for all the movies that are identified from time to time as being insulting to women, that charge is almost never leveled at the movies that are aimed specifically at women. Yet most Hollywood romantic comedies of the past few years appear to be taking their cue from the most self-pitying female fantasies of helplessness, insecurity or revenge. "My Best Friend's Wedding," with Julia Roberts trying to steal Dermot Mulroney from his fiancie Cameron Diaz, is a virtual catalog of those fantasies. What a workout this movie is! First audiences are tantalized by the prospect of seeing a cat fight between career-woman Roberts and sweet young thing Diaz; then they get to eat up the now-obligatory "You go girl!" scene where Diaz tells off Roberts (never mind that it's completely out of character or that it was inserted by the filmmakers at the last minute because they feared Diaz's character was too wimpy); and finally they get to wallow in a fantasy of virtuous loneliness when Julia does the right thing and gives up the guy.
For the most part, though, the new romantic heroines, like Sandra Bullock in "While You Were Sleeping" or Jennifer Aniston in the new "Picture Perfect," are dithery nice girls, flummoxed at how to go about getting that man or that job. They spend a lot of screen time moping around in schlumpy clothes as if apologizing for being attractive. The days of romantic-comedy heroines who were confident and sexy and independent, who were taken by surprise when they fell in love instead of sitting around pining for it to happen, seem far in the past. There is a woman like that in "Picture Perfect," Aniston's best friend, Darcy, played by Illeana Douglas (whose performance in the otherwise hapless "Grace of My Heart" was one of last year's unheralded gems), but she's the second banana here, doing one of the roles that Helen Broderick or Eve Arden used to play; sassy and essentially sexless. If Douglas were the heroine, there's a chance that audiences might find her too assured.
At least "Picture Perfect" doesn't make the mistake of asking us to believe that Aniston's Kate can't get dates. The director, Glenn Gordon Caron (the creator of "Moonlighting" and the director of "Clean and Sober" and "Love Affair") puts her in the more credible position of just not being able to get the right kind of date. I had hopes for the movie after the first scene, where Kate stops a guy in the middle of foreplay and sends him home -- after he announces that "it" won't feel as good if he wears a condom.
But Kate turns out to be another girl who just can't stand up for what she wants. She can't keep her meddling mother (Olympia Dukakis doing her Olympia Dukakis bit) from bugging her about wanting grandchildren. At the advertising agency where her concepts are landing one account after another, she can't get her boss (Kevin Dunn) to promote her. He tells her that she hasn't shown enough commitment to going after what she wants, that at 28 she's still living like a student, without a house, a car or a serious relationship.
When I told a woman friend who works in an ad agency about that particular plot point (and that the boss denies Kate a promotion for those reasons, in front of witnesses), she said, "I'd be thinking, 'Yippee, I'm gonna get a settlement!'" Not our Kate. She has a good cry in the ladies' room until Darcy comes in and tells her she's gotten the promotion after all. Darcy has shown the boss a picture, taken at a wedding, of Kate with Nick (Jay Mohr), a guy she met when she caught the bouquet and he caught the garter. Darcy tells the boss that the two are engaged, and things start to go swimmingly for Kate. She learns to dress for success, she's even able to attract the interest of Sam (Kevin Bacon), the office stud who had previously dismissed her as a mousy good girl. Then Nick gets national attention when he saves a little girl from a fire and Kate's boss wants to meet him. Kate arranges for Nick to pose as her fianci at a dinner party where they'll have a preplanned fight and break up.
The message of "Picture Perfect" is that it's OK to be yourself, and when Kate's deception comes unraveled, Aniston has a speech about how she was selling her talent short by pretending to be something she wasn't. But the movie has a strange definition of what it means to be phony. Kate really does need to learn to be more aggressive, and she does need to sell herself. "Picture Perfect," however, appears to be saying that she's selling out because she shops at Henri Bendel's and learns to keep her hair out of her eyes. The movie can't let Kate enjoy her new power and confidence. When she wears a saucy little strapless brocade dress to a cocktail party, she seems to spend the entire night tugging up her bodice. And though Aniston is likable enough, much of the time I didn't enjoy watching Kate, especially the condescending way she treats Nick. Like "My Best Friend's Wedding," "Picture Perfect" presents a heroine who behaves so nastily, you don't feel much like rooting for her. What's even worse is the way Caron freights the bedroom scenes between Kate and Bacon's Sam with you'll-be-sorry forebodings.
Bacon is too smart an actor not to subvert the movie's view of Nick as merely a narcissistic cocksman. With his crooked dirty grin, open shirts and tousled hair, Bacon is an invitation to fall into bed. He walks through the movie with an easy, insinuating charm, totally devoted to pleasure, which is what some of us misguided souls thought romantic comedies were supposed to be about.
"Saturday Night Live's" Mohr (who was impressive as Tom Cruise's slimy competition in "Jerry Maguire") doesn't get off so easy. He's charming and unforced as Nick, but the role requires him to stand around looking at Aniston, hesitant and unsure one moment, adoring the next and being treated like dirt all the while. And I can't think of one actor who could pull off Nick's sappy big speech, about how his job videotaping weddings and birthday parties and baptisms makes him feel honored to be a part of people's lives.
"Picture Perfect" leaves its heroine with a choice between the undependable charmer who's great in bed and the almost neuter nice guy. That's the same choice Caron gave Cybill Shepherd in "Moonlighting" when the show got around to having her get involved with Bruce Willis. But in "Moonlighting," neither the thorniness nor the horniness were slighted. Women may not want a repeat of that show's infamous mating scene -- where Willis and Shepherd fell into bed with the snarled endearments "Bitch!" and "Bastard!" -- but will they go all swoony for the same choice stacked in favor of the faithful puppy dog? What "Picture Perfect" sells as romance is a junior high school health class morality lecture we all got years ago. And it was a crock then, too.