Last year, Kay Hymowitz published two essays in City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s fine quarterly, on dating and the modern twentysomething male. The first was a critique of the culture of masculine adultescence — the way that men behave, and misbehave, in the long limbo that increasingly yawns between their teens and the assumption of marital and paternal responsibility. Hymowitz portrayed a generation of young men content to while away their hours “in a playground of drinking, hooking up, playing Halo 3, and, in many cases, underachieving.” This beer-guzzling, porn-browsing, scatology-minded man-child, she wrote, is at once an “irritating mystery or a source of heartbreak” to women, and the embodiment of our culture’s failure to “define worthy aspirations” for its young people. We’re allowing men to occupy their default state, adolescence, far too happily and for far too long.
The second essay, penned a few months later, pivoted off the response the first piece provoked from quite a few male readers. “Their argument,” Hymowitz wrote, is that today’s man-child is putting off adulthood “not because he’s immature but because he’s angry. He’s angry because he thinks that young women are dishonest, self-involved, slutty, manipulative, shallow, controlling, and gold-digging. . . . He’s angry because he thinks that marriage these days is a raw deal for men.” Feminism, her correspondents suggested, had created a generation of women who expect to have it all — casual sex when they feel like casual sex and chivalry when they feel like chivalry; alpha males who are nonetheless excruciatingly sensitive; high-paying, high-powered careers and the option to give them up and live off their mate’s six-figure income. Why shouldn’t men say thanks, but no thanks, to these impossible demands? Why shouldn’t they, instead, turn post-feminist freedom to their own advantage, and become the exploiters rather than the exploitees?
The portrait painted by essay number one — a dating scene thick with child-men who need to grow up to become worthy of their women — has provided grist for more than a few recent blockbusters, Judd Apatow’s raunchy romances chief among them. But while there have been attempts, over the last decade or so, to fashion scabrous satires out of the much darker and dog-eat-dog dynamic suggested by essay number two, in Hollywood they’ve usually been confined (for obvious reasons) to the art-house margins — the land of Bret Easton Ellis adaptations and Neil LaBute’s pitch-black comedies.
It should go without saying that He’s Just Not That Into You, this winter’s hit romantic comedy, is something less than a scabrous satire of contemporary mores. But it’s not that far from being one, and as a result it’s considerably more interesting than you’d expect from a movie based on a self-help book spawned by a line in an episode of Sex and the City. From its title on down, this is a rare romantic comedy that’s largely unromantic — until the demands of a Hollywood ending kick in, at least. And it goes further than most mainstream entertainments in portraying a dating scene that’s essentially Darwinian, rather than lovey-dovey, and that’s filled with unlikeable people scrabbling over one another for advantage.
I don’t want to claim that this is entirely intentional. The unlikeability quotient of the various characters — this is one of those group rom-coms, like the unbearable Love Actually from several years ago, that follow a gaggle of interconnected lovers as they couple and de-couple — probably owes as much to lousy script-writing as to any deeper sociological critique. But it’s still striking to encounter a star-studded Hollywood production that’s willing to throw such an unflattering light on its characters and their milieu. And while I wouldn’t say this is a good film, exactly, at the very least it’s more of a “The Way We Live Now” conversation-starter than most of its competition in the genre.
As for the plot — well, follow me here: Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a man-crazy Baltimorean who goes on a date with Conor (Kevin Connolly); he never calls her back, so she starts stalking him, and along the way befriends his bartender pal Alex (Justin Long), a womanizer who explains to her all the tricks that men use to ditch women they aren’t interested in. Meanwhile, the wimpy Conor is kinda-sorta dating the lubricious Anna (Scarlett Johansson), who keeps leading him on while she debates whether to follow the advice of her pal Mary (Drew Barrymore) and make a play for Ben (Bradley Cooper), the hot, horndog husband of the pinched, remodeling-obsessed Janine (Jennifer Connelly), whose co-worker Beth (Jennifer Aniston) has a long-time live-in boyfriend (Ben Affleck) who would rather move back to his boat than suck it up and marry her.
Like I said — unpleasant people. All the characters have hip jobs — at advertising firms, or the local gay paper — and wear hip clothes to hip bars and obsess about their personal lives. (This is very much a pre-financial-crash movie.) Nobody has kids, and only the shrewish Janine seems to want them. Everybody jaws on cell phones — though the movie still feels somewhat behind the texting, Twittering times — but nobody actually connects. The younger characters are insipid, and the older ones unpleasant: The thirtysomething men pine for their lost adultescence; the thirtysomething women look like they spend every waking minute on the StairMaster. Only the gay supporting players, a slew of stereotypes swishing in the background, seem to be having any fun.
And for most of its running time, the movie seems inclined to keep its roster of non-charmers at arm’s length. He’s Just Not That Into You isn’t quite judgmental, but neither does it seem to admire its protagonists’ essential solipsism in the way that, say, the big-screen Sex and the City did last summer. This distancing gets thrown over somewhat at the end, when two-thirds of the cast achieve some kind of romantic happiness: Cads become romantics, the marriage-averse cave and buy a ring, and only the adulterous are delivered to true loneliness. But the cheerful final course doesn’t quite wash away the rest of the meal, which has a taste you don’t expect from an entertainment like this: dark, and bitter, and something like the truth.