| Along with Amy Heckerling, Kathryn Bigelow, and Penny Marshall, Susan Seidelman helped blaze a trail into Hollywood for female directors in the 1980s. Her independently produced debut, Smithereens (1982), was one of the first American indies to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, and in her follow-up, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), she had the foresight to cast a rising young pop star named Madonna in a small, but crucial role, and the film became a signature post-punk critical and commercial hit. Unfortunately, her subsequent films, all of which were major studio productions with a knowing feminist twist, were disappointments to some degree, culminating in the critically derided revenge comedy She-Devil (1989), in which she had the audacity to pit Meryl Streep against Roseanne Barr for the affections of Ed Begley, Jr. Seidelman has found steady work over the ensuring two and a half decades, working primary in television (including helming episodes of Sex and the City) and several independent films, but she has never commanded mainstream attention at the multiplex like she did in the mid-’80s.|
Alas, her newest film, the middle-age female sports comedy The Hot Flashes, is unlikely to put her back in the front ranks of Hollywood, even though it is an enjoyable, albeit highly derivative, comedy that dares to put “women of a certain age” front and center. However, unlike the films of Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated), which also center on postmenopausal women, Seidelman’s film is not a catalog-ready celebration of conspicuous consumption, but rather a celebration of small-town camaraderie and lower-middle-class spunk, which is another reason why it probably won’t gain much attention.
Rather than being set in the Hamptons or in some trendy West Coast hamlet, The Hot Flashes takes place in a tiny Central Texas town where nothing much seems to happen except high school sports and relationship problems. The protagonist is Beth Humphrey (Brooke Shields), a housewife who is pushing 50 and beginning to feel the flashing heat of menopause, just as her relationship with her husband (Eric Roberts), the local postmaster, has finally cooled. When Beth discovers that an accounting error she made is threatening to close down a mobile mammogram service founded by a deceased friend, she strikes on the idea of rounding up her old high school basketball teammates and putting together a team to raise the needed $25,000 by playing three charity games against the local high school girls’ team, which last year won the state championship. The high school team includes among its ranks both Beth’s own daughter Jocelyn (Charlotte Graham) and Millie Rash (Jessica Rothenberg), the insufferably condescending daughter of the Bible-thumping hypocrite (Andrea Frankle) who constantly catches the wandering eye of Beth’s husband.
The screenplay by first-time scribe Brad Hennig is formula through-and-through, from the familiar small-town stereotypes right down to the sequence of events in which Beth must approach each of her old friends (all of whom conveniently still live in town) and convince them to return to the court (in this regard, the film plays as a female analogue to Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, albeit with a decent, good-hearted and well-meaning woman as the protagonist rather than a self-absorbed, alcoholic man). The team includes Roxie Rosales (Camryn Manheim), a biker mama whose husband is more interested in smoking pot than looking at her; Florine Clarkston (Wanda Sykes), who is determined to be re-elected as town mayor; Clementine Winks (Virginia Madsen), a tacky divorcee whose ex-husband coaches the high school girls’ team; and Ginger Peabody (Daryl Hannah), who owns a car dealership and is clearly a closeted lesbian. Although each woman is reluctant at first to “get the team back together,” formula dictates that they all join ranks and play their hearts out (and, if need be, cheat) against stronger, faster girls a third their age, just as formula dictates that each game must increase in intensity and importance, with the final one coming down to a last-second shot bouncing on the rim (Will it go in? Does anyone seriously expect that it won’t?).
Seidelman seems to be all too aware that she’s working deep in formulaic territory, but she plays it straight while also highlighting some of the funnier elements (such as an early scene in which Beth attends a seminar on menopause led by an irritatingly chirpy woman who professes “the change” to be a gift from God) that will appeal most to older women, a demographic that continues to be ignored by much of the Hollywood establishment. She also emphasizes the fact that her female protagonists are diverse in terms of their interests and energies, and not all of them (or even most of them) are focused on pursuing a man (Florine is primarily interested in her political career, Clementine seems more than happy to be single, and Ginger, in addition to being gay, is defined primarily by her career). Beth’s desire to save a mammogram service is perhaps a little bit too obvious a thematic corollary, but it’s hard not to appreciate her tenacity, especially since that is a quality she has previously lacked.
Some of the subplots don’t gel as well as they should, including Beth’s marital problems, although that is primarily a problem of casting (Eric Roberts is such an odious jerk from the get-go that there’s little incentive to see them reconciled; you want to see her leave him, which may very well be the point). The subplot involving Ginger’s closeted sexuality is also problematic, primarily in the way Hannah’s character is depicted as such an awkward frump in a face-shrouding fright wig. Relatively minor as these problems are, they do tend to accumulate, which results in The Hot Flashes feeling too often like warmed-up leftovers from better movies.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (2.5)
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