Lost in Transition: Mackenzie Davis and Friends, between Marketing and the Male Gaze - Part II

Image credits: CANADA DRY: The stunning Nicole aka Mackenzie Davis in the otherwise lacklustre ‘What If’ (2013). I would have called it ‘What the F*#k’!

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD



"We are what we are because we have been what we have been, and what is needed for solving the problems of human life and motives is not moral estimates but more knowledge."

--- Freud


"A woman is a mystery to guide a wise and open man."

--- Rumi



Canadian On Top

Well, that's enough of the philosophy-psychology stuff from yesterday. Time for some more philo-psyche stuff, starting Mackenzie Davis. What If, originally titled The F Word, is a romantic comedy set in Canada about a medical dropout named Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe aka Harry Potter) who becomes ‘just' friends (hah!) with a girl – Chantry (Zoe Kazan) – presumably loyal to her boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall). Mackenzie playing Nicole sadly is a tangential character, the girl that falls for Wallace's best friend Allan (Adam Driver, the guy who almost singlehandedly ruined the Star Wars sequels). She does her job very competently, playing a kind of sex-crazed, beer and cigarettes partly girl who believes in risking it all and cheating on current and ex-boyfriends. I've heard MD's incredibly shy in real life but she pulls it off so masterfully here you'd never imagine that about her in a million years, and her husky voice and height helps a lot too. More than that, she's the only person in the whole movie who understands her character, not to mention ‘has' a character. You sense that Nicole is an aristocratic girl who wants to be a casually dressed, tomboyish rebel party girl, short dark painted nails and all; the girl on top. Her commanding tone of voice and tasteful clothes at her engagement-wedding scene give her true nature away though, not to mention her gold bracelets the first time we see her. And she's the only one of them who changes with time, using her haircut and body posture to convey maturation; the rest of the cast look like they were left in the fridge for too long, and are about as ‘deep' as a kiddie pool.


ON THE LOOKOUT: Chantry (Zoe Kazan), a Californian Eve searching for a British Adam. The global village is getting too tight for my tastes!


I'm pretty darn sure this is all of MD's doing. When I'd watched Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town I noticed the scene where Izzy kisses the pregnant belly of Casey (Meghan Lennox), which struck me as a very masculine-fatherly thing to do. Look here and you see a pregnant Nicole having her belly kissed by her hubby in the near same fashion. Actors often imitate themselves from previous movies, even mouthing lines they've used before, but they imitate other actors in those older movies. Talk about self-learning AI engines!

In one cool scene Macke... err, Nicole plays a prank on Wallace and Chantry to force them to share a sleeping bag together while naked. Not that anything actually transpired in this Adam and Eve scene, amazingly enough, but you can guess what does happen by the end of the movie, so I won't waste any time on it. My main qualm about an otherwise entertaining and funky movie is that they really should have called it Canadians Behaving Badly, or more specifically, Canadians behaving badly ‘because' they're behaving like Americans. Half the cast is American, Canada is hardly mentioned explicitly by name and the accents are very generic and the jokes facsimile – like Allan's fad obsessions with faeces and cannibalism, and the whole Elvis eating while defecating thing. (Pooey, and in more than one way). The epitome of this comes up in the bar scene in Dublin where Chantry (what an annoying name) is repeating a joke she'd had with her friends about Cool Whip and her boyfriend's colleagues are too ‘cultured' to respond properly. Egyptian friends who've lived in Canada always tell me Canadians are much more cultured than their neighbours to the south, and the food there is better. Better and more culturally diverse. (There's some jibes about Asia here, such as where Wallace ultimately gets his degree, and ‘Eurasia', but it still doesn't make any sense given that there's lots of China town-type scenes and Nicole has a lovely sleek and sexy Chinese dress at her engagement party. (Are Canadians angry about losing jobs and industry to China?)

