Personal note to Hollywood veteran Nina Foch: After seeing you play stoner Granny and watching you have to be in an utterly superfluous scene where a small dog tries to marry Allison Janney’s long leg, I never want to hear another of your traditional complaints about how degrading it was to have to appear in movies like Return of the Vampire in the 1940s!
Now, with that settled, I have to say that the new Mandy Moore film, How to Deal, is easily the best thing that opened this week. Of course, since its competition was Bad Boys II and Johnny English, that’s not saying all that much. How to Deal is the sort of movie that’s very easy to look down on from the vantage point of adulthood; but let’s face it, this film was made with a primarily 12-to-18-year-old female viewer in mind. And for that audience, I’d have to say its makers did a pretty good job.
What’s remarkable is that How to Deal isn’t absolutely deadly for parents, film-going completists and hapless movie critics in the bargain. Oh, it has more indigestible plot contrivances than a Claxton fruit cake has raisins, but at bottom it’s not insultingly facile, and is even moderately entertaining within its own soapy aims. Though all its well-intended messages may be delivered with the subtlety of a sledge hammer, its good intentions seem pretty commendable in the same week as the inhuman overkill of Bad Boys II.
I’m not familiar with the Sarah Dessen novels on which the film was based (Someone Like You and That Summer), but it’s fairly obvious that combining two books into one film was probably not the wisest of moves, since it magnifies the contrivances and piles on the incidents. This is especially bothersome as concerns the whole pregnancy subplot; so much happens in the course of the movie that you get the feeling Scarlett (Alexandra Holden) must have the gestation period of an elephant.
There are other problems. It’s almost impossible to believe that the classy Allison Janney was ever married to Peter Gallagher’s buffoonish, soul-patch-festooned disc jockey. Then again, it’s equally hard to fathom just what draws Janney’s character to Dylan Baker’s geeky Coca Cola delivery man and Civil War hobbyist (even he probably sent me hate mail over Gods and Generals). Maybe Janney just has really dubious taste in men — something that would make the gun-shy stance on romance that Halley (Mandy Moore) takes all the more understandable. Furthermore, the intrusion of Foch’s stoned-out grandma is not only ill-advised, but having her suddenly spout words of wisdom is just one cliche too many.
But all this is at least housed in a story that concerns itself with characters rather than types, and with real-life issues rather than cartoonish mayhem. The story of Halley Martin — a high-school girl coming to terms with her parents’ divorce, her sister’s pending marriage, her best friend’s pregnancy and her own feelings for not-very-bad-boy Macon (Trent Ford) — is certainly one that more people can identify with than they can with trigger-happy cops. And, in all fairness, there are definite flashes of genuine human emotion amidst the contrivances and soapiness.
And then there’s Mandy Moore. The camera loves her, and the kid can actually act. Better still, she has the happy facility of being sweet without being saccharine. Neena Beber’s overloaded screenplay helps, as does Clare Kilner’s generally unsentimental direction. But it’s Moore who is responsible for holding the character together in the film’s more awkward moments.
It’s unfortunate that the best the movie can do by way of a romantic interest for her is the sulky Trent Ford, who constantly looks as if he’ll surely dump her to return to his first great love: himself. Is it a great teen flick? Oh, no, not by a long shot. But any movie that can present us with a teenage heroine that doesn’t make you want to throw things at the screen while also introducing teens to Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” isn’t the worst thing I can think of.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke