Film Reviews

Blond Leading the Blind

One of the half-dozen main characters in Tom DiCillo's ensemble comedy The Real Blonde is obsessed with finding a literal specimen of the title rara avis: a bona fide, not-out-of-the-bottle goldilocks. Exactly what gives rise to this fetish -- what would make such a woman more appealing than a rinse-job blond -- isn't dramatized. But it fully embodies DiCillo's theme: the immaturity of male sexual ideals, and the exhaustion women suffer trying to conform to them. For the "real blond," there presumably would be no fatigue. Being pliantly sexual -- sexual at his request, yet without threat -- would come as naturally to her as her hair color.

The blondophile is a womanizing soap opera actor (Maxwell Caulfield); he's a friend of the hero (Matthew Modine), an unemployed actor and barely employed waiter. Modine is supported, to his chagrin, by his longtime live-in girlfriend (Catherine Keener), a makeup artist for a high-fashion photographer (Marlo Thomas). A girlish supermodel (Bridgette Wilson) falls for the distant, love-'em-and-leave-'em Caulfield. But Caulfield begins a torrid affair with his sexually avid soap co-star (Daryl Hannah) after she offers him reliable evidence of the authenticity of her blondness.

These and several other tales of life in the New York entertainment world are interwoven. In the opening scene, Modine and Keener are on the verge of making love one morning when they're interrupted by the cries of a neighbor whose dog has been kidnapped. This weird, upsetting incident heralds a cooling of their sex life. Suddenly, one is always turned off when the other is turned on, and both find themselves attracted to other people -- she to a self-defense instructor (Denis Leary) and he to a body double for Madonna (Elizabeth Berkley).

DiCillo, best known for the affectionate insider send-up of indie filmmaking Living in Oblivion, seems to have OD'd on whimsy in his last film, Box of Moonlight. With The Real Blonde, he's trying for a more conventional comedy, something a little less deliberately eccentric and marginal in tone. Put more bluntly, The Real Blonde feels like a shot at commercial success.

And, at times, it simply feels like a commercial. It's full of beautiful young people living in glamorous circumstances. As in a Woody Allen film, the problems that they complain of are likely, on the whole, to seem pretty manageable to us out in the audience. Not one of these characters could match his or her troubles against the kidnapped dog's.

Living in Oblivion had a loopy, Chinese-puzzle structure that nonetheless made comic sense -- the counterpointing dream sequences somehow all added up. So it's a surprise that The Real Blonde is so sloppy. There are times when the intercutting between sets of characters seems almost random. Though the film feels overlong, most of its key ideas are underdeveloped, and many of the plot lines -- particularly the Caulfield-Hannah strand -- are tediously broad and obvious. The squabbles between Modine and Keener are every last jot as scintillating as lovers' quarrels are in life.

The Real Blonde is roughly half-bad; on the other hand, it's half not-half-bad. At its best, it shows what an imaginative satirist DiCillo can be. He's onto a real subject here, too -- he's not merely skewering the pretensions of small-potatoes art cinema, he's putting the screws to the vast male capacity to Not Get It.

When the brunette Keener -- whose plain, round, soulful face is certainly the most beautiful sight in The Real Blonde -- tells her therapist (the excellent Buck Henry) about her rage toward the man who catcalls to her every day as she walks to work, he asks her why she doesn't just take another route. When she explains that she doesn't feel she should rearrange her life because of this guy, the therapist reads this as hostility toward men. Her perfectly legitimate anger is made into a neurosis.

Observation like this is what makes DiCillo so promising, despite the film's unevenness. The Real Blonde may seem, at first glance, like a volley of shots at easy targets. It may be a while before it occurs to you how subtle and tough-minded some of the gags are. Having thrown over the kittenish model for Hannah, for instance, Caulfield finds that the sexual tigress he always thought he wanted actually terrifies him. And when she registers that fact, he takes revenge that's really ugly without breaking the movie's tone.

The scenes of the fashion photographer at work are the best demonstrations of DiCillo's ingenuity, however. Like the artsy showpiece sequences from the movie-within-the-movie in Living in Oblivion, the photo shoots in The Real Blonde allow DiCillo to indulge in rather precious flights of surrealism that are, at the same time, spoofs of artistic self-indulgence.

One such passage, the best scene of the film, goes farther still. When the supermodel shows up at the studio one day with a black eye -- given to her, apparently, by Caulfield, though this is never adequately addressed -- Keener is called upon to cover it up. When she says she can cover the bruise but can do nothing about the swelling, the photographer's solution is shocking -- an inspired metaphor by DiCillo for how even the abuse of women may be glamorized and sexualized. The sequence breaks the tone of the film, but to the film's benefit -- it provides a necessary chill, a reminder that the obsessions that fuel this comedy aren't always so damn funny.

The man who could film this scene could hardly be unaware of the irony connected to the whole project: A send-up of male infantilism toward women -- and, more particularly, of the packaging of images that appeal to it -- is itself packaged under the title The Real Blonde and sold on the basis of its scantily clad, slack-jawed actresses.

Happily, DiCillo has directed all three of his golden girls well. Wilson, who was Adam Sandler's leading lady in Billy Madison, is a surprise -- her role is poorly developed, but she gets startling emotion behind her line readings. She appears to be a real actress. And within her narrow purview, Berkley, of the notorious Showgirls, is incredible.

Seconds after Berkley meets Modine, she makes him the cordial, friendly offer of a blowjob; in another scene, she seems curiously elated by a sexual rejection. There you have the Real Blonde archetype -- vapid, sweet-natured, sexually commodious yet utterly undemanding. Berkley is the perfect embodiment of this fantasy conception, and if that makes her a one-joke comedienne, at least it's a classic joke.

DiCillo makes sure that the joke is on us, not on any of his actresses. If he didn't, The Real Blonde would be insufferable. But these dream girls put the silliness of male dreaming on display. Whatever the color of their roots, none of these blonds is real.

The Real Blonde.
Rated R.
Directed by Tom DiCillo. With Maxwell Caulfield, Matthew Modine and Catherine Keener.

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Mark V. Moorhead