Sunday, June 21, 2020

Miss Independent: MR. WRONG

Ellen DeGeneres is as omnipresent as celebrities get these days. We know it all. Over the past several decades she successfully worked up the stand-up ranks, headlined a network sitcom that was never more noticed than when she came out — a brave decision that also sent her into a showbiz wilderness for some years before her comeback playing the voice of an iconic animated character in Finding Nemo and dancing her way to becoming America’s nice, funny, pleasant talk show friend. The subsequent trials and tribulations of her public image — from being in an early celebrity gay marriage, to stumbling in her out-of-touch responses to our current political moment — her every career moment is well known to the general public. And yet, through love for and irritation with Ellen, not to mention nostalgia for 90’s pop culture, this knowledge all-too rarely includes Mr. Wrong, a failed attempt to turn her into a movie star. It was an instant flop and remains largely forgotten at best, a punchline at worst. The years have not made it a better movie, but what we now know about its lead makes it more weirdly compelling than it would’ve seemed at the time.

By 1994, Ellen’s charmingly observational stand-up got her a sitcom, the career path many of her contemporaries (Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, et al) followed. In her show, she maneuvered through mild farce with a group of friends. It was very 90’s, and coasted off her considerable charms. You can see why an executive would want her starring in a feature film. But in 1996’s Mr. Wrong, she’s the lead in a movie caught awkwardly between comedy and suspense. It’s immediately apparent why it has been forgotten.

She plays a single 31-year-old morning talk show producer who just can’t find a man. Surrounded by romances and well-intentioned pestering, she vows to ignore pressures to find a guy and settle down. Then Bill Pullman walks into her life. They have a brief affair – including unconvincing love scenes – until she follows a sinking feeling and breaks up with him. Her reasons double as explanation of the movie’s failings. “Sometimes it’s about chemistry, you know. Sometimes [it] works and sometimes you get an explosion, or a really bad smell.”

Pullman’s character has sinister notes from the beginning. His idea of a good time is shoplifting. He offers to break his finger to prove his love for her. (He does; she’s not flattered.) But after the break-up, rejection turns him into an entitled stalker demanding her hand in marriage. What starts as romantic comedy gets progressively weirder, closer in tone to Ben Stiller’s dark comedy The Cable Guy (also ’96) than what Nora Ephron had Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan doing at the time. (One wonders what Ephron’s sweet-and-tart tone could’ve brought to this project.) Here Pullman is aggressive, mailing expensive gifts, making a scene at the opera, lurking outside her window dressed as a clown (creepy), and trying to sabotage her career.

There’s an even creepier, and funnier, subplot about his ex-girlfriend (Joan Cusack). She’s hilariously deranged. We are told she once tried to assassinate Stevie Nicks. Eventually she kidnaps Ellen, attacking her with a jar of hungry ants before trying to stab her with a Swiss Army Knife. With Pullman and Cusack hunting and threatening her, Ellen hires a private investigator (Dean Stockwell) who doesn’t take the situation as seriously as you’d hope. It’s clear this is no usual rom-com, and it’s failings to be so shouldn’t be held against it. With these eccentric supporting roles, it’s working up to a dark farcical gender-swapped 90’s echo of the peak 80’s woman-scorned thrillers like Fatal Attraction.

As the threats to Ellen develop, director Nick Castle (best known for The Last Starfighter) uses suspense techniques. Low angles, rapid zooms, spinning 360-degree dollying, and emphatic insert shots make appearances. There’s a dissolve from an overflowing cup of tomato juice to a red train roaring by. This would be more effective if the screenplay (attributed to three writers, including Bill & Ted’s Chris Matheson and Bates Motel's Kerry Ehrin) wasn’t also tepidly joking around. Laughs are rare, and the tone is off. It’s wobbly, uncomfortable more than funny.

On Ellen’s talk show and in her stand up, if a joke doesn’t quite go over, she can sometimes sell it just by holding the pause, grinning until she gives a little half laugh, amusing herself. She uses that here, like she knew this thing was going to be a tough sell. Critics, understandably perplexed, wrote off the movie when it opened on Valentine’s Day weekend. It went on to earn just under $13 million before limping out of theaters. But now we know more about Ellen, and it makes Mr. Wrong more worthy of note.

It came out the year before she did, in a Very Special Episode and on Time’s cover. Now there’s poignancy to the panic setting in as her character struggles to extricate herself from increasingly scary heteronormative demands. The movie opens on Ellen wearing a wedding dress inside a Mexican prison, a statement of subtextual purpose (marriage can be a jail cell), before flashing back to the story’s beginning. The climax finds psychotic Pullman attempting to marry her at gunpoint. A children’s choir sings “I Want to Know What Love Is” as she walks down the aisle – in a double dolly shot straight out of a Spike Lee film – fearing for her life. It’s a good, if probably unintended, metaphor for the discomfort of anyone feeling pressure to fit into a norm they’re not meant to fit.

It’s not hard to see Mr. Wrong as a story of nonconformity. Everyone presses this poor woman into a relationship with Mr. Wrong, well past the point he’s clearly a danger. Seen from this perspective, it becomes a much more interesting film. Not a significantly better film, mind you, but interesting. Note how other characters don’t seem to find Pullman as odd or unrelatable as she does and how, right up until the end, no one seems to find events as strange as she does. The movie ultimately hinges on a woman loosening the shackles of hetero relationships and becoming a happier person for it. So what if the movie’s not good in the way its ostensible genre demands? Its very failures and retroactive subtext make it interesting, coloring in darker elements. It’s uneven, to be sure, but funny and creepy, with awkwardness more earnest and more fascinating than most guessed at the time.

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