Tears for Julie Johnson

The other night, my friend Erik brought Bob Gosse’s Julie Johnson over. This American indie film about a bored New Jersey housewife who enrolls in a computer course at community college, dumps her chauvinist husband, and embarks on a tentative lesbian relationship with her best friend did the festival circuit back in 2001. Lili Taylor plays the titular disaffected wife. Courtney Love and Liz Phair provide the feminist music geek intrigue as co-star and film composer. Spalding Gray is involved for some reason. Regrettably, this is not enough. The problems begin with Gosse’s and Wendy Hammond’s script and snowball from there. And even though Erik and I talked through the whole thing (while eating these delicious vegan lemon maple scones), I believe we had a handle on what was going on. Johnson is supposedly a mathematical genius on par with fellow working-class northeasterner Will Hunting. But like Good Will Hunting, the movie’s not that deep.

Taylor and Love look as disappointed as I am; image courtesy of mtv.com

First of all, the script is terrible. New Jersey’s transportation department can’t fix these plotholes (SLICE!). Johnson is a mathematical genius who hasn’t finished high school? Sure, there are lots of brilliant high school dropouts. But the movie explains that she has an intuitive understanding of abstract mathematic and scientific applications from reading scientific magazines. While many people display mathematic aptitude regardless of whether they complete school, I’m pretty sure you can’t divine this kind of ability, especially from magazines that contain verbiage you don’t understand. Articles like Janet Cooke’s “Jimmy’s World” were revealed to be fabrications, in part, by sloppy characterization that didn’t make sense. A child heroin addict can be gifted in math, but can Jimmy do exceptionally well on his homework if he is usually truant? Math builds on concepts. People don’t understand probability if they’re shaky on ratios. 

This extends past math. I’ve been faking my way through “gender performativity” and “repetition” for years. I’ve yet to successfully read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter cover to cover. I know doing so will require a thesaurus, a dry erase board, a study group, and probably some sock puppets.  

Also, Johnson keeps these contraband “scientific” magazines in the pantry so her husband (Noah Emmerich) doesn’t see them. You get it? Because cooking is woman’s work. The woman’s place is in the kitchen, not at school. Still, are we to believe he wouldn’t throw together a sandwich and not see the archive she’s keeping behind the peanut butter?

Mischa Barton plays Johnson’s petulant daughter, Lisa. As an O.C. fan who knows Leighton Meester is Joan Collins’ true heir apparent, I relied on Barton’s acting to be stiff and her accent inscrutable. But there’s a paper to be written about Barton’s involvement with projects that contain lesbian storylines, however disappointing. I’m not sure if it is to be read, but I know there’s a through line. Actually, I tried writing it as a grad student when I turned in my final essay for Feminist TV Criticism on Marissa and Alex’s arc as lovers on the second season of The O.C. Shortly after Johnson, Barton and Evan Rachel Wood played girlfriends on Once and Again. She also starred as a Russian girl in love with her friend and t.A.T.u. in You and I. I kinda want to watch the t.A.T.u. movie with Erik at some point, but don’t expect a blog post on it. The movie sat on the shelf for three years and it used t.A.T.u. as a point of identification and marketing tool–we know it’s terrible.

"Hey! Remember me? I liked girls for about nine episodes in season two to help boost ratings."; image courtesy of nypost.com

Phair’s contributions leave much to be desired. I’ll go along with comparisons between Funstyle and Girlysound, but I cannot abide the forgettable shlock turned in here. Unlike the thirty seconds of Phoenix’s “Love Like a Sunset” that loops throughout Somewhere, Phair actually wrote some new material for Johnson and collaborated with composer Angelo Badalamenti. Julee Cruise is one of the few things I like about Twin Peaks (beyond Nadine and the Log Lady, of course). Suffice is to say, Liz Phair is no Julee Cruise. She’s also trying so hard to sound like Sheryl Crow at this point in her career that it makes me sad. Musically, Johnson opens with whitechocolatespaceegg clunker “Uncle Alvarez” and declines. Montages unfold. Hearts break. Lessons are learned. Guitars are strummed. No one cares.

Taylor is fine here. She deviates very little from the accent she gave Patti in Girls Town, but thankfully dispenses with the chola minstrelsy. Love is clearly trying really hard to lose herself in hardscrabble Claire. She’s slightly better here than she is in 200 Cigarettes and The People Vs. Larry Flynt, which is kind of an insult, but I enjoy on some level how Courtney Courtney is in both of those ostensibly bad movies. Drea De Matteo would have been better.

Gabby Hoffmann and Christina Ricci, two of the three true stars of 200 Cigarettes (the third one is obviously Dave Chappelle); image courtesy of agentlover.com

Regrettably, the leads don’t have chemistry with one another. This is ultimately Johnson‘s true failing. I’m sad that Claire goes back to her lobotomized meatloaf of a husband, but the creature comforts heteronormativity provides do break apart some queer couples. On some level, I’m actually glad they break up. If Claire is scared she’ll lose friends if she embarks on a relationship with her closest confidant, Johnson deserves someone better. However, the script comes to these events in such haste that I’m unsatisfied. Johnson finds peace with the loss of her closest friend somehow, and the movie ends with her gazing at stars with her lecherous professor (Gray, typecast). Maybe among the cosmos, Johnson can find how this movie lost its way.

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