The other night I caught the squeaky Alexis Bledel vehicle Post-Grad followed by the grimy Rob Zombie remake-sequel Halloween II. They seem like pretty incompatible viewing but wind up united by their interest in the lives of young women — and how close they come to getting things right while still managing to not quite work.
I saw Post-Grad, now coming to the end of its theatrical run, because I’m a bit of a sucker for movies about post-education ennui. I guess this is in turn because Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming is arguably my favorite movie, but at the same time, that film sets an unreasonably high standard of intelligence and hilarity unlikely to be matched by a Shark Tale co-director [Or by anyone else, really. -Ed.]. A further handicap comes from Bledel, who had enough trouble carrying one quarter of a movie in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. She reverses that time-honored tradition of youngish actors looking far too old to play their teenage parts: she is twenty-seven, and with her tentative gawkiness still can’t convince playing beyond sixteen or so.
This role won’t turn me into an Alexis Bledel believer, but she is at least well-suited to playing someone who looks a little bit lost — you know, like Malin Akerman in Watchmen, but less naked. Post-Grad isn’t particularly observant or knowledgeable — when its heroine aspires to get a job at the prestigious best publishing house in, um, Los Angeles, the movie neglects to make any jokes about how little she must know about publishing — but it stirs a decent mix of confusion, bad job interviews, and watching others succeed.
What the movie lacks — apart from the laughs it fumbles through TV-ish pauses in what might’ve been funny dialogue on the page — is a believable social system for Bledel’s character, Ryden. When she returns home to suburban Los Angeles, she seems to only ever see her male best friend and her female rival, both college acquaintances who also hover around the L.A. area. Male buddy comedies come along every few weeks, but ladies are often stuck with buddies-who-are-guys-and-also-secretly-their-true-loves comedies, which have the distinct disadvantage of usually not being very funny. Actual female-on-female friendship, at least in mainstream movies, rarely goes beyond the stock feisty-best-friend-of-heroine character, and if it does, it inevitably includes giggling and shrieking, which has become shorthand for lifelong bonds (one recent exception: the young-people half of last year’s The Life Before Her Eyes, a movie that doesn’t work built around a central friendship that absolutely does).
Post-Grad‘s Ryden is supposed to be brainy and serious, not so much prone to Cosmos or glamour, so the movie doesn’t know how she would relate to another young woman except as counterpoint for the even more ambitious valedictorian (a weirdly high-school concept for a post-college movie). This is why she must spend all of her free time with Adam (Zach Gilford), the friend who makes passive-aggressive, irritating-adorable references to his unrequited love for her. In real life, Ryden would have several regretful conversations with her non-Adam friends about this situation; the movie lacks any characters to tell her that it’s okay for her not to be in love with Adam just because he’s around all the time. By the end, Post-Grad actually had me rooting against the earnest nerd best friend, if only because the screenplay proceeds with such comparably unusual (and, yeah, slightly TV-episodic) rhythm that its slide into formula looks like even more of a wipeout than usual, and its heroine all the more lost.
There are lost girls in Zombie’s Halloween sequel, too, with grittier (if no less movie-ish) problems than deciding whether you love your devoted hottie of a best friend. Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), having survived the murderous rampage of the earlier film, is now haunted by visions of Michael Myers. Even with her teetering sanity, Lorrie maintains some girl bonds: she lives with the family of Annie (Danielle Harris), a fellow survivor of the first movie, and works at a used book store with Mya (Brea Grant) and Harley (Angela Trimbur), who effectively replace her murdered buddies from the first movie.
Zombie gives these girls less of the profane, poor-man’s-Death Proof dialogue than he did in his first Halloween; in a showing of what I assume to be survivor’s stoicism, they only occasionally call each other sluts. Now that Zombie has calmed his fantasizing about how teenage girls talk, the bonds between them — while nowhere near as well-developed or amusing as the two groups in Tarantino’s film — are actually sort of touching. Only Laurie has any depth, and even that mainly has to do with her creeping realization that she’s the sister of Michael Myers, but at least her slash-fodder status has some psychological weight; you can see the outlines of the non-horror life Laurie might’ve had. In the early scenes at Annie’s home, where the girls bicker lightly with Annie’s grizzled sheriff dad, it’s encouraging to see Zombie refocus his interest in deranged hillbillies to include less grotesque lower-middle-class (or maybe upper-lower-class?) characters.
Zombie has a strong eye for composition, too, at least when it’s not wandering over to some of his favorite go-to visual cliches: fast close-up cutting around gore; excess murkiness; and creepy white-bathed psychotic visions. It’s a shame, then, given his surprisingly empathetic and believable characters and no shortage of creepy, memorable images (love the dusky shots of Myers lumbering out of the woods, across the landscape) that Zombie still hasn’t made a completely satisfying Halloween. The first half or so shows that he’s good with set-up — almost too good, because when the slashing starts in earnest, the characters you’ve grown to like must recede and the movie starts to feel like a bit of a slog. He’s all for “reimagining” the Halloween series to his own interests, but only occasionally extends that to dreaming up something more interesting to happen to his affectionately drawn and strikingly framed characters than, you know, getting stabbed to death. Post-Grad and Halloween II may have diametrically opposed goals — one wants you to feel good and the other wants you to feel pretty lousy — but they reach them with similarly lumbering inevitability. A climactic kiss and a knife to the neck should not feel nearly so interchangeable.