Spirit of America

Bring It On invents a genre: the guilty liberal teen comedy. Love& Sex gives equal time to nerdy women. Saving Grace is pure stinkweed.

The cheerleader comedy Bring It On is the No. 1 picture in the country this week, which is not a surprise given its marketable assets and feeble competition at the box office. The surprise is that it offers something more than curvy young girls with long, toned legs in short skirts and colored panties and tight halter tops who swivel their torsos and cartwheel and land in these eye-popping wide splits and. … what was I just talking about? Oh, right—that this is actually a pretty good movie aside from all the cheese. Bring It On is in the honorable tradition of exploitation flicks that tackle dicier issues than more “respectable” films: It exuberantly documents a moment in which rap/hip-hop/African-American culture has penetrated that most blond and blue-eyed of bastions, and it succeeds in dramatizing the resentment and guilt on all sides without just adding to the noise.

The first thing that the writer, Jessica Bendinger, manages to do is free the cheerleader act from its ties to (how can I put this delicately?) institutionalized slutdom. Whatever its roots, the standard cheerleading persona had by the ‘70s evolved into a Playboy-bunny-like worshipper of male athletic prowess—the subtext being that after the contest, the nubile postulant would ceremonially offer up the rest of herself. But in Bring It On, the high-school football team is portrayed from the outset as a bunch of inept blowhards. Worship these macho losers? Puh-lease. The crowds show up to ogle the cheerleading squad, which only uses games to practice for the real events—the regional and national cheerleading competitions. There are plenty of jokes at the expense of the form—”dancers gone retarded” is one appellation. But there’s never any doubt that these girls (and, for that matter, guys) are genuine—and gutsy—athletes.

Bring It On is set in that richest and blondest of countries, San Diego. In the first half, the rich, blond Torrance (Kirsten Dunst), the beleaguered new captain of a national-championship squad, lobbies to replace an injured teammate with the punky and brunette (but astoundingly limber) L.A. refugee Missy (Eliza Dushku). It’s Missy who clues Torrance in to the fact that the team’s award-winning routines were lifted whole (by the previous captain) from an African-American squad up the coast—which knows about the theft but has never been able to raise the funds to take on the San Diegans at the regionals. What to do? Nothing, say Torrance’s fellow cheerleaders, who don’t want to learn a new routine. That decision uncomfortably stands until a quartet of African-American girls, led by Isis (Gabrielle Union), marches into a San Diego game and does an entire number in sync with the blondes. Humiliation City.

The idea of whites appropriating black culture without acknowledgement (or, in some cases, even awareness) is naggingly resonant, and Bendinger pushes the audience’s discomfort even further by making her heroine a guilty liberal who convinces her dad to sponsor the African-American team—an act of charity that Isis venomously spurns. But after that, the filmmakers drop the baton. The climax, at the nationals in Daytona, Fla., is satisfying in a tidy, morality-play kind of way, but the director, Peyton Reed, misses a chance to kick this musical into the stratosphere—to stage the final competition so that the squads acknowledge each other and comment in their routines on black and white traditions of dance. In fact, Reed has edited the African-American squad’s final number so choppily that it doesn’t come off as a triumphant summation but as a frantic hodgepodge. It isn’t until the credit sequence—in which the entire cast, between outtakes, clowns and sings to the old disco number “Mickey”—that the movie even suggests that this cheerleading stuff is supposed to be fun.

The best parts of Bring It On serve up showbiz and teenpic conventions while cheekily razzing them. There’s a wonderful Bob Fosse parody, in which a demented, speed-freak choreographer arrives to restage the squad’s routine and ends up making a hash of it. And there’s even that exploitation staple, the bikini carwash to raise money (here shot larkily on video). The movie would be even yummier if it didn’t look so atrocious. There’s no point in blaming the cinematographer, since the footage appears to have been processed in a high-school latrine: The flesh tones are gray, and the backgrounds bleached of detail. Only women under 20 could survive that kind of lighting, but even the dishy Dunst and Dushku look cadaverous in some shots. Was this another guilty-liberal touch to make the black girls look better?

Romantic comedy audiences have gazed at brainy, beautiful women through the eyes of brainy, nerdy men for so long that it’s a shock, in Love & Sex, to see the same scenario from the woman’s perspective. Things don’t look that different, at least in this film, but it’s fun to switch seats for a change. The protagonist (Famke Janssen), a writer for an L.A.-based glamour magazine, is forced to rewrite a downbeat meditation on blow jobs—an occasion to relive her history of busted relationships, from the elementary-school bully to the film-star stud with the million-dollar Malibu terrace. Her ruminations don’t come to anything—that generic title signals more than it means to—but the movie, written and directed by Valerie Breiman, is so breezy and its lovers so tart of tongue that you won’t register the lack until it ends. The dark, sleek, long-stemmed Janssen has never had a chance to show much personality before, but she doesn’t hide her overbite here (this is the first time I’ve noticed it), and it humanizes her—she comes off as goofily vulnerable. When someone that gorgeous learns to be human on screen it’s a big step. I also thrilled to identify with a male lead (Jon Favreau) who’s as brilliant and crazy and self-absorbed as Woody Allen or Albert Brooks but whose self-absorption doesn’t shape and color everything else in the movie. That we see this ass from a distance and love him anyway gives me hope.

The husband of Grace (Brenda Blethyn), the well-to-do heroine of Saving Grace, jumps out of a plane without opening his parachute—whereupon his widow learns that he’d mortgaged their mansion to the hilt. With no talent besides a genius for gardening to keep her from poverty, she ends up joining forces with a lovable Scotsman (Craig Ferguson) and growing killer weed in her greenhouse in place of the usual orchids. This leads to the best scene, in which a pair of old ladies mistakenly brew her marijuana into tea and have a blast eating cornflakes and donning glasses with big eyeballs on springs. The rest of the movie is for people who think that the mere idea of elderly English people trafficking in drugs with gangsters is a howl. Did someone compare this to the Ealing comedies? I’ve shot people for less.