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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
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George Clooney did not invent it. The archetype of the sensitive skirt-chaser has been with us for centuries, ever since biblical patriarch Jacob bedded two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, for breeding purposes while still professing his eternal love and devotion to Rachel. Sensitive jerks — by which I mean men who love women, who want to love just one, but who nonetheless, due to a combination of boorishness, immaturity, neuroses and commitment-phobia, cannot — are nothing new.
Especially when portrayed by a handsome actor (think Clooney’s Dr. Ross on “ER”), the delicate rogue is a crowd-pleaser. The literary equivalent might be the self-loathing romantics who populate the novels of Nick Hornby. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival the Special Jury Prize for Emotional Truth went to David Gordon Green’s “All the Real Girls,” featuring a protagonist who’s broken the heart of every woman in town. “Real Girls” features co-writer Paul Schneider as Paul, a Tarheel Lothario who falls in love with his best friend’s sister Noel, played by Zooey Deschanel, and winds up having his heart wrenched from his cardiopulmonary system and puréed into a frappuccino.
It’s not enough for the lead to be a mere womanizer. No, our hero must be a womanizer who feels, who emotes, who wants to settle down but just can’t. He must have a shot at redemption. We know that Clooney is capable of falling in love, and we root for him to grow and do so. In the meantime, of course, we vicariously enjoy his romp through Gomorrah.
Former New York Times feature writer Rick Marin takes a stab at the world of the self-aware rogue in his new memoir, “Cad: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor,” which details his post-divorce 30-something dating years. When we first meet Marin, his wife has left him, and he’s struggling to make his way in the romantic minefield of Manhattan by exploiting that very painful experience to get into the skivvies of a cognac-swilling lass named Chloe. Immediately, perfectly, we are thus introduced to the warring sides of the modern cad, the man on the make who sells a certain sensitive romantic premise, perhaps even secretly hoping that it comes true.
Marin seems to feel that because his ex-wife, “Elisabeth,” left him “a wounded animal,” he is the “injured party” and therefore is entitled to pursue as many women as he wants. “But men like me are not drawn to Sweet Janes offering sensibly fleeced lives in the suburbs,” he writes. “We crave the unpredictable, the unstable, the Zeldas.”
Still on the “parental payroll,” Marin begins his tear. He woos women by shedding his spectacles and holding them forlornly in his hand, feigning depth and sensitivity. He references pop culture too often, judges his dates’ physical attributes far too harshly (especially if the nebbishy author photo is to be believed), and his commitment issues have commitment issues. If he weren’t somewhat aware of all this, it might be hard to take. But as it is, Marin’s glib descriptions of his romantic disasters are entertaining, if unfailingly mean.
After Kim, a woman he slept with in Edinburgh, Scotland, comes to visit him, he quickly grows sick of her and acts like a jerk. “I’m trying to decide if I should let myself get really crazy about you,” she says at one point, terrifying him. She leaves in tears and Marin couldn’t care less. “Kim professed to be crazy about everything about me, but didn’t know anything about me,” he sneers. Then there’s Tabitha, a 22-year-old assistant at a magazine, whose affection he appreciates, then takes advantage of by continuing to sleep with her even after he knows that she’s falling in love with him. One night he even says to her, “Cling much?” Actually, it’s Marin who clings to her — but only because his condo is being worked on and he needs “a place to shack up during the renovations.”
Marin can be more than just glib; occasionally he even stumbles upon moments of modest insight. To his perpetual bachelor friend Tad, Marin muses that “Women blame men for acting fake. Interested when they’re trying to get them in the sack, then not spending the night, not wanting to cuddle or spend the day together. But women are the ones speeding from zero to intimacy like a Ferrari. Which is more artificial?”
Other truisms pop up here and there. “Women don’t want true honesty,” he tells another friend, John Podhoretz of the New York Post. “They say they do, but they don’t. You can’t tell someone the real reason, or reasons, you don’t ever want to see them again. Like they’re too crazy or they don’t get your jokes. That would be cruel. So you latch on to some minor thing and they come away thinking you’re the damaged one.”
