Lampooning middle-class neuroses has long been a staple of television sitcoms. From the Bundys to the Simpsons, some of our most popular TV families are paragons of bourgeois dysfunction. But the big screen has been another story; mainstream Hollywood hasn't really gotten suburban angst right since The Graduate.
But not for lack of trying. Anyone remember Middle Age Crazy? How about Neighbors, The 'burbs, or just about any project with John Hughes's name attached to it? Mainstream filmmakers have enjoyed little success attempting to find the humor and the drama hiding behind the white picket fence. It's taken renegades like David Lynch (Blue Velvet), Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands), and John Waters (Pink Flamingos) to peel away the layers of prefab pseudo-civility. From Parenthood and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids through The Money Pit, Hollywood has generally played it safer than a CPA with three kids and an adjustable-rate mortgage.
My New Gun is a clever, ironic little film that chronicles one woman's journey from doormat to self-sufficiency, and adds writer-director Stacy Cochran's name to the short list of filmmakers who have managed to wrest something funny and insightful from House and Garden country.
It's not great cinema A there are too many unanswered questions and loose ends for that A but it's smart satire on a petite scale, bolstered by Diane Lane's disarmingly adroit portrayal of Debbie Bender, a young housewife married to a successful but boring radiologist named Gerald. Irwin Bloom is Gerald's best friend and a fellow doctor; the two of them play racquetball together and have protracted discussions about the relative merits of Gore-Tex jackets. As the film opens, Irwin has presented his girlfriend Myra with a diamond engagement ring and an engraved handgun.
Gerald, who bases nearly all of his important decisions on Irwin's advice, decides it is time for Debbie to have a gun, too. Debbie protests, but Gerald lays down the law: "Everyone's armed. That's final." Gerald is, obviously, a jerk; it's no surprise that his wife is attracted to a mysterious neighbor, Skippy. Gerald dismisses Skippy as a criminal and a loser, and he might be right. But at least Skippy shows Debbie some respect.
Unfortunately, Gerald, Irwin, and Myra are not so much characters as caricatures: the boorish husband, the manipulative friend, the blushing bride-to-be. Savvy moviegoers will know from the opening scene not to take any of them seriously. It would have been nice if Cochran had at least given us some clue as to what Debbie saw in her husband in the first place. Security? Comfort? Was he a domineering, self-centered snob from the start or did he have to work at it?
And Cochran also neglects to tell us what makes Skippy any better. He's obviously hiding a dark secret or two; is danger the key to Skippy's allure? If so, what will happen if and when Debbie finally deciphers his enigma? The only thing we know for sure is that Debbie is drawn to Skippy because he isn't like Gerald, period.
But Cochran makes up for it with dead-on insight into the foibles of human nature and nimble plot devices, beginning with her able use of the gun as phallic symbol. Movie Rule Number One is that when a gun is introduced on-screen, you know it's going to get fired. Cochran wrings every ounce of tension out of the situation only to ultimately defuse it A the gun gets fired twice, once for target practice and once when Gerald, in a send-up of his lack of sexual prowess, accidentally shoots himself in the foot. Skippy, on the other hand, wields the rod like an experienced gunslinger. It seems only fitting that a female director would simultaneously illuminate and lampoon the gun-penis nexus.
Debbie declines when Skippy offers to dispose of her new gun for her, but he takes it anyhow. He says it's for her safety, but the truth is that he needs it more than she does. When Gerald finds out about the theft and confronts Skippy, a series of mishaps (beginning with Gerald's self-inflicted gunshot wound) land the radiologist in his own hospital for an extended stay and provide Debbie with a taste of freedom and a chance to indulge her curiosity about the boy next door. Which, of course, she does, or we wouldn't have much of a movie.
Cochran's special gift is her ability to wring laughs from her characters' behavior, from the mundane to the absurd. The director is at her best when she trains her keen, ironic eye on the curious details lurking just beneath the familiar surface of suburban life. Gerald shoots himself with the gun he bought at Irwin's suggestion and contracts botulism in the hospital from an egg salad sandwich Irwin brings him, yet his first reaction is to blame Debbie for his plight. Upon hearing the news that his wife has been treated for a stab wound to the arm, Gerald curses himself for not picking out a more stain-resistant upholstery for their car. Irwin and Myra's wedding is interrupted by a crazed gunman and a celebrity's drug overdose, yet the ceremony continues as if nothing happened. In scene after scene Cochran demonstrates her intuitive grasp of the unwritten code of the suburbs: ignore the unpleasantries and maybe they'll go away.
As Debbie learns from her new gun, it doesn't always work out that way.
Gerald lays down the law: "Everyone's armed. That's final.