Contains spoilers for Vamps and For a Good Time, Call…
I’ll be real with you: neither of these films are thought pieces. They’re fluff. They’re fun and amusing and light. However, they also have some pretty cool things to say about women being friends with each other, which is not a topic movies tend to have much to say about. (There’s Sex and the City, I guess, but that always looked violently terrible, so I have no idea what it said.) If they’re not Steel Magnolias, all about the Strength and Resilience Women Find With Other Women – which, okay, just gag me – they’re Bridesmaids or Your Perky BFF In A Romantic Comedy. Part of this is the lack of films about women in general, and part of it is the lack of films that pass the Bechdel Test, but part of it is just that films don’t seem to find women being friends – not being frenemies, not Celebrating Their Transcendant Womanhood, just being besties – to be a topic worth exploring.
Well, I think that’s bullshit, and luckily, so do Vamps and For a Good Time, Call… Let’s start with the former. (Why, you ask? Because I watched it last night, I say. Logic always predominates here at Ends and Leavings Ranch.)
Vamps is the latest from Clueless writer-director Amy Heckerling, and before we get into the juicy shit can I just say holy fuck this cast? Nearly every single person with a speaking role is a heavy hitter somewhere else. Our heroes are Goodie (Alicia Silverstone) and Stacy (Krysten Ritter, the eponymous B in Apartment 23 whom you don’t trust; you might also know her from Breaking Bad), two fun-loving vampires living in New York and feeding off rodents they obtain via their handy exterminator jobs. They have it pretty good, going to nightclubs, night classes, and Sanguines Anonymous meetings, where they hang out with other recovering human-eaters including Vlad Tepish – whom you might know better as Vlad the Impaler – who has abstained from human blood for over 350 years, knits to control his cravings, and is played by, of all people, Malcolm McDowell (you’ve seen Clockwork Orange? Alex DeLarge, only old). The only wrinkle in their otherwise happy-go-lucky lives is when their stem (or Maker, for those of you whose first exposure to vampires, like mine, was Buffy), Cisserus, comes to town. Cisserus is played by Sigourney Weaver in a scenery-chomping role that allows her to exert maximum Grand Dame-itude all over the place. It’s eerily reminscent of her power-hungry female CEO Katharine Parker in Working Girl, actually, if Parker also ate people. Anyway. Cisserus’ counterpart in annoying authority figures is Vadim (the adorable and generally fabulous Justin Kirk (Angels in America and Weeds)), a Ukrainian stem who is really sick of being called Russian and oozes Eurotrash from his pores. Then we’ve got the girls’ love interests, who – this will be important later, because remember, we’re talking about female friendship here – don’t so much throw wrenches into things as recalibrate them. Stacy’s is Joey Van Helsing (Dan Stevens), he of the ominous last name and adorable British face – Matthew Crawley, who knew you had awesome comic timing and atrocious dance moves? I did not! – whose father is keeping the family business (vampire hunting) alive and well while Danny goes to film school. (His father is played by Wallace fucking Shawn. His mother is Kristen Johnston of 3rd Rock from the Sun fame.) Goodie’s love interest is her old flame from her ’60s radical days, Danny (the inimitable Richard Lewis), now married to a dying wife but deeply nostalgic for his youth.
Got all that? It’s a lot, and it’s awesome – I don’t know how Heckerling was able to gather so many players for a very B-list film, but I’m so glad she did. I got a similar vibe, particularly from Weaver, that I got from Willem Dafoe in Daybreakers (a January 2010-release sci-fi vampire film approximately thirty times better than anything described with the phrase “January-release sci-fi vampire film” has any right to be): he’s incredibly successful and wanted to be in a film where he got to carry a crossbow. I think Weaver is in a similar place. Either that, or she just bought a new house and needed to pay it off fast. Anyway, all these many characters meet and interact and have stuff happen to them and it’s actually pretty great, but what I’m really interested in here is the relationship between Goodie and Stacy, which is the fulcrum on which the rest of the film pivots.
Goodie and Stacy are best friends who like each other. When they fall in love, they are happy for and supportive of each other. When they have problems, they use each other as resources and help each other solve them. In short, they act like real friends. The film’s ultimate crisis revolves around Goodie doing something for Stacy because they are friends. Stacy’s relationship with Van Helsing is a cute side plot and it’s certainly not a given that they’re going to ride off into the sunset, but it’s not the main source of dramatic tension, nor is Goodie’s complicated relationship with Danny. All the crises, resolutions, and complex feelings reside in the relationship between Goodie and Stacy. And despite the film’s ultimate frivolousness, when 150+-year-old Goodie chooses to sacrifice herself so that Stacy and Joey can have a future together, Stacy’s loss feels real. This is in part due to Ritter’s sensitive performance at the crucial moment, but it’s also because throughout the film we have bought into and grown invested in the relationship between Goodie and Stacy. For all its stupid puns and gags, Vamps presents a vision of female friendship much more familiar to me than most I’ve seen onscreen.
