This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Sally Jane Black’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I am unsure where to start.
Look, I was making red sauce. It takes about 2 hours, so accounting for breaks when I have to pay attention to cooking, a 90 minute film is just right. But it needs to be one I don't mind having my attention half-divided, so I kinda wanted something I assumed would be mind-bogglingly stupid but not offensively stupid. I'd heard that this one had a feminist edge to it, but only an edge. Feminist flavoring, but not genuine feminism. So I tried it out.
It has much more than feminist flavor. It's more accurately described as feminist-unfeminist swirl. It turns broad stereotypes on their head but not in cliche ways: Elle is very smart, but her initial focus is still on fashion and her boyfriend. It features female rivalry, rivalry over a man even, but that rivalry blossoms into friendship at the man's expense. It defines success through a traditional, male-oriented career, but takes pains to depict that success through a female perspective. It has an insufferable little dog in it, but it doesn't let the fucking thing eat up screen time. In these ways (err, except maybe that last one), it sets up strong feminist qualities.
On the other hand, it still equates happiness with male-female relationships in several cases (the exception to this is the best part of the film, which I'll detail further down). It seems to be body-positive, but the message is distinctly muddled. We have a brief discussion that hand waves away certain body image issues without giving it its due. The film also features a pretty ugly set of homophobic stereotypes in the form of one of the two minor characters that provide any diversity of skin color (the other is the judge, who is a black woman, which... hell yeah). The unfortunate stereotyping is played for laughs and presented as a moment of triumph for the straight white male lawyer (played by the bland Wilson brother--which one? exactly!), and that single moment drags the film down further than any other flaw. (If you want to say here that this has nothing to do with feminism, I have no time for you.)
(Regarding the lack of diversity in the film, I have to admit the lack of it in the Harvard admission council scene was fitting and almost subversive. I feel like these days a savvy comedy like this would have inserted some token characters there--hell, there might even be more diversity at Harvard than was depicted--but as a symbol of the Ivy elite world, a room full of old, out-of-touch white men was appropriate. It might have just been my projecting, but I felt like it was a very intentional depiction of Harvard there.)
The strongest moment in the film is a moment of feminist subversion. A scene late in the film seems almost to set up a manipulation and betrayal--Vivian goes to Elle and seeks to bond, and I fully expected it to become about getting information out of her because I cynically assumed that of course that's how Hollywood would depict them--but instead turns into genuine bonding. In the end, Vivian's happy ending is shown to simply be that she is friends with Elle. It does not suggest that she needs a man, nor is she defined in any other way by them. Indeed, when she thinks briefly that Elle is simply sleeping her way to the top, she reverts to antagonistic. It's the one unadulterated bright spot that she instead finds a meaningful friendship, and that almost all of the female characters are shown to be close and supportive and empowering with a few exceptions.
It's not a masterpiece. It's deeply flawed on many levels, but it's much better than I expected.