She’s the Man, as all the publicity points out, follows the tradition of Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You in translating a classic work into an American high-school setting. In this case, the classic work is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – my absolute favourite play, so, even though the trailer didn’t inspire me with confidence, I was determined to see this film. And ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised (at least relative to my expectations).
Twelfth Night is clearly the primary source for the plot, but there are a few other films/plays it calls to mind. It seems to owe a certain amount to Bend it Like Beckham: not only that soccer is the sport of choice, but also in the situation of an athletic daughter and a mother who wants her to be more feminine. The scene when they are learning to be debutantes is reminiscent of the opening of Mulan – and the film also shares with Mulan a distressing tendancy to find “humour” in having the heroine grossly overact when she is disguised as a boy (more about this later!) Finally, the scene in which Viola (disguised as Sebastian) is trying to show Duke how to talk to girls by “pretending” to be a girl for him to practise on, could be straight out of As You Like It.
The main thing I didn’t like about this film was the number of times Viola overdid it when she was pretending to be a boy (Viola the character, that is, not Amanda Bynes the actress). Productions of Twelfth Night have been known to show Viola having difficulties with the mannerisms and activites of masculinity, but this can only go so far, as it’s not specifically there in the text. But there are no holds barred in She’s the Man. Particuarly early on, Viola often speaks with an exaggeratedly deep, hearty voice, and stagey manner, and with lines that are so unconvincing it’s impossible that a halfway intelligent character could think they would make her fit in with the men. It’s the humour of embarrasment, which I loathe, and this was a particularly unsubtle and puerile version, and totally cringeworthy. At least in Mulan there were only two scenes involving this, but in She’s the Man it kept recurring throughout the entire film. She wasn’t like that all the time, but it was much, much too often for my taste.
The other thing I found repellent was the character of Eunice. Does anybody really wear that type of external mouth brace? And having made her as unattractive and awkward as possible, they then burdened her with a neurotic personality as well. I found it very tasteless – and from a plot point of view, there was absolutely no reason why Toby should be even vaguely interested in her. The other character I didn’t like was the principal, but he wasn’t actually offensive, just chronically unfunny: someone like Joss Whedon would have written a much better version (eg Principal Flutie in the first season of Buffy).
OK, now for the stuff I did like. I thought it was quite a clever adaptation of the plot. It didn’t match exactly point for point (e.g. Viola specifically disguised herself as Sebastian, rather than just as a random youth – though, contrary to the impression the trailer gives, he doesn’t know she’s doing it) and some of the characters were changed (I got a bit of a shock when Olivia went out with Duke to make “Sebastian” jealous). But in general the central triangle was nicely done. And there were a few fun jokes for people who know the play – e.g. Malcolm having a pet tarantula called Malvolio, and everyone going to “Cesario’s”. Plus the “some are born great” speech was included in full.
Even aside from the cringe-comedy, much of the humour was fairly broad. Some of this I didn’t like (e.g. the scene where Viola is trying not to let Monique see her too closely), but for the most part I was able to connect with my inner teenager and have a good time. So I enjoyed the not-appearing-in-Twelfth Night bit where Viola is trying to be both herself and Sebastian at the fair, the time when Viola and Duke leap onto the beds to escape the tarantula and then freak when they find themselves embracing, the inevitable men’s change room scenes and even the moment when Viola gets a soccer ball in the groin and takes a few seconds to realise what her reaction should be. And as well as the broad comedy, there were some funny one-liners, such as the deadpan delivery of “Is it me or does this soccer game have more nudity than most?”
But I think the main reason I enjoyed it was that the two leads were so charismatic. Some of the reviewers don’t seem to like Amanda Bynes, but for me she filled the screen with personality every time she appeared. She had a lovely smile, and was a nice combination of bounciness and determination and blind panic and (where appropriate) wistfulness. And (except in the cringe-making scenes) she was also very funny. Channing Tatum wasn’t as central, and didn’t have the same range, but he was very decorative, appealing in the scenes when he was showing his “sensitive” side, and good at the end when he thinks “Sebastian” has betrayed him, and then learns the truth about Viola. The scenes they had alone together, and the relationship they presented, were some of the best parts of the film.
The critics are somewhat divided over She’s the Man, but on average more seem to dislike it than like it – and while some absolutely loathe it, even the ones that like it don’t give it a complete rave. On At the Movies, David found it “jaw-droppingly awful” and only gave it half a star, while Margaret (somewhat to her surprise) enjoyed it and gave it three and a half. For me, it was definitely worth more than half a star, though I’m not sure I’d go quite as high as Margaret did: some parts were jaw-droppingly awful, and the stuff that I did like wasn’t enough to completely block this out.
But it’s a pity, because I think it did have the potential to be a really good adaptation – maybe up there with Clueless (though a higher suspension of disbelief would have been required). Much of the plot and character transposition was cleverly done, and most of the actors were very engaging. If only there had been less time spent on cringe-making slapstick comedy, and more on clever dialogue (of which there was some) and the relationships between the characters. After all, the relationships have plenty of comic as well as romantic potential: I’m not just talking about the main triangle, but also Viola and her mother, Monique, etc – the comedy here could range from subtle to extremely broad, without necessarily spending too much time on the humour of embarrassment.
A lot of reviews say that this film is aimed at younger-end teenagers: it’s notable that the parties and drug/alcohol references of Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You are replaced with a fund-raiser fair and a debutante presentation. And I guess the younger demographic is supposed to really get into the slapstick, whereas the changes I want would have shifted the film to a higher-end teenager chick flick/date movie. So maybe it wasn’t what the filmmakers wanted to do – but with the material they had to work with, they could have done it, and it might have been really good.
I find it interesting that She’s the Man was much more about issues of masculinity and femininity than Twelfth Night. Not that I’m saying gender is irrelevant in Twelfth Night, but it seems to me that it is much more driven by individual personality. You have two completely self-absorbed, self-deluded people, who get a complete shake-up when a self-aware, empathic and intelligent outsider enters their lives (I’m reminded of an expression used in Grosse Pointe Blank: “Shakabuku … a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever”). In spite of the gender differentiation, Orsino and Olivia are very similar in personality; and Viola’s gender is only one part of what makes her what she is.
But the driving force behind She’s the Man is less Viola’s individual personality than the fact that because she is a woman she is more in touch with her emotions, and more able to talk about them. This is what attracts Olivia to her, and is also why Duke is able to open up and express his own “sensitive” side in a way that he can’t to his actual male friends. The counterpart of this is that a lot of the embarrasment-comedy (the stuff I objected to above) arises from Viola’s difficulties with finding an acceptable form of masculinity. Much of the “humour” occurs when she shows a feminine response, and then, in an attempt to recover from this, overreacts with what she thinks is masculine response, but which is so exaggerated as to be just as much at odds with Duke and the others: “What does your heart tell you? … I mean, which one would you rather see naked?”
I’m not sure that these ideas about gender actually go anywhere, but I found it an interesting line of thought …