Director: Christopher N. Rowley
It’s become a near prerequisite for female bonding movies or, to use man’s favorite term that still makes me squeamish—chick flicks-- to include one or more of the following: a) the word sisterhood in the title; b) unlikely bonding between the obligatory straight-laced friend and the obligatory flirtatious or promiscuous rebel; c) flashbacks from childhood where the women pledged they would remain BFFs for all eternity; d) dysfunction reigns supreme either in the form of abuse, marital infidelity, medical drama, or parental issues; e) it’s unbearably depressing; f) utilizes a heavy “you go girl” styled soundtrack of 60’s and 70’s female empowerment hits that have now become the theme songs of drag queens; g) there’s an overly sensitive, sexless and nearly neutered Prince Charming who not only looks amazing shirtless but says all the right things at all the right times to compensate for the Neanderthals they’ve met in the past; and lastly h) it involves a journey of some kind-- usually in the form of a road trip-- which we all know is a motif for the women to “cut loose, kick off… [their] Sunday shoes,” and get Footloose while rediscovering their true selves.
And frankly, it’s a tragedy in not only unleashing horrifically bad films on the public but even more so in perpetuating sexist stereotypes on the teenage boys who purchase tickets to the latest video game turned into a movie as well as a predominantly male profession of journalists whose scathing reviews will no doubt-- even if they’re completely justified-- not only keep people away but prevent Hollywood from trying to create more films for the demographic… and dare I say help shape future media coverage about us when we do something out of the “norm” like perhaps run for presidential office. Oh, but we won't go there!
Yet, even as a woman who—more than anything—wants to encourage more films made for our gender, it’s an appalling fact that the ones we’re peddled usually condescend with several of the aforementioned criteria and so the vicious cycle continues and instead of a modern day equivalent of All About Eve or Gone With the Wind, we get Paris Hilton in The Hottie or the Nottie and Mandy Moore in Because I Said So.
With this in mind, after I saw the previews for the latest female bonding picture, Bonneville, starring Academy Award winners and nominees Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, and Joan Allen, I began bracing myself for the worst. First a confession-- I’m a great fan of all three actresses, (especially the underrated Joan Allen whose chameleon like ability never ceases to amaze), and I applauded the moxie to produce a film starring a trio of women over the age of fifty. However, the fact that the trailer featured: the three jumping on a bed like giggling schoolgirls, one remaining like a prim schoolmarm while the other acts flirtatious in trying to meet cute with a Prince Charming, and taking a lengthy road trip to face a dysfunctional relative after a depressing event seemed to solidify every cliché in the genre book... yet I found myself pleasantly surprised by this predictable but innocuous and heartwarming little sleeper just released on DVD.
The film, which begins in Pocatello, Idaho, opens as the beautiful, recently widowed Arvilla (Jessica Lange) tries to come to grips with the death of her much older, adventuring, best-selling author husband. Although she’d been his wife for twenty years, her goodhearted yet absentminded husband Joe was so consumed with living life to the fullest that he neglected to create a new will explaining not only his wish to be cremated and have his ashes scattered but also to leave the house to his beloved wife. When Joe’s bitter, defensive daughter Francine (a wicked Christine Baranski) arrives to contest her father’s undocumented wishes, she blackmails her stepmother by giving her a week to deliver Joe’s ashes to her in Montecito, California where she intends to bury him next to his first wife or else she will kick Arvilla out of the home Francine has now inherited.
Still reeling from the untimely death of her mate, not to mention the threat of homelessness lingering in her mind, Arvilla decides she will hand-deliver Joe to Francine herself and her two best friends--the strict but kind, perpetual reader of The Book of Mormon, Carol (Joan Allen) and the rebellious Margene who breaks Mormon rule and indulges in coffee, decide they will go along with their friend, feeling that there’s no time like the present to have a girl’s vacation.
Deciding to take Joe’s gorgeous blue, vintage Bonneville out for a spin for the first time in her life, Arvilla picks up her friends and after a few mishaps including a flat tire and several detours, makes the impulsive decision to skip the flight and make it up to Montecito by car, with her loyal friends by her side. Predictably, they encounter memorable eccentrics along the way such as a young, beautiful hippie born decades too late played by Victor Rasuk (Adrift in Manhattan) who rescues them in the Salt Flats and then gives them his MP3 player in exchange for a ride, along with big-rig driving Tom Skerritt who catches Margene’s eye and interest, yet when the time comes wherein he actually ask the ladies to dinner, she’s the most hesitant one—revealing the truism for not only Margene but most women that it’s far easier to fantasize than actualize-- until with a little prompting she opens herself up to the possibility of love.
Filled with sumptuous cinematography of the majestic American southwest that’s worth the price of the DVD rental alone, although the film hits one contrived plot-point after another and anyone who has seen even a few female bonding classics know precisely what will happen next, the actresses seem to genuinely engage one another in ways that make what may have been one-dimensional roles seem far more real than the less than inspired writing.
In fact, it’s on their capable shoulders that Bonneville rests and I’m sure I don’t have to assure you that when you have Bates and Allen navigating with Lange in the driver’s seat, even if you hit some potentially rough traffic and annoying road construction along the way, you’re guaranteed a mostly smooth and entertaining trip, if you can face your fear from enough bad female journey pictures of the past to give the likable, mild Bonneville a spin.