford such a lovely apartment on a teacher/barista/dog walker salary?). But perhaps that’s part of the reason Holofcener’s movies are so often relegated to the back burner of serious critical evaluation (“Lovely & Amazing” for example, was described as “another one of those estrogen overdose movies” in otherwise positive review LOL). She is so in control of her tone of voice, and so careful to keep the dialogue fresh and snappy even while it’s deftly sketching the absurdities of these modern lives, that it might be easy for some (perhaps those suffering from “estrogen overdose”) to miss the pointedness of her insights.
But “Friends With Money” is full of cutting moments, cast within a group of four female friends (whose circle has expanded to often encompass their partners): screenwriter Christine (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener), designer Jane (Frances McDormand), independently wealthy Franny (Joan Cusack) and ex-teacher now maid Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), the only one not married, and the only one feeling the sting of serious financial worries. In terms of overarching plot or grand revelations, not a great deal happens—marriages fray, tentative romances begin, fallings-out and rapprochements occur. But central to this movie and to nearly all Holofcener’s films, is the truism that women can be supportive friends and can form the most important and lasting relationships of their lives with other women, but God, that doesn’t mean we have to be nice to one another. And that, from McDormand’s blunt, perimenopausal, short-fused Jane, to Keener’s drifting, inattentive Christine to Cusack’s rich, blinkered Franny to the quietly flailing Olivia (one of Aniston’s best-ever roles), gives this engaging foursome some quality spars and jabs to land on one another in the name of friendship.
The Classic: “The Women” (1939)
…Speaking of spars and jabs, while hardly going to win any prizes in the empowerment stakes, this 1939 film from George Cukor (avoid the Meg Ryan remake like the plague) is something of a guilty pleasure, largely due to a terrific all-female cast, (130 speaking roles in total, and not one single male–right down to the animals, apparently), and a wickedly acid, gossipy script by the great Anita Loos (who also wrote “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” another story chiefly about female friendship even if the pair of them are desperately on the hunt for husbands). And if politically and thematically it feels terribly old hat, the formal decision to never show a single man onscreen does lend a progressive edge, even if the women are largely stabbing each other in the back, sighing over their current and ex-husbands and plotting each other’s downfall. It’s a choice that leads to some clever scenes, like when a key argument between the central character, Mary (Norma Shearer) and her husband is not shown but instead reported word for word by the maid to the housekeeper, and in general, despite their monomaniacal obsession with their marriages, the way that fate of the pawn-like menfolk is actually entirely orchestrated by these women, is itself slyly subversive. The unseen men may be terribly important, but they have very little power in this world, and ping between successive women with all the agency of pinballs.
Taking place over the course of a couple of years, the film is really a series of encounters between what we’d now call “frenemies” (Shearer, a rapid-fire catty Rosalind Russell, a sappy and rather underwritten Joan Fontaine and pantomime villain temptress Joan Crawford head up the huge ensemble): lunches, shopping trips (including a 10-minute-long narratively inert fashion show shot in sudden Technicolor), gym visits, beautician appointments, journeys to Reno and dust-ups in apartment-sized powder rooms. The main arc is of Shearer gradually losing her husband to Crawford (through her own passivity and Crawford’s manipulations, of course–poor “Steven” has very little to do with it) before waiting her out and winning him back again—tactics that illustrate the difference in classiness, acerbically summed up by one character, between “women” and “females.”
So, certainly not a feminist rallying cry, but at the very least we can enjoy the glamorous styles, bitchy repartee and time-capsule reflection of the attitudes of the era, and congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come, and that the days of female-led comedies in which all the women’s interactions revolve around them obsessing over their menfolk are long past. And then we can go and see “The Other Woman” which is about a man’s attractive wife and several attractive mistresses teaming up to exact revenge on him in ever more obsessive ways. Huh.
So which lesser-seen female-fronted comedies do you think deserve a little more love? Tell us below.