What Guys Talk About When They Talk About Girls
IFC News
June 2006

Movies about men hanging out shootin’ the shit have a pretty lurid reputation. In those besides, say, “My Dinner With André,” images that spring to mind are road trips, beer bongs, masturbation jokes, togas, carnal encounters with baked goods. And if we’re lucky, a heart-to-heart that reveals that these loud-mouthed louts with nothing but sex on the brain might actually be human deep down inside. For me, besides belly laughs (and smug satisfaction at being confirmed the more civilized sex), the interest in guy flicks lies in the insight they offer into the way men talk to each other, especially about women.

In most broad comedies about high school or college-aged guys, such gems as “Porky’s” and “American Pie,” the main goal in life seems to be getting laid, although occasionally an added impetus spices things up, like trying to satisfy the munchies (“Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle”), get into Princeton (“Risky Business”), or pass history class (“Bill & Ted’s Big Adventure”)—all, of course, in addition to doing one’s damndest to get laid. In “American Pie,” the über-guys-trying-to-get-laid movie, the quest dominates most conversations among the attractive, horny males in the cast, allowing for dialogue like this:

“What exactly does third base feel like?”…

“Like warm apple pie.”…

“McDonald’s or homemade?”

Many guy flicks transcend their base premise with realistic, witty dialogue (“Clerks”), funny, high concept plot machinations (“Harold & Kumar,” “Bill & Ted”) or overall comic genius (“Animal House”). And the best of them manage to bury sweetness and humanity beneath the filth. While Hollywood woos the delish 18-25-year-old dude demographic with absurdity and dick jokes, independent filmmakers who make chatty guy flicks tend to have some deeper purpose in mind—more “American Graffiti” than “Losin’ It.” Often the fictional men whose lives we invade are older and their goals are shifting from losing their virginity—or banging as many cheerleaders as possible—to growing up and potentially sleeping with one woman for the rest of their lives, a shift that can trigger anxiety, stubborn bursts of commitment-phobia and a lot of drama. Hence the attraction for directors of a certain age who still want to make movies about themselves and their homies.

“If you want to talk, you always have the guys at the diner. You don’t need a girl if you want to talk,” says Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) in Barry Levinson’s “Diner” (1982), a film about a group of 20-somethings in 1959 Baltimore resisting adulthood with all their might. Eddie is a man prepared to call off his wedding if his fiancée fails a prenuptial football trivia quiz he has devised for her, which is clearly an excuse. Marriage is a symbol of growing up and having to say good-bye to a carefree youth spent hanging out with the guys at the diner.

In Ed Burns’ “The Groomsmen” (now in theaters), the director plays Paulie, a Long Island reporter on the verge of marrying his pregnant girlfriend (Brittany Murphy) who is wrestling with his fear of taking this leap. Gathering for the big event are Paulie’s brother Jim (Donal Logue), who is having marital problems of his own, happily married bartender and father of two, Des (Matthew Lillard), secretly gay T.C. (John Leguizamo) and Mike (Jay Mohr), who still lives at home, obsesses about his ex and gets all the funniest lines. Like “The Brothers McMullan,” which launched Burns’ directing and acting career in 1995, the film features scene after scene of the guys engaging in such manly activities as softball, fishing and boozing it up, all the while giving each other advice about sex and love, although now more mature topics like fatherhood and infertility are integrated into the discussion.
Even the guys from indie sensation “Clerks” are growing up—or at least trying to. On July 21, the audience that fell in love with such dialogue as “My girlfriend’s sucked 37 dicks.” “In a row?” excitedly welcomes Kevin Smith’s “Clerks II,” which the writer-director has described as being “about when that lazy 20-something malaise lasts into your 30s.”  I haven’t seen the film yet, but reportedly Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still working behind the counter, now at a monster fast-food joint, although Dante is engaged—but still spending his days having conversations (classified as “obscene” by one critic) with the guys and making the moves on his hot boss (Rosario Dawson).

Occasionally, real insight into the concerns of real men can be found between the obscenities. Doug Liman’s “Swingers” (1996), for example, which was written by Jon Favreau who also plays Mike, focuses on Mike and his friends acting suave and drinking cocktails and strategizing hilariously about how to get girls, or “babies,” into bed. But under the Machiavellian rule-making lies the story of a man devastated by a breakup and friends that genuinely care.

“I could, like, forget about her and then when she comes back make like I just pretended to forget about her,” Mike says.

“Right, although probably more likely the opposite,” says his friend Rob (Ron Livingston). “I mean, at first you’re going to pretend to forget about her. You’ll not call her, I don’t know, whatever… but then eventually you really will forget about her.”

“Well, what if she comes back first?” Mike asks.

“See that’s the thing,” Rob says,  “is somehow they know not to come back until you really forget.”

John Cusack’s character, Rob, in Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity” (2000) owns a record store where he employs two music fanatics (Jack Black and Todd Louiso) with whom he chatters constantly. Too emotionally retarded to share their inner lives, all the trio discuss with any degree of fluency or passion is music. Rob is broken up over his break-up with live-in girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle), a fact he can only wrap words around when making lists in his head. In his mind he identifies the top five things he misses about Laura, including her sense of humor, her smell and the way “she kinda moans and then rubs her feet together” when she can’t sleep. Sounds like love to me, but Rob has a hard time admitting that to Laura or even himself—and he certainly wouldn’t breathe a word of it to the guys at the store.

If there’s one thing to learn from all these movies about men it’s that they have a lean understanding of women. And they’re scared shitless of them. Time and time again, men who surround themselves by other men are portrayed as dividing women into those they have sex with and those they adore, while they have a hard time building a relationship or friendship with one. That role is relegated to the guys. This theme was front and center in Mike Nichols’ “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), in which Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) go from college through marriages, divorces and finally middle age still unable to simply relate to a woman. For Jonathan, women are meant to be conquered and for Sandy, they are meant to be worshipped.

Movie men (and real life ones) must often sacrifice an idealized version of women before they will be able to love one who is made of flesh and blood. Eddie might just have to settle for a woman with less-than-perfect knowledge of the Baltimore Colts, and Paulie will embrace his girlfriend, hormonal eruptions and all. Poor Jonathan and Sandy, however, spend their entire lives seeking not a person to go through the shit with, but some ephemeral goddess who fucks like a whore and looks like Candace Bergen.

Alas, that image of feminine perfection that young boys—and some unfortunate grownups— place on a pedestal is hard to forget. In George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” (1973), two high school grads, Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard), spend a summer night in 1962 cruising their favorite local spots as they ready to go off to college. While Steve struggles with a real relationship, Curt chases an elusive blonde in a white Thunderbird who represents innocence and youth and the dreamgirl he will never attain. In “Swingers,” Mike finally meets his goddess, also a blonde (Heather Graham), shimmering dreamily on the dance floor, and she seems willing to give it a whirl. Sometimes, the movie seems to say, if you trash the rulebook and follow your heart, the dream can become your reality.

Or as Rob, after much prodding, tells Laura in “High Fidelity”:

“I’m tired of the fantasy because it doesn’t really exist. And there are never really any surprises, and it never really…”

“Delivers?” she responds.

“Delivers,” he says. “And I’m tried of it. And I’m tired of everything else for that matter. But I don’t ever seem to get tired of you.”