‘He’s Just Not That Into You’: A chick-flick guys can enjoy

February 3, 2009

 

It’s not that guys hate chick flicks per se – just the ones that are dumb and unfunny (which, unfortunately, is too many of them – “Bride Wars”? “Sex and the City”?).

 

I’m not saying that women are less discriminating than men. Let’s just say both sexes have their blind spots, tastewise.

 

That’s why “He’s Just Not That Into You” is such a pleasant surprise. It’s smart and funny – and even-handed. Sure, a lot of the guys in this movie are dogs – but some of them aren’t. And a few that are turn out to be redeemable.

 

Even more shocking for a chick flick: The women in this movie aren’t all saints. Some are painfully needy, some are willfully clueless and some are predatory – just like guys.

 

More shocking still: This movie was directed by Ken Kwapis – and it doesn’t stink. Kwapis has a golden touch as a TV director (“The Office,” “Malcolm in the Middle”) and just the opposite as a filmmaker (“License to Wed,” “Dunston Checks In”). I don’t think he’s made a watchable film since “Follow That Bird,” and that was a “Sesame Street” movie.

 

Based on a novel that was equal parts fiction and relationship guide, “HJNTIY” mixes and matches men and women in various states of disconnect or confluence. The film’s principal source of men-women education is Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin), first seen on a date with Conor (Kevin Connolly) for drinks.

 

When they part, they both hop on their cells: She calls her sister, Janine (Jennifer Connelly) to burble about how great it went and that she thinks he’s on his cell callng her machine to leave a message about a second date. In fact, he is calling Anna (Scarlett Johansson), a one-time hook-up who’s moved on but keeps stringing Conor along as a friend. Anna, meanwhile, meets Ben (Bradley Cooper), a married guy who can’t resist her flirtatious approach – even though he’s married to Janine.

 

Gigi and Janine work together, where they pow-wow about men with their co-worker, Beth (Jennifer Aniston). Beth lives with Neil (Ben Affleck), with whom she’s been involved for seven years; Neil feels that in itself constitutes a commitment. It’s the idea that he just doesn’t believe in marriage that finally tears them apart.

 

Gigi stalks the uninterested Conor, eventually being schooled by his buddy, Alex (Justin Long), who helps her understand the weird signals men give off, all of which seem to translate as “just sex – no intimacy, please.” He becomes her guru in the ways of men, offering brutally frank assessments of their true motives.

 

Screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein switch between the various troubled couples with surprising smoothness. While there are no real surprises, there’s a beguiling emotional honesty and real wit as these characters struggle up the slippery slope of intergender communication. That’s the film’s real subject: that, when it comes to understanding each other, men and women are painfully tone-deaf.

 

In other hands, the predictable plot strings would seem mechanical and formulaic. But an attractively vulnerable cast, doing superior ensemble work, keeps the material feeling fresh and real, even when the set-up is as hoary as a man and his mistress about to get down in his office – only to be interrupted by his wife.

 

(That moment also presents the film’s most fascinating dilemma: Jennifer Connelly or Scarlett Johansson? That’s the choice facing Bradley Cooper’s Ben. Unfortunately, “both” is not one of the multiple-choice answers. “Neither,” however, is.)

 

The cast is a consistent group of team-players, from Goodwin’s gratingly lovable Gigi to Aniston as the marriage-focused Beth to Connolly as the persistent Conor, chasing the unattainable Johansson as Anna. I also like Long, who is emerging as a versatile comic actor, moving easily here from smugly self-involved to smitten and self-effacing.

 

Still, this is a movie for women – which means the women are (mostly) the heroes (and the guys are dogs – which, in real life, is unfortunately true). So it’s hard to recommend “He’s Just Not That Into You” as a date movie, if only because women will come out of it looking slantwise at their significant others. On the other hand, guys, you don’t want to send her off to see it with her girlfriends – because who knows what they’ll say afterward.

 

 

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