For a Good Time, Call… is a somewhat more sophisticated (lol i just called a movie about phone sex sophisticated) treatment of similar themes. Also, no vampires. Our heroes are Lauren (writer Lauren Anne Miller) and Katie (Ari Graynor), former enemies thrown into being roommates because New York real estate who decide to start a phone sex line together. Their relationship grows, flowers, is tested, ruptures, and ultimately repairs. Now, what does that sound like? If you’re thinking, “Why Sara, that sounds exactly like the arc of every bog-standard romantic comedy I’ve ever seen,” you’d be right. For a Good Time borrows the romantic comedy structure we’re all excruciatingly familiar with and replaces a romantic relationship with a platonic one. And so we have Lauren, not so much uptight as she is laser-focused on the life she thinks she should have; and we have Katie, a seeming free spirit with a stripper pole in the living room of her grandmother’s Gramercy Park apartment – which she is on the cusp of losing. The girl’s mutual friend Jesse (Justin Long) throws them together (Lauren’s just been thrown out by her boyfriend) despite old enmities and tells them to make it work or enjoy New York homelessness. And despite themselves, they do.
It’s in the characterization of Lauren and Katie that For a Good Time glows. Katie is brash and in-your-face, but she’s concealing a world of hurt, and Graynor hits that balance beautifully. For me, Katie’s most revealing line is her exultation: “I have a friend! Who’s a girl! And I like it!” She is so happy. Your chest can’t help but twinge at just how happy she is, and what that might say about her past experiences with female friends. Lauren, by contrast, basically has it together as far as the friendship goes; where Katie is so busy being overjoyed that she can make this friendship thing work that she doesn’t move much beyond that point, Lauren is able to use the friendship as a vehicle for personal growth. The free-spirited, entrepreneurial and tough-minded side of herself that comes out through managing and working on the phone sex line she persuades Katie to found is revelatory for her. For Katie, the revelation is the loving and supportive friendship with another human being.
Like any good romantic comedy, there has to be a rupture in the relationship, and it’s that difference in what the friendship means for the girls that shapes the rupture in For a Good Time. Lauren goes to a dream job interview ready to shoot them down and instead is offered a position on the spot; she accepts and tells Katie indelicately, and Katie, incredibly hurt, lashes out like a wounded animal. She tells Lauren’s parents about their sex line. I loved everything about this rupture because, unlike so many romantic comedies (both good and bad), it felt real. Katie, as we’ve come to know her through Graynor’s delicate and balance performance, is incredibly fragile. Trusting Lauren was a huge step for her. Therefore, what would be a much smaller matter for a more emotionally mature young lady becomes catastrophically painful from Katie’s almost childlike perspective. But the way she lashes out is anything but childlike, hurting Lauren in a very real and potentially long-term damaging way. We empathize with Katie’s pain, but we understand Lauren’s rage at her actions just as much. When Katie comes home later with flowers and an apology, the difference in their perspectives is clear. Katie, in her thoughtless rage, broke something far more valuable than she intended, and naively wants the repair process to be as simple as the break. It’s not.
Of course there is a joyful reunion at the end and everyone lives happily ever after. But here’s what really moves the film’s treatment of Lauren and Katie’s relationship from good to great: about midway through the film, Katie gets a boyfriend, a guy she met as a client but with whom she quickly developed a much deeper relationship. Her growth in that relationship is an important plot point, but despite how very easily the film could have used that angle to eclipse the Katie-Lauren friendship entirely, it never does. Katie and Sean’s relationship has some challenges, but it’s basically drama-free; if anything, their challenges are vehicles to provide more texture and depth for Katie and Lauren to build on. Katie and Sean are fine. They are very, very happy. He is super supportive of her friendship with Lauren and incredibly encouraging of her efforts to rebuild. I can’t overstate how refreshing it was to see a healthy and functional romantic relationship onscreen, particularly one that normalized still-taboo sexual practices (phone sex). Sean doesn’t care about Katie’s job. He just cares about Katie.
I don’t want to give the impression that For a Good Time is high art. It is a movie about two chicks who start a phone sex line together, and it gets a truly incredible amount of raunchy comic mileage out of that. I do not recommend you watch it with your raunch-averse friends. But I do think that it didn’t get enough credit for the sweetness, depth and veracity of its leads’ relationship with each other. It is silly. Vamps is frivolous. But in depicting deeply-felt, loving relationships between women, both are doing something special and unique. They say Bridesmaids is spawning competitors, but I’d rather see ten more versions of this.