Canadians are also more culturally diverse than Americans but here you only see the odd minority type, in unimportant roles, with culturally diverse foods reduced to nachos and sushi, without any stir-fry and Canadian bacon in sight. Bacon is referred to only in the Italian Fool's Gold dish, which itself is associated with Elvis. (Didn't hear any French words either, but you do hear American-style lingo like ‘ciao', ‘federal law', unsafe pre-packaged foods and ‘eating disorders', and action man Bruce Willis, even after he stopped being a role-model thanks to Demi Moore). Wallace then bemoans German cars although Germans and Americans drive on the same side of the road, as if he's some cultural throwback. He certainly insists on precision in English. But most galling of all is that Ben, Chantry's potential hubby, is portrayed as the wussy jealous type who almost deserves to lose her because he tells Wallace off for trying to get close to his girl. This is done in a stupid and transparent way, having him preparing dinner for Chantry's newfound male friend, then getting chilli peppers in his eye. For some unmentionable reason it never crosses his mind or the mind of anybody else there, including medical expert Wallace, for Ben to wash his eyes out with water from the kitchen sink, which is right next to him. Then Wallace accidentally knocks him out the window and Ben becomes a cry baby worried about being paralysed from the waist down. He's also too neglectful of the home front, another cliché, too non-committal to marry Chantry while pursuing his career abroad. (I suspect he stands in for the forces of globalisation, being an international copyright expert. The actor, Rafe Spall, is actually English. Hrm. Well this is a CBS Film production). There's even a contrast of sorts between Wallace and Allan, and Allan as you can expect is on the winning side of that equation because of his no hesitation policy – not to mention the obvious size differential. Wallace is always portrayed as pensive about betrayal because his parents were busy betraying each other all the time, as if it's selfish to keep a woman all to yourself.

Is it a coincidence then that Wallace is portrayed as selfish in the sushi bar scene; doesn't want to share his food, contrasted to the scene with the two (disgusting) Fool's Gold sandwiches when he and Chantry makeup? A contrast is also set up, implicitly, between Chantry and Nicole (isn't that a French name) who are equally blonde, since she is freaked out that Wallace actually fantasies about her body, her and her fairytale view of life and romance. (Hence all those misplaced floating cartoons of hers, and she has a cry baby/selfish quality too that comes out in the nude beach scene). There's also the equal opposite pairing of Chantry and her hotter sister Dalia (Megan Park). Dalia is the more Californian looking of the two, even though Zoe Kazan is actually from California while Megan Park is Canadian. An added litmus test for how Americanized this all is Allan's remark about how he doesn't want to even think about his cousin, Chantry, in a sexual way because that's incestuous – and yet it's okay to speculate about cannibalism?

To be fair, not that there's any reason to be, you did feel that they were pocking fun of Americans and their romantic comedies here, even if at a bare minimum. You have the scene where Nicole tells Wallace and Adam that they should be talking about the big issues of the day such as gay marriage and not whether boys and girls can just be friends. But such ‘big' issues have already been settled, in Canada. So that's enough of that. Now a proper American movie, that's even more morally lax and anti-commitment. Turns out that before Mackenzie Davis did A Country Called Home (2015) she'd starred alongside Imogen Poots in a romantic comedy, That Awkward Moment (2014).

Well Awkward Moment is a very funny movie and MD, while playing a lesser character (Chelsea), adds a lot to the story. She plays a cultured New York sophisticate, always tasteful dressed and lives in a plush, cosy apartment that is both modern and classical. I suspect MD's made the best of her years in New York to figure out how to schmooze with the jet set like she was one of them. (MD fan Janice Caluscos was more than right to describe her as ‘demure' and like Princess Diana. As a man I don't automatically catch onto these things). You have to hand it to her, she really knows how to make the most of what she's given to do, no matter how small the part. The way she curls her lower lip, the way she breathes and swallows to move her throat and tummy, the tension round her left eye and her shoulders. She's such a disciplined and thoughtful actress and completely natural at the same time. You also suspect MD interjects in the writing, given her preference for place-names for her characters – Chelsea, Yorkie (San Junipero), Petra (Freaks of Nature).

