Issue #41: Time Goes By 🕰️
27 Dresses + Operation Varsity Blues
Welcome back! Last Friday we took a bye week, because, what can we say? Life happens. And frankly, we’re impressed with ourselves for going 40 straight issues without stopping. Things are looking up as the vaccine rollout continues and while infection rates are still high, there’s hope on the horizon and it feels good!
This week, we’re going straight grab bag. To give you a peek behind the scenes, we often find strange echoes and threads that connect the movies we write about (even if such links are a little hard to fit into a subject line). But this week we thought we’d just bring you some good old-fashioned reviews, right off the dome.
From Cate, we’ve got an inspired look at 27 Dresses, and a defense of Katherine Heigl. And from Zosha, we’ve got a missive on the distracting palatial estates of Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal— which is a mouthful but mostly a fresh take on old information.
Believe it or not, we’re closing in on a year of this project and it’s somehow yet another thing we can use to mark the time that’s passed in quarantine. But we’re so happy to be writing these reviews for you and to have the opportunity to do what we love. If you like what we’re doing, share it with a friend. And if you’re new to us, hit subscribe. We love new friends. Happy Friday!
Cate on 27 Dresses
It’s high time that I came out as a Katherine Heigl apologist.
As a lover of both Grey’s Anatomy and romantic comedies, I was a first-hand witness to Heigl’s Hollywood downfall. But revisiting 27 Dresses reminded me just how charming and versatile she is onscreen, and why it sucks that we discarded her for merely speaking her mind.
There’s a specific charm to movies of the aughts, and 27 Dresses has it in spades. From the dated-but-perfect music cues to the plot conceits that vanish upon the advent of smartphones and social media, the story is at its core, about a people pleaser who’s forgotten that she’s people too.
I’d be genuinely shocked if anyone needed a reminder of the plot, but here’s one just in case: Jane (Katherin Heigl), a wedding obsessed perpetual bridesmaid, is madly in love with her boss. But on the night she finally garners the courage to tell him so, he falls hard for her flighty sister Tess (Malin Akerman) instead, and Jane is stuck planning their wedding. Along the way, she meets and falls for Kevin (James Marsden) who pseudonymously writes her favourite wedding column, and covertly writes about her wedding obsession, humiliating her.
If it feels like a lot of plot it’s because it is. And yet, the movie never really feels overstuffed. Every beat has its place and takes us closer to seeing how Jane has been fixating on weddings as a solution to a problem that has nothing to do with romance. After her mother’s death when she and her sister were young, Jane took on the caretaking role in the household, raising her sister and learning to push her own feelings down to make sure that those around her were catered to. And as a result, she’s taught the people in her life that she can always be relied upon, because she never, ever says no.
It’s only when she’s faced with a true conflict between her own needs and her sister’s wishes that Jane finally finds the spine to stand up for herself. But the years-long repression of her true feelings springs free in cruelty and public humiliation. And it’s then that she’s forced to confront the truth of her own resentments.
Heigl plays it all with plucky charm and just enough sarcasm to make her feel like a real, grounded character. She’s a habitual bridesmaid living on an assistant’s salary in New York, but the movie never gives you time to consider if she’s focusing on the right priorities. Jane sees weddings as a way to paper over bad feelings and make everything better, and it takes the wedding of her nightmares to snap her out of that childish daydream.
But it really is Heigl’s film, and she sells both the enthusiasm of someone high on the brilliant potential of love and versed in combatting the barbs of cynicism. She and Marsden have an easy chemistry, and their romance never feels forced. When Jane and Kevin are together, he teases out a joy in her that she rarely allows herself to experience in service of herself. When they come together in the end, it feels not just inevitable, but earned.
I enjoy Heigl’s romcoms and having seen her in everything from romantic thrillers to the final seasons of Suits, I feel confident in saying that she’s a great actress in command of her skills who deserves the chance to show more of what she can do. Because she’s so often unfairly blamed for the collapse of the romantic comedy, but we’re quick to forget that many of her romcom performances are quite good, and she’s often the best part about them. Heigl has the goods, and 27 Dresses is proof.
Zosha on Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal
I think I can safely say that the sketch of “Operation Varsity Blues” didn’t come as a surprise to most of us. What the arrests of more than 50 people involved with the scam revealed was that there were cheat codes — to education, access, power — if you were wealthy enough to pay for them. And so the moneyed elite bought their kids’ ways into private colleges (including the place where Cate and I met; good times).
What feels revelatory in Operation Varsity Blues, the documentary from Netflix, is that the world goes beyond that. Unlike so many documentaries peddled out about recent events, Operation takes care to contextualize what it is we’re talking about when we talk about the college admissions scandal. We’re talking how these kids were already statistically more likely to do well on the entrance exams and had access to all the things that actually consistently help you get into college. But Operation reminds us: it’s all a scam! Admissions can be a crapshoot, even for the best of us, and the rot starts with the colleges themselves which are primed to make money.
I say this not to even remotely let these perpetrators off the hook, but rather to show how damaging the whole documentary can feel as a collected picture of their offense. Both the parents and the colleges were poking each other’s buttons — parents wanted their kids at a place that served as a status symbol first and an education second; colleges wanted to provide a reputation and they needed money to do that.
While so many documentaries struggle with how exactly to portray past events for which we have no B-roll, Operation provides a savvy example of how to make the reenactments feel like more than just filler. For starters they had a lot of information to draw from for accuracy, with each of the scenes between “Rick Singer” (the real mastermind behind the scandal, here being played by Matthew Modine, who will likely now always be the face in my head for Singer) drawing from actual transcripts from law enforcement.
But as I watched the recreation of ostentatiously wealthy people hemming and hawing over exact price, details, and other damning bits of evidence gathered from these phone calls, I found myself struck not by the calibre of the acting but rather their homes. Many of the calls in Operation Varsity Blues are taken from grand palatial (and, frankly, uninteresting) estates. It is a concise and uncommented-on way of illustrating just how big the divide is between us and them. Their privilege is beyond comprehension, even before they start talking about renting out Versailles for their birthday party.
It’s this knowing awareness that I enjoyed most about Operation Varsity Blues, even as it introduced little I didn’t know already about the story or the admissions cycle. The documentary knows that “the playing field is not fair” already, and there’s a twist of the knife as we have to hear ludicrously rich people spout that off as their own rationale. It doesn’t let them off the hook, the same way it won’t let the colleges off; these are the institutions that we put our faith in, and as long as the money was rolling in they had carte blanche to approve whatever they wanted. Within the bounds of Operation it carved out time to look at both the immense pressure there is to go to higher ed without losing sight of the people who got overlooked for their dream. Operation Varsity Blues is not the most original or informative documentary I’ve ever seen, but it has an acute awareness of the game it is playing. And ultimately, the reenactment quality of the film doesn’t matter because it knows the backdrop is the real villain.
Assorted Internet Detritus
CATE: Why you care about which vaccine your bestie got stabbed with, the empty spectacle of Justin Bieber’s latest album, Hunter Thee Harris on the new state of gossip, Lana Del Rey and the backlash to the backlash, thoughts on why the world’s most powerful refuse to use their power, support bald men today and a little bit on Dolly and drag. And just for fun, the song I’m stuck on this week:
ZOSHA: Jane Fonda and her “feral” honesty. The saturation strategy we’re all watching. “In the end, there is only one winner in a generation war, and it’s not millennials or boomers or Gen Z—it’s capitalism.” The cultural significance of Diana’s poofy haircut. “My Asian mother was paying attention, and she was going to put up a fight.” This thought on the loop of criticism that has been something I loop around constantly.