You know that line from “Zoolander,” when evil fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) is flummoxed that everyone doesn’t get that the titular male model’s legendary poses were all the same? “Doesn’t anyone notice this? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” he yells, exasperated.
I had that same out-of-body feeling when I took a group of girlfriends to a press screening of British rom-com auteur Richard Curtis’ 2003 Christmas classic “Love Actually.” Every one of my pals were clapping and cooing about how sweet and swoony it was. Meanwhile, I seemed to be the only person that noticed the many, many fat jokes, all directed at women, or that one of the movie’s allegedly whimsical romances was between a creeper obsessed with the wife of his alleged best friend, who happened to be the only nonwhite character in the movie.
Not to mention all the bosses dating their younger employees and that no woman over 35 winds up happy. Man, do I hate this movie. I’m not the only one.
Decades later, Curtis has expressed regret about his films’ relentless barrage of alleged laughs at the expense of women’s weight, recalling that in his day it was humorous “calling someone chubby,” but in 2023, “those jokes aren’t any longer funny.” In an interview with his daughter last week, the screenwriter also admitted that his mostly white casts in films such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “About Time” and “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” can “feel out of date.”
Look: Fat jokes were never funny if you’ve been the subject of them (I have), and nonwhite people are not a newfangled invention. The problem is not just that Curtis and his team didn’t notice there was anything wrong with all this, but they didn’t seem to be making movies for people who might. Like me.
Which brings me to “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
One of my first columns for this publication mentioned how much I loathe the Ken Kwapis comedy released almost 15 years ago. Based on the 2004 self-help book by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, “He’s Just Not That Into You” aims to dispel the myth that a man who doesn’t call you back, introduce you to his friends or tell anyone he’s dating you is just waiting to fall in love with you. He’s not. The movie version is set right here in a bizarro-world Baltimore, where day is night, Drew Barrymore is dateless and there are almost no Black people around.
No Black people. In BALTIMORE. Make it make sense.
According to a 2009 article around the movie’s release in The Baltimore Sun, the filmmakers picked Charm City as an alternative to your usual New York/Chicago/Los Angeles settings, and because co-writer Marc Silverstein was familiar with the city, having lived in the area for a while. That’s even more disturbing: If you reside here, you know how hard you have to try not to show Black people, except for the back of their heads walking through an office and a few awkward montages. YOU HAVE TO BE TRYING VERY HARD.
Co-writer Abby Kohn told The Sun that Baltimore fit what they were looking for in a city: “not exactly every-small-town U.S.A., but every-urban-young-center U.S.A., so we could all see ourselves in these people.”
Girl, who is “we”?
I get that in real life, at least as of about a decade ago, three-quarters of white people don’t have any nonwhite friends. But it’s more likely, at least in a Blackity-Black city like this one, that they’d have Black colleagues, or speak to a Black person at the supermarket. I remember reading the announcement for the cast and getting so excited because surely you wouldn’t set a movie in Baltimore that’s as white as “The Buddy Deane Show.”
And yet. Besides one Black waiter at the restaurant that Justin Long manages, the Latin construction workers that Bradley Cooper blames for leaving cigarette butts around when he’s not only secretly smoking but secretly sleeping with Scarlett Johansson, and the Asian and Latin gay co-workers who exist only to make Drew Barrymore feel better, this is the weirdest, most monochromatic Baltimore you’ve ever seen. And maybe some people would like that better. Oh well.
Until I rewatched it this week — the things I do for my job! — I had remembered the only scene where Black people get to talk was a brief interlude where comedy duo Frangela talk about how men stealthily talk you into essentially breaking up with yourself. Funny, except it ends in them describing self-healing sessions of ice cream and ribs. Because at the time of the movie, they were larger Black women. Of course. (They’re still Black, but now smaller.)
But there’s a worse one. Instead of just opening the door in Baltimore and waiting for a Black person to walk by, Kwapis has to leave the continent for the only other significant Black scene: an awkward bit with African ladies trying to convince their friend that a guy who is obviously rejecting her “forgot your hut number” or was eaten by a lion, because there are no cities or houses in Africa. Ha ha ha.
It’s supposed to be a funny reminder that romantic delusions are universal, but the movie is probably unwittingly proposing that Black people’s experiences are so different from everyday American ones that you can’t find them here.
Here’s the thing: It’s not that there aren’t rom-coms targeted at specific communities. “Always Be My Maybe” had Asian leads, and “The Best Man” universe of aspirational bougie Black love materializes once a decade to remind me that Morris Chestnut will never love me. Those movies largely exist, though, because so many people looked up on screen for years and didn’t see themselves.
Or if we did, we saw ourselves as comic relief or schmucks like poor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who deserved so much better than to be clowned by Andrew Lincoln kissing his wife while she’s pretending to be talking to Christmas carolers in “Love Actually.” Curtis not only thought that light stalking was romantic, but nobody looked at the cast and thought “Maybe don’t make the only Black guy the fool?” Kwapis set a movie in a majority-Black city and went out of his way to make it super white, because it didn’t occur to him that the intended audience would notice.
“He’s Just Not That Into You” is not just bad because of the lack of diversity. Like “Love Actually,” it’s got a mean streak hiding under its prettiness, and treats female romantic insecurity — especially the kind that comes with aging — as desperation and not, say, a function of gaslighting by men who say one thing and mean another. It’s predictable and weary.
It’s almost forgettable, except that when I watch the scenes of people walking through Fells Point or Canton, I can’t forget who isn’t there. And I’m not taking crazy pills.