It says something — though I’m not quite sure what — about the durability of Shakespeare’s plays that they continue to lend themselves to such a variety of reinterpretations. In recent years, they’ve been recast as family sagas in the Old West— as in King of Texas, adapted from King Lear — power struggles in the world of fast-food — as in Scotland, Pa., adapted from Macbeth — and, of course, as teen comedies. It was six years ago that 10 Things I Hate About You, a loose — like crack-whore loose — adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, introduced us to a nubile Julia Stiles and a Jheri-curled Heath Ledger. And now the writers of 10 Things, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, are back to prove once again their ability to read Cliffs Notes, this time as co-writers (with Ewan Leslie) of an adaptation of Twelfth Night, starring a couple of TV actresses as Viola and Olivia and an Abercrombie & Fitch model as Orsino. Like I said, I’m not so sure what this says about Shakespeare’s work.
In She’s the Man, the 2006 Viola (Amanda Bynes) is a soccer nut whose school has cut her team because not enough girls signed up. She tries to persuade the coach of the boys’ team to let her play on it, but he refuses because “Everybody knows girls aren’t as fast or strong or athletic as boys.” Her latent girl-power feminist aroused, Viola decamps for Illyria Prep, where she impersonates her twin brother Sebastian and joins their soccer team, determined to prove what she’s capable of and thus impress a scout from the University of North Carolina, where she hopes to win an athletic scholarship (though this seemingly significant plot point is dropped as soon as it’s introduced). Things get complicated when she begins to fall for her roommate Duke Orsino (Channing Tatum), who’s nursing a crush on Olivia Lennox (Laura Ramsey), who is soon swooning over sensitive, thoughtful “Sebastian.” Gender confusion, romantic confusion, and tampon-based running gags ensue.
The movie’s other issues aside, there’s something very unsettling about Bynes in drag. With her amorphous features and cheeks that still hold a bit of baby fat (though her body is as waifish as that of any respectable starlet), she’s able to not look like a girl, but she doesn’t really look much like an adolescent boy either. In her boy-wig and boy-clothes, she resembles a prepubescent 12-year-old, or perhaps an alien simulacrum of what a teenaged boy might look like. This demands a pretty substantial suspension of disbelief from the audience, but not so much as was expected of the actors — imagine being Ramsey and having to feign sexual attraction to this bizarre androgyne.
While She’s the Man derives its love triangle and the names of its characters from Twelfth Night, it owes at least as much to the 1985 teen sex romp Just One of the Guys, which itself owed an unacknowledged debt to Shakespeare’s plot. Its premise is the same — high-school girl underestimated by teacher and boyfriend transfers to a rival school and poses as a boy — and it lifts, without acknowledgement, a number of scenes: Viola almost gives away the gender-switch by admiring another girl’s shoes, she narrowly escapes exposure when a group of students is divided into teams of shirts and skins, and she sets off the sprinkler system in the boys’ showers to again avoid disrobing. Both drag kings overcompensate for their femininity by affecting an obnoxious, excessively butch (and, in Viola’s case, inexplicably African-American) manner, and both are mistaken for being gay or incredibly wimpy when they fail to say or do the expected “guy things.”
One of the reasons that Twelfth Night remains provocative even today is that the audience is called upon to see Viola as both male and female, to view her as those around her do while keeping in mind her true nature. Unsurprisingly, She’s the Man deals with the complications of gender and amorphous adolescent sexuality on the most superficial level — writing 400 years ago, Shakespeare was more relevant to our sexually ambivalent times. Wouldn’t Duke, who at one point makes out with Viola in her feminine guise, later (at least) subconsciously recognize her and feel some uncomfortable attraction toward “Sebastian?” Wouldn’t Olivia, who falls hard for “Sebastian” — who, naturally, is the antithesis of the lunkhead jocks that otherwise make up the male population of Illyria Prep — have some questions about herself when she learns the truth? If so, the director, Andy Fickman, isn’t concerned, or maybe DreamWorks forbade him to care — they wouldn’t want to risk putting anyone off by actually thinking through the story’s implications. Whatever the reason, the movie takes the safest, least interesting route — given the most sexually ambiguous situations possible, it punts every time. Nor does it look at gender difference in a way that goes beyond modestly undermining a few tired stereotypes. It may be a surprise to some in Bynes’ tweeny fan base that girls can be proficient athletes or that jocks can have feelings, but they certainly won’t learn any deeper truths here.
Of course, no one goes to a movie like She’s the Man looking for insights into the human condition, but that doesn’t mean a clever filmmaker can’t sneak them in. In 10 Things, McCullah Lutz and Smith were at least able to acknowledge the spoiled-white-upper-middle-classness of their spoiled, white, upper-middle-class characters; here we get an upcoming Junior League cotillion as a significant subplot, and the movie goes no further than to gently suggest that those uptight WASPs might be a smidge behind the times in their views of women’s roles. Overall, 10 Things was sharper, more subversive, more sexually frank, and just generally more fun, and its leads were far more interesting and charismatic. Still, watching She’s the Man, I found myself laughing at a lot more jokes than I’d expected and squirming in empathy with Viola’s awkwardness far more often than I would have liked. In keeping with the standards of the teen-romance ideal, Tatum and Ramsey are as vapid as they are pretty, but Bynes has some charisma, and some of the supporting cast — particularly Alex Breckenridge, who’s a delight as Viola’s nemesis Monique — help to keep things lively. And, as in 10 Things, some of the best moments are provided not by the adolescent leads but by the older actors making cameo appearances; as Illyria’s headmaster, David Cross (“Arrested Development”) is to this movie what Allison Janney was to its predecessor, and the redoubtable Julie Hagerty shows once again that she’s matured into being one of the funniest uptight moms in the business. With their help, She’s the Man provides the minimum entertainment value necessary to justify a viewing but, for those looking for a more enjoyable way to waste their time, I suggest adjusting your Netflix queue.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
She's the Man / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()