Boy Meets Girl

A supposed Oscar contender and a chick flick battle at the multiplex.

click to enlarge HAVE PANTS, WILL TRAVEL: From left, Amber Tamblyn, Blake Lively, America Ferrera and Alexis Bledel. - Joe Lederer
Joe Lederer
HAVE PANTS, WILL TRAVEL: From left, Amber Tamblyn, Blake Lively, America Ferrera and Alexis Bledel.

Two fairly high profile movies arrive this week, each with its own specific, built-in audience. Or so you might think.

For the girls, there's The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, a tale of relentless female bonding based on Ann Brashare's bestselling book about four gal pals on the cusp of womanhood. To practically no one's surprise, this is a chick flick pure and simple, the sort of movie where the only males in the audience are likely to be there in quiet desperation, attempting to score points for sensitivity with their female companions.

The other new release of the week is being promoted as a boxing movie, but don't assume that this is one just for the boys. The movie is Ron Howards' Cinderella Man, and although there's plenty of fisticuffs to be seen, at least in the film's final hour, there's also a goodly amount of soul-bearing and other meaty dramatics delivered by heavy-duty thespians like Renée Zellweger and Paul Giamatti - not to mention numerous shots of a sweaty, bare-chested Russell Crowe that will certainly make the hearts of at least a few ladies (and gents) beat a tad faster.

There's a little something for everyone here, as with most Ron Howard flicks, so consider this one for guys who don't mind a little chit-chat and tears mixed with their blood, and for women who occasionally enjoy the sight of grown men bashing each other's brains out.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants lets us know what we're in for from the start, breathlessly intoning words like "Miracle," "Destiny," "Love" and "Faith" all within the movie's first 20 seconds. We're quickly introduced to the protagonists, four female friends who are conveniently summed up in two or three word phrases ("the rebel," "the creative one," etc.).

Just in case we're still having difficulty telling the characters apart, each girl is given a different ethnicity (or, at least, hair color) and body type - making it all the more amazing when the friends discover a pair of jeans that magically fits all four of them perfectly, from the tall, lanky blonde babe to the short, chunky Latina. And seeing as how each of these life-long pals is about to embark on a summer adventure that will entail their being separated for the first time ever, they decide that having joint custody of the pants is just the right sort of funky-mystical way of keeping in touch.

The first keeper of the pants is a talented but prudish artist, played by Gilmore Girls' Alexis Bledel, an actress who combines the physical delicacy of a young Charlotte Rampling with all the emotional depth of Keanu Reeves. Bledel's character (I won't bother with names, since you'll just forget them) vacations on an idyllic Greek island where the Zorba-esque locals slather her with affection, and a strapping young fisherman teaches her to open her arms and other body parts to love.

Girl 2, the spunky Latina (America Ferrera), spends the summer feeling like a fish out of water with her estranged dad and his brand new, whiter-than-white family. Girl 3 (Amber Tamblyn) - who we know to be a rebel because of that ca-razy blue streak in her hair - gets a job working for The Man in a Wal-Mart-like repository of All Things Conformist. Girl 4 (Blake Lively), the brassy blonde, spends the summer at a soccer camp where she sets her sights on a hunky young coach.

The movie cuts willy-nilly between the girls' stories, giving us essentially four soap operas for the price of one. Wham! - Girl 1's romance implodes to much weeping and some dreadfully sappy soundtrack music. Bam! - Girl 3's new best friend turns out to be dying of Leukemia. Thank you Ma'am! - Girl 4 loses her virginity and promptly starts feeling all empty inside.

The movie basically just places a series of obstacles between the girls and their goals (primarily boys) and then removes them in ways that are mostly sweet and predictable, although perhaps not quite as simplistic as you might expect. It's all very Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood meets My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets Bend It Like Beckham meets Real Women Have Curves, culminating in much hugging, kissing and crying (tears of sorrow mixed with joy, natch). This Sisterhood ultimately seems aimed at pre-teen girls who might be just a little too smart for Hilary Duff, but still have at least a few stuffed animals in permanent residence in the bedroom.

A slightly tougher alternative to Sisterhood, Cinderella Man, is Ron Howards's bio-pic of Depression-era boxer James Braddock, portrayed by Russell Crowe as a cross between Rocky Balboa, Forrest Gump and Mother Teresa. The movie's first half is devoted to Braddock's fall from grace, with lots of poignant scenes of his wife and kids making do on watered-down milk and the sorts of paper-thin slices of bologna that Mickey and Donald eat in old cartoons. The second half of the film details Braddock's amazing, rags-to-riches comeback, as he becomes a champion by necessity in order to feed his family.

There are several big, beautifully shot fight scenes, and in between them we get lots of opportunities for the unflappably tough-but-fair, proud-but-humble Braddock to deliver fatherly advice and husbandly affection. It all ends with the obligatory Rocky moment pitting Crowe's working-class hero in a life-or-death championship bout against a much younger, stronger fighter of seriously dubious character (the real-life Max Baer, best known to trivia-lovers as the man who went on to sire Jethro of The Beverly Hillbillies).

As you may have gathered, Cinderella Man is both "heartwarming" and "inspirational" in ways designed to appeal to Academy Awards voters, but that often make the rest of us dubious about movies too easily described by either of those words. Cinderella Man certainly looks the part of an Oscar contender, all classy production values and emoting A-list stars, but its high emotions can't completely disguise a lack of depth, and this really wouldn't be much of a movie at all without the charisma-oozing Crowe. There's nothing too glaringly wrong with the film, but Cinderella Man is ultimately as safe and as thoroughly unsurprising as the dependable craftsmen who made it.

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