Sister from Another Planet

I don't know if men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but anyone who doubts that we hail from different planets should attempt to discuss with a member of the opposite sex the film How to Make an American Quilt. This is not just another women's movie. It's passive-aggressive cinema at its manipulative, button-pushing, stereotypical worst -- cloying, calculated, sentimental puff. Screenwriter Jane Anderson (It Could Happen to You) and director Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof) craftily cloak a one-sided polemic in the mantle of an all-American The Joy Luck Club, albeit with fewer tears and more laughs. The fabric appears invitingly lush and downy from a distance but threadbare and shopworn on closer inspection. The transparent veil of tepid humor and soap opera melodrama scarcely conceals the film's underlying men-are-bastards-women-are-saints sentiment. (The hombres in this movie are so uniformly unfaithful and cowardly they give Bob Packwood a good name.) It's the distaff equivalent of one of those propagandistic training films the military used to show young soldiers to whip them into a fighting frenzy by documenting enemy atrocities. Martians, enter the theater at your own risk.

Of course, if you believe the hard-luck tales of love and loss spun by the handful of biddies sewing a wedding quilt for recently engaged 26-year-old graduate student Finn (Winona Ryder at her frumpiest), men aren't really from Mars at all. They're from someplace much colder and more distant. Pluto, maybe. On second thought, men don't even deserve full-blown planets. They're more like meteoroids, careening through the cosmos without reason or pattern. And just like directionless projectiles cracking the atmosphere of an unsuspecting heavenly body, men either flame out and disappear or, if they make contact, knock women out of their peaceful orbits and leave behind a huge emotional crater. According to the American Quilt makers, men either cheat on you or they die; in either case, they always leave. A good woman has no choice but to suffer nobly and bear it. No pleasurable experience goes unpunished; sex always leads to children, who invariably make boring housefraus out of their gifted, once-passionate mothers. It's all so enlightened!

Finn works on her thesis and mulls over a marriage proposal from her nice-guy boyfriend Sam (Dermot Mulroney) while kicking back for the summer at the home of her grandmother Hy (Ellen Burstyn) and great-aunt Glady (Anne Bancroft). While lounging at the local public pool, she meets a tanned and sinewy swimmer named Leon (who woos Finn by telling her that he likes her name because, you know, like, fish have fins that enable them to swim, and he's a swimmer and stuff), and suddenly faces a dilemma: to cheat or not to cheat. The ladies of Hy and Glady's quilting bee chip in their two cents by relating their own bitter memories. Without going into too much detail, let's just say that neither Lorena Bobbitt nor Aileen Wuornos would have had a thing to worry about if these women sat on their juries.

Along with the imperious ringleader, Anna (Maya Angelou), the members of the quilting bee include Hy and Glady, Anna's daughter Marianna (Alfre Woodard), Sophia (Lois Smith), Em (Jean Simmons), and Constance (Kate Nelligan). Each of the women shares with Finn what she considers to be hard-won wisdom. Unfortunately, none of it makes any sense. As each story unfolds, we see how it relates to the individual square of the quilt that woman is working on. The only common thread is that men suck and they'll screw you -- literally and figuratively -- every time.

Two of the quilters' husbands die, one from cancer and the other from some unnamed malady. The male-bashing tone of the movie is so thick that you almost blame the guys for getting sick. The bereaved widows respond by kindling affairs with two of the other quilters' husbands. The film takes a sympathetic view of these adulterers and their "grief made me do it" excuse; one can only wonder how the film would have treated any man who offered up the same mea culpa.

One of the women, in her youth a skilled diver and stunning beauty with low self-worth, tells the tale of begging the first guy who pays her any attention to take her away from a boring small town and her overbearing, harshly critical mother. He's an aspiring geologist who says things like, "There's nothing like water to wear down a mountain and open up its secrets to you." On their first date the young woman leads the rockhead to her concealed swimming hole, strips off her dress, and plunges in. The water does the trick; she opens up her secrets to him with hardly any wearing down required. You can almost hear Bruce Springsteen's "The River" playing in the background: "Then I got Mary pregnant, and man, that was all she wrote." Her name isn't Mary, but she does get pregnant. Unlike the song's protagonist, however, her husband eventually abandons his family -- now up to three college-age kids -- rather than wallow with his wife in her self-loathing.

A similar recollection is that of a black woman whose mother was a maid for a wealthy white family. As a girl, she offers up her virginity to the apple-cheeked son of her mother's employer. Just like the diver's, her first sexual encounter results in pregnancy. But rather than give the baby up for adoption, the young mother battles great odds to raise her mixed-race daughter. The filmmakers never tell us what happened to the father. But hey, why bother? He was a man, wasn't he? Since he was so young and cute, we can safely assume he didn't die of cancer; he must have just walked.

Instead of showing us what makes any of these women remarkable (as opposed to, say, merely pathetic or disillusioned), the filmmakers mistakenly assume we will find poignance in their lost innocence. The ensemble cast is truly impressive; from Maya Angelou to Jean Simmons, the lead actresses deliver winning performances. But How to Make an American Quilt confuses extraordinary performers with extraordinary characters, as if just by casting Maya Angelou you bestow dramatic heft upon the part she plays no matter how thinly written.

I guess that kind of miscalculation is to be expected of filmmakers who would turn a plot on a violent windstorm that suddenly appears out of nowhere and changes everybody's lives. The laughs come cheap, too. You're supposed to howl at the scandalous behavior of Hy and Glady as they share a joint with Generation Xer Finn. Hate to spoil the slumber party, but we live in a time when real-life grandmothers deal crack; smoking pot seems quaint by comparison. Besides, the hip-old-lady shtick started losing its comedic edge sometime around 1972's Harold and Maude. If you're the type of person who busts a gut at the thought of sexagenarians Bancroft and Burstyn bouncing around exuberantly when a Neil Diamond tune plays over a car radio, this movie is for you. (My favorite bit was probably unintended by the filmmakers; I couldn't suppress a chuckle when Mrs. Robinson, er, I mean, Anne Bancroft, launched into a heartfelt lecture on the consequences of infidelity.)

Then there's the dialogue. How can any mildly serious movie fan stifle the gag reflex at lines like "Before long I told him about my broken heart and he told me his thoughts on poetry and love?" And what does Finn learn from all that sage advice she gets from her elders? In a word, nothing. "There are no rules you can follow," she concludes. "You have to go by instinct." Hopefully, instinct will convince audiences to avoid this pointless patchwork.

Of course, as you might have gathered from my byline, I'm a guy. How to Make an American Quilt is definitely not a guy film. As I squirmed impatiently in my theater seat waiting for this estrogen overdose to end, I couldn't help but notice that most of my fellow audience members -- a high percentage of whom were not guys -- appeared to be enjoying How to Make an American Quilt as thoroughly as I despised it. In the theater lobby after the screening two non-guys of my acquaintance, Vera Slawnitsch and Jami Renard, made an impassioned argument in favor of the film. They persuaded me to print their dissenting opinion of the film's merits from the Venusian perspective:

For all you hopeless romantics out there, this is a movie that's both heartwarming and realistic. Each main character's story, though ultimately disheartening, had an initial idealistic romantic outlook with which we could empathize. The film did not paint the most favorable picture of men, but each character's experiences helped open Finn's eyes to what she had all along in Sam A a soulmate. Just as it took various pieces of fabric, many hands, and much perseverance to make a quilt, so did that panoply of experiences influence Finn's final decision. It is refreshing to encounter the warmth, understanding, forgiveness, and optimism expressed in these women's stories even if the feeling does last for only two hours.

Now let me get back to Mars.

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