But Marin gives womanizing a bad name. Throughout the book, he frequently crosses lines of human decency, and does so in such a way that while he knows he’s being caddish, it’s unclear if he knows he’s also earning far worse sobriquets. When Tabitha lets him know what her friends call him — “the Fucker” — he seems to think the nickname refers to the physical act of sex rather than his abject cruelty.
Marin’s lack of understanding of women rears its head in comical if disconcerting ways. He’s shocked to learn, for instance, that “Carnal Knowledge” is not a good date movie; ditto for “In the Company Of Men.” In his mid-30s, he seems surprised to realize that dating Tabitha, who is just out of college, brings him into a world he ultimately finds boring. Perhaps because so much of his 20s was spent spinning his wheels in that disastrous marriage to Elisabeth, he’s coming to these lessons a bit late.
The sensitive man on the make was fleshed out better by Ethan Hawke in the 1995 Richard Linklater film “Before Sunrise.” “You know what’s the worst thing about somebody breaking up with you?” Hawke’s Jesse asks Julie Delpy’s Celine. “It’s when you remember how little you thought about the people you broke up with, and you realize that that is how little they’re thinking about you. You know, you’d like to think that you’re both in all this pain, but really, they’re just, ‘Hey, I’m glad you’re gone.’” Jesse’s wound — his girlfriend just dumped him — is all the more painful because of his past callousness.
Marin, conversely, never really puts his hurt together with the hurt he inflicts. We never learn exactly why his failed marriage wreaked such psychological havoc on him and sent him into a decade-long bachelor party for himself. There are hints of emotional trauma, but there’s no real analysis of his psyche. Perhaps he feared that such exploration would seem self-indulgent, or detract from his breezy writing. Ultimately, however, all it does is make you tired, the same way your 30-something bachelor friend who still barfs up trite college-era complaints like “Chicks dig jerks” (something Marin actually says) is exhausting to be around. In the end, the only interesting aspect of Marin’s character — I call him that since I assume he’s much less horrible in reality, that he’s billed himself as a cad partly as a marketing ploy — is that he’s a cute writer.
These days, Marin is busy adapting his memoir for Miramax, so one knows “Cad” must include an Act 3 character arc where Marin will grow. In Hornby’s “About a Boy,” for example, Will becomes a bigger man because Marcus — the little boy he has met by feigning single-dadhood so as to better troll for hot single moms — grows to need him. In this genre, no one ever grows just because the clock is ticking; something has to happen.
I won’t spoil the rest of the book and reveal Marin’s own particular epiphany. Suffice it to say, he meets a woman who changes the way he looks at relationships and through that, combined with a major family crisis, he morphs into a good guy. But unlike Rob Fleming — the protagonist of Hornby’s “High Fidelity” — who comes to appreciate the value of valuing someone else, the reader isn’t clear what lessons Marin has learned and therefore is left to guess whether his impending marriage to former New York Times Styles deputy editor Ilene Rosenzweig will last. Yes, she makes him “wanna be a better man” — as Jack Nicholson so tritely drawled in “As Good As It Gets” — but what else?
In April 1999, a former stripper wrote an angry letter to the Times protesting a story Marin had written about bachelor parties. “Marin’s assumption that a bachelor needs a final night of sophomoric ‘wisdom’ to make the final commitment to matrimony is outdated, shortsighted and misogynistic,” she wrote. “As a former stripper, I know only too well that a bachelor who seeks to entertain his friends at a strip club on that one night is surely the same face I’d see by himself, clutching a dollar bill in one hand and a drink in the other, only a short week later.”
Men tend not to buy books like “Cad”; the Candace Bushnell blurb on the back reveals its true audience — single women trying to understand why they’ve fallen into the trap of so many jerks. I doubt, however, that many will find within it any real explanation for why men behave caddishly other than for the sex — which Marin doesn’t make much mention of. I fear instead Marin’s prose will only further exacerbate their confusion and misandry. While an engaging read, “Cad” ultimately falls short because of Marin’s embrace of the superficial in his writing and cruelty in his dating life. Without knowing him or Rosenzweig, you will be forgiven for wondering if in a few months Marin himself might end up clutching a dollar bill in one hand and a drink in the other.
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