The following is excerpted from New Yorker writer David Denby's Do The Movies Have A Future? (published by Simon & Schuster.) The following was written in 2009, but is published here for the first time:
Good chick flicks can be constructed on the solid foundation of classic folk tales—not just Cinderella, but Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood, all of them archetypal stories that can be varied in infinite ways. Chick flicks are also good when they update the Austen marriage plot (literally in Clueless, a delightful 90210 version of Emma; and by inheri- tance in Bridget Jones’s Diary). In that fable, a young woman is attracted to a witty, glamorous, even devastating man, and then slowly, by degrees, extricates herself from enthrallment and chooses another man who may seem stolid at first but who shows himself, after trials, to be made of finer stuff. Her choice is an act of creating herself as much as giving herself to another. That pattern is close to romantic comedy, of course, but it will remain a chick flick if it’s told from a woman’s point of view.
Chick flicks also work well, as I’ve suggested, when they embrace work, in all its miseries and glories—embrace it centrally, not just as a cell phone occupation and a way of launching credit card debt. This may sound like an excessively high-minded prescription for a comedy genre, but the trials of work drive a movie along. What makes The Devil Wears Prada so fascinating is the intricacies of how a novice might get shaped by the demands of a high-pressure office. In Julie & Julia, the strongest part of the movie dramatizes Julia Child’s self-creation sixty years ago in France in a void of indifference and outright hostility. These heroines are smart women, gentle fighters, and they pep up the genre, giving the au- dience something it can admire without self-mocking irony. The movie version of Sex and the City was an aesthetic disaster (commercially, it did fine) in part because it lost the short, anecdotal form of the show, in which the sound of a woman working—Carrie writing a column—unified the adventures and jokes into a brief, tight narrative.
As a genre, chick flicks are generally too scared of tough girls, too shy of heroism. No one, for instance, has yet done a comic movie (not a solemn biopic, a comic movie) about a future great athlete or CEO or a young—don’t scream—Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton. Yes, such a film would be much harder to do as comedy, though not impossible: Brilliant girls blunder on the job and fall for bad men, too. Filmmakers would have to find the intellectual pride within the neophyte, the genius within the early flutter—or possibly the comedy of a noble spirit who gets teased out of vanity without giving up her ambition. Katharine Hepburn played parts like that for years. How about someone like a young Maureen Dowd or Molly Ivins—a fallible young woman with an instinctive grasp of the absurd? Dramatizing ambition and work is the key to making chick flicks better and even more commercial. These movies should always be funny—comedy liberates their affectionate attitude toward women—but they could do worse than acknowledge and repay, without rhetoric or grinding earnestness, feminism’s incomparable gift.
From DO THE MOVIES HAVE A FUTURE? By David Denby. Copyright © 2012 by David Denby. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.