The emotional highpoint of the movie is actually the scene where Chelsea sings while playing the piano, and with a very husky, bluesy voice indeed. (I had a hunch MD could play the piano and we've seen her signing credentials in Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town). You literally fall in love with her, like her future boyfriend who sits in awe watching her. Sadly the real heroes of this farce are three dudes, the softy, softy Jason (Zac Efron), Daniel (Miles Teller, the dweeb from the Fantastic Four reboot) and an African American, Mikey (Michael B. Jordan). They all have girl trouble, the first two never being able to commit, and the third because he commits too much – his wife, the luscious Vera (Jessica Lucas), betrays him with a less attractive black man. (Well at least he wasn't white, or that would have really hurt). Daniel is the most committed to bachelorhood and even gets his friend, Chelsea, to get dates for him to bed and forget about afterwards. (Gives ‘pimp my ride' a whole other meaning). In one particularly annoying scene he's talking to Chelsea about how he's the best man in the world to receive bj's (no comment) and how that's what he expects primarily from a woman, and she laughs along with him. This is hardly gentlemanly or considerate of what women want and like. (Frank Sinatra would never have talked that way, even behind a woman's back). Contrast this is the bj scene in the bar in Bad Turn Worse or how one of the character's himself is called B.J. – more on this below. Jason is the one who wants to commit but can't at the same time, perturbed about how women dump him in the end. Poor Mikey, like I said, is the one who is committed but has nothing to show for it. Then Daniel begins to fall for Chelsea, realising he was jealous for her all along, and they have really touching moments together – you can tell the actor really likes MD, the way he repeatedly strokes her shoulder and her arm in two scenes. (So it's okay ‘now' to be jealous and protective and use that as an ultimate test of true love and possessiveness).


Friends 2.0

As for Jason, he has sex with a great gal, Ellie (Imogen Poots), only to mess it up and keeps going back to his temporary relationships; the actress has made a good transition to American roles accent-wise and not just as southerners. Meanwhile Mikey resumes his relationship with his wife, till he discovers she's still cheating on him and with the same guy, leaving his clothes at her husband's place. (Dude, that's cold). The three technicolour dudes however never admit to these permanent-type relationships because they all agree to live it up as bachelors, which almost ruins everything, including their own friendship. In one particularly hilarious scene Daniel and Chelsea are doing it in a bathroom during thanksgiving at her family's house, and Jason walks in to take a leak, then Mikey comes in too and the door is left open for the whole family to see what their daughter is getting up to. (If Chelsea was my daughter I'd never let her out of the house!) In the end Daniel and Chelsea get back together, Mikey finds another girl (who isn't white) and Jason finally apologises to Ellie for not being there for her when her dad died. (Mikey insists he go, if only out of politeness, but Jason promptly forgets this). Like I said it's a funny movie but you kept finding things that bugged you the whole time you were watching it. I hated the way they treated Mikey, making him the butt of all their gender-related gags, such as when he uses self-tanning cream on his private parts and its gives them a funny colour. They constantly show him as someone who is busy whinging and complaining (like a cry baby) and forgetting his womanising skills almost as if he's someone who's been emasculated. Notice how he eats his emotions, through the ice cream – something women are supposed to do when they break up. He's actually the most manly among the trio and I don't just mean on account of the muscles and not needing Viagra. (The Viagra toilet scenes were hilarious, by the way).

Mikey by pure coincidence is the person who conforms the most to the traditional idea of the American dream, somebody who worked hard and studied and made himself respectable, becoming a doctor and getting married and having a nice home and all this despite his minority status. Daniel and Jason by contrast work in the fakery business, making front covers for cheesy books by tapping into consumer needs and anxieties. Jason himself explains that he doesn't like or respect the job that much, its' hardly challenging or rewarding, and when he gets a job contract from Ellie because they've resumed their relationship, Daniel describes him as a whore because he's now getting business deals in exchange for sex. But does the system reward hardworking minority-types like Mikey? Hell no – Vertigo all over again. And what happens at the end? Mikey pursues the single lifestyle to the fullest by phoning up the girl he met, and wouldn't you know it, she's a geek that wears glasses. That's the reward he gets? (I like her, incidentally). The philosophy of the movie seems to be yes we should commit and no longer be members of the selfish generation, but not to the point of ‘marriage', because that's too hard to get out of if things go wrong. That's like the Animal Farm principle of equality among some animals more than others. They should call these kids the ‘selfie' generation. (All these proscribed modes of misbehaviour, its' like watching Egyptian TV-cinema, on acid!)

