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'He's Just Not That Into You' and 'Greg Behrendt's Wake Up Call'

One absolves men of their romantic obligations. The other eventually makes them own up to their failings.

February 08, 2009|Jon Caramanica

"He's Just Not That Into You," in movie theaters this weekend, plays in moments like an instructional film, with characters speaking in boxy, formulaic sentences meant to assure or warn women of how they can truly read the men in their lives. It carries itself like a public service announcement: smug and certain and pedantic.

But in this case, even more important than the words is who's saying them. Here, the women being toyed with are among Hollywood's most radiant: Jennifer Aniston, Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Connelly, Drew Barrymore, Ginnifer Goodwin. And who are the men who can bring these attractive, confident, unattainable women to their knees? Ben Affleck (the least heartthrobby heartthrob of the last decade), Bradley Cooper (really?), Kevin Connolly (a sidekick) and Justin Long (The Mac guy, for heaven's sake!).

Turns out, shockingly, that this isn't at all a movie about empowering women to take control of their emotional lives or providing them with tools to improve their situations. Instead, it's a covert brainwashing, the result of which is to absolve these men -- all men -- of their romantic obligations. The subtext of the film is often astonishingly angry -- women are hapless, clueless, sometimes worthless.

Forget post-feminism -- this is feminism denial.

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Subtle differences

Initially, it appears that "Greg Behrendt's Wake Up Call" (SoapNet, 10 p.m. Thursdays), a sort-of "Extreme Makeover" for crumbling relationships, is cut from the same cloth. Behrendt is, with Liz Tuccillo, the author of "He's Just Not That Into You," the 2004 book on which the film is based, and a former writer on "Sex and the City" -- he coined the phrase that first entered the popular consciousness in a Season 6 episode. On this show (originally picked up by ABC but never aired) he cuts an appealingly dopey figure: spiky sandy blond hair, a wallet chain, dude duds. In other words, he's the Guy Fieri of dating advice. (This is Behrendt's second stab at television, after the failed talk show "The Greg Behrendt Show" in 2006.)

The first two episodes of its six-episode run -- the finale is this week -- suggested a "He's Just Not That Into You" playbook at work. In the second episode, the insecure Justin is fearful that his girlfriend, Sophia, doesn't want to commit, and she is concerned that he's unreasonably needy.

But the punishments don't fit the crimes. While Justin gets to learn about Brazilian drumming and go shopping -- things he is no good at, but still -- Sophia is forced to paint his apartment to demonstrate her commitment to the relationship, but really, it should be said, to take her down a peg. Similarly, in the premiere episode, Hannah wants her fiance, Chris, to be more driven and successful, but at the end of the show, it's mostly she who's changed her expectations as opposed to Chris changing his behavior.

To that point, it seemed like Behrendt was still primarily concerned with letting guys off the hook. By systematically lowering and deflating women's expectations, men can roam free, continuing to misbehave. If some happen to use their newfound freedom for the good of the relationship, all the better, but even though those two couples resolved their differences, recalibrating women's needs seemed to be the goal of the show.

It turns out, though, that Behrendt is a double agent: affable and gently stern when called for and far wiser than his appearance would indicate.

The series' final two episodes blessedly break from the show's typical arc.

Last week, high school sweethearts AJ and Jennifer had hit rock bottom, staying together solely out of habit and fear. Early on in the episode, it comes as a shock when Behrendt admits that almost all the flaws of the relationship can be traced to AJ. And it comes as an even greater one when AJ acknowledges it as well. By the end of the show, AJ has collapsed in tears in front of family and friends, owning up to his failures with Jennifer: "I treated her just like she was nothing to me."

This week, it first appears that Behrendt is reverting to his old ways, with an uptight medical student, Courtney, learning to better relate to her slacker boyfriend, Will. But midway through, the emphasis switches, and it's not too much of a giveaway to say that another nogoodnik is reformed. Or, as Behrendt puts it, "In short, Will got his gentleman on." Which was perhaps the long con all along.

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