By Mike Dub
*Opening today at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco.
Henry Jaglom’s latest film The M Word is meant to be a tribute to women. I think. It’s hard to tell, given the film’s unconcealed derision of them. It does spend a lot of time pretending to be a sincere exposé on the difficulties women face when they enter into menopause (the “m” word of the title). While the majority of the film is an improvised, fictional narrative about the talent and staff of a local Santa Monica television station, Jaglom intercuts frank, documentary-style interviews of women talking about their experience with menopause. Directly addressing the camera, a mix of actresses and non-actresses discuss difficulties such as hot flashes, constantly fluctuating sexual appetites, mood swings – we see a stage of life that is rarely the subject of a film. Despite the effort of the documentary side of the film, though, through the narrative side of the movie, we learn these valuable lessons about women: 1) Menopausal women are crazy; 2) Non-menopausal women are crazy; 3) Women on their period are batshit crazy; 4) Women who are not on their period are still crazy.
These lessons are brought to us courtesy of our heroine, Moxie (Tanna Frederick), one of the stupidest, least likable characters to appear on screen in recent memory. The problem is, the film doesn’t see her that way. Perhaps blinded by his affection for real-life wife Frederick, Jaglom seems to misread Moxie at every turn. The film confuses idiocy for innocence, volume for sincerity, and obnoxiousness for, well, moxie.
A supporting actress for the station’s children’s show, Moxie’s life and career are thrown upside down when she falls in love with Charlie (Michael Imperioli), one of those bigwig corporate suits from the station’s parent company in New York. I know what you’re thinking: it’s about time a film had the courage to revisit the difficult, complex philosophical territory of You’ve Got Mail.
Attending her first meeting ever with an executive, adorable little Moxie, overwhelmed by the prospect of shows being cancelled (I guess it’s hard to imagine turnover in such a time-honored, stable industry like television), unleashes a volcanic tirade that in the real world would suggest severe bipolar disorder, if not schizophrenia. However, here the explanation is simpler. As she storms out of the office, she screams at the top of her lungs, “My tits hurt and I’m getting my period!”
Naturally, Charlie, the executive, is instantly charmed. They soon fall in love in a whirlwind romance, which is predictably jeopardized repeatedly by Moxie’s incomprehension of the most basic realities of the world. When Charlie informs her that because of severely dwindling ratings, he’s going to fire the host of her show, she cries and pleads, “Wait, stop the numbers talk. These are my friends. I don’t get ‘the numbers’ thing.” In moments like these, Moxie is so infantile Charlie’s relationship with her seems almost predatory.
The stupidity of their relationship, as well as the film’s incoherent storylines, desultory structure, and paper-thin characters, are the result of Jaglom’s trademark style of totally improvised filmmaking. He relishes shooting hundreds of hours of footage, and then figuring out what the story is, paring it down to just a fraction of the actual time spent building characters and scenes. Thankfully spared the mass of extra footage, we are unfortunately left with actors who look baffled and lost in nearly every scene. Without the anchor of a director who knows what he wants, they succumb to hackneyed improv crutches. They ask and repeat questions, they battle for control of the dialogue, and almost every scene builds to a moment where people start screaming at each other. Improvisation, at its best, provides honesty or truth in a scene; at its worst, though, it just ambles into artificial hysterics and clichéd contrivances.
What is so frustrating is that the movie could have been interesting, even good. Without the fiction portion and all its lunacy, there is a chance that its taboo subject could have been handled with grace and empathy. Unfortunately, what we are left with is a concluding scene in which Moxie, in her ever-charming phrase, “Drops an egg.” Writhing in pain on a couch as though in labor, she cries and screams at Charlie, “ I love you! I love you, even though you’re a dirty filthy whore. I still love you.”
Damn, women are crazy.