Even Mikey's sense of manly commitment is trashed at one point when Vera reminds him how he's been avoiding the tough choice of having kids. Is he infertile, we are lead to wonder, or just a coward? Neither if you ask me. This is just an example of bad writing. Someone who doesn't have time to have sex with his wife – a six month lull, can you believe it – because he wants to save up money for their future, which implies kids. You also feel that he's being portrayed as the ‘throwback' to the bygone era of homophobia. (Wallace, the stickler for sexual morality, also keeps quiet about Allan's same-sex experimenting).

When Jason goes into the bathroom to take a leak he doesn't knock on the door first to see if anyone is already inside; Mikey barges in too. That's not very polite but more than that its' not what men do since we don't like to go into a toilet to find someone taking a leak while standing; let only talking in the bathroom, a so-called girlish thing to do. Mikey is the only one who complains at Daniel touching him with his penis, and no explanation is given as to why Daniel never pulls his trousers up the whole time. Mikey is the new Ross Geller, in other words. (Jason and Daniel are more like Chandler Bing, who gets mistaken for being gay for being raised by his mom – hence the sex store scene where they looked for dildos on sale – and you can say something similar about Allan in the previous movie). People can believe anything they want to believe and are more than welcome to express it artistically and stir up the flaccid waters of debate on controversial issues. Hence, Paul Schrader movies like American Gigolo, Hardcore and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, William Friedkin with Cruising or the many French movies I've cited and the odd Egyptian movie I've written about in the past. (Not so much the Italians though, contra "San Junipero", the pick of the bunch).


DYNAMITE DUO: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Kelly) and Mackenzie Davis (Yorkie) from ‘San Junipero'. Nothing sells like sincerity, even in the electronic afterlife!


The ‘issue' however is sincerity. Awkward Moment is trying to have it both ways. Men are portrayed as soft and understanding and comfortable with their sexuality and at the same time insist on having sex with women in ways that are not very cordial to the women. How else can you explain the endless doggy-style sex scenes with women cooperating wholeheartedly? Even Ellie is smiling gleefully when Jason does it that way with her, and that's on their first joyous encounter. (Watch Bad Turn Worse, you have the badguy played by Mark Pellegrino making endless same-sex allusions about bj's, to freak Bobby out, then he has Sue kidnapped and threatens to force her into degrading sexual acts involving her mouth, and then have her raped, doggy style, to further degrade her). Worse still on the insincerity scale the white duo of Jason and Daniel aren't nearly as secure as they make out to be, given that Daniel is portrayed as unmanly, using self-tanning cream to look more butch, while Jason complains about him always using his toilet seat. (Is he afraid of shit stains, body hair or gonorrhoea?) There's also Jason's pensiveness about being seen, in the nude, having sex with an ex-girlfriend when Mikey walks in on him. Doggy-style again, although Daniel never does that with Chelsea, thank heavens. (It's like somebody told him off in real-life or the actor's own conscience got the better of him. B.J. in Bad Turn Worse doesn't just touch the back of Sue's neck, he caresses it, massaging out the tension in the tendons).

The sexual politics on display then is just shallow entertainment and they're doing it in a discriminatory way to boot, making themselves feel good by pissing on somebody else. Shades of Allan vs. Wallace and Wallace vs. Ben from What If. And, to be honest, even What If is downright sexist since Chantry is portrayed as the prissy prom queen type; hint, Below Her Mouth. As an acid test check out the scene where she's in the water with Wallace. She freaks out, feeling something touching her leg, something you always see in a schlock horror movie with baby piranha or electric eels or something. It functions like a banana peel to stop sex happening. The movie is trying to say there is nothing wrong with a man wanting her ‘only' for her body (remember the derogatory email Wallace sends her) and that there is something wrong with insisting on friendship being friendship.

So much for live and let live. Then again, its horny, irresponsible teenagers that go to the movie theatres so you have to ‘humour' them. Now to get to our last remaining cinematic topic, the reboot of the Matrix and how it's sardonically related to all this – by ‘not' being related to it!




Emad Aysha

Academic researcher, journalist, translator and sci-fi author. The man with the mission to bring Arab and Muslim literature to an international audience, respectably.
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