According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, Writing Critics' Wrongs, our woman movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
Watching Charlie’s Angels in 2019 requires some fairly complex mental gymnastics. The action kicks off with a sequence that culminates in Drew Barrymore emerging from an LL Cool J skinsuit, Mission Impossible-style. Cameron Diaz answers a mail delivery by cheerfully informing the UPS guy that he can just stick in her slot next time. Meanwhile, Lucy Liu has to contend with her so-called sisters-in-arms dubbing the result of an ill-fated baking spree “Chinese fighting muffins.”
But even more dated than the plot, or some of its cringe-worthy twists and jokes, is the drooling, lascivious discourse around it at the time of its release. The film received mixed reviews when it hit theaters on November 3, 2000, but even the most positive reviews come off as negative when you consider the language used by mostly male critics to describe its woman protagonists.
Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman described a scene in which Barrymore’s Dylan fends off three attackers while attached to a chair as her “kicking her legs, clad in long black pants, right into the air, cocking them open like a V (presumably for victory rather than virgin).” Roger Ebert called it “eye candy for the blind,” and “a movie without a brain in its three pretty little heads.” Laughably, Tom McCarthy’s Variety review pondered whether men might have to worry about movies not being about them anymore, writing: “What with this and Ang Lee’s similarly female-slanted Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon poised to dominate the action market through the holidays, slighted-feeling boys may start wanting to get some of their own back.”
This isn’t an indictment of the critics themselves. It’s simply a paper trail proving just how much our culture has changed in a relatively short amount of time. It’s not like woman critics were effusive in their praise — but there is a marked difference in how they phrased their criticism, and what, in fact, they took umbrage with.
At L.A. Weekly, Manohla Dargis asked: “Of course, it’s terrible — but did it have to be this bad?” She also pointed out the lack of depth afforded to the only character of color, writing that “Liu’s defining trait seems to be that she isn‘t white.” At the Washington Post, Rita Kempley decried the film’s reliance on male fantasies to sell tickets, but also acknowledged its more subversive moments. “The movie gives Diaz (the adorable one) a chance to spoof the obligatory display of cleavage,” she wrote. ”At one point she and her partners have just emerged from the sea in their wetsuits when Diaz realizes she is not showing enough skin and unzips her clingy ensemble down to her navel.”
Less than two months away from a reboot directed by Elizabeth Banks starring Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, and Ella Balinska, the question of Charlie’s Angels’ legacy seems more relevant than ever. Was it just another vehicle for male sexual fantasies? Or did it subtly subvert those tropes, providing a rare example of female empowerment and friendship in one sleek, action-packed blockbuster package?
Honestly, I’d say both. The impact of Charlie’s Angels on young women growing up in the late ‘90s and early aughts cannot be overstated. Like the Aaron-Spelling produced show it’s based on — which famously starred Farrah Fawcett (she of the red bathing suit poster every male had in his room circa 1976), Kate Jackson, and Jaclyn Smith — it was a massive phenomenon. Grossing $125,305,545 million domestically, it was the 14th most successful film in a year that included the release of Gladiator (the eventual Best Picture winner), What Women Want, Erin Brokovich, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Destiny’s Child recorded one of their biggest hits, “Independent Women,” for the soundtrack, and Diaz single-handedly made one-shoulder tops one of the biggest trends of the era. (And right on schedule; they’re poised for a comeback.)
Though undeniably flawed, the movie, now available on Netflix, remains a surprisingly fun watch. Dylan, Alex, and Natalie (Barrymore, Liu, and Diaz, respectively) are the Angels, three private detectives working for an agency run by an anonymous millionaire named Charlie. Along with their sidekick and handler, Bosley (Bill Murray), they’re tasked with finding a kidnapped billionaire tech entrepreneur (Sam Rockwell) and rescuing the world from a potential privacy breach that could have life-altering consequences. (The idea of fighting to save privacy in the digital age is both terrifyingly prescient, and a quaint glimpse into the anxieties of a pre-9/11, pre-cell phone era.)
Does Charlie’s Angels cater directly the male gaze? Absolutely. You can take your pick of any number of scenes seemingly designed to make men squirm in their seats. The one that stands out involves Dylan, Alex, and Natalie at the race-track, their jumpsuit zippers pulled down to their navels as they “work” on their car. But what makes Charlie’s Angels interesting is that even while catering to men’s desires, it mercilessly mocks them. Immediately following that jumpsuit scene is one in which Dylan distracts a driver by literally tonguing his steering wheel so he won’t notice that Alex is in back bugging the vehicle. It’s a move that so parodies what men find sexy that it becomes strangely empowering.
Much of the film’s continued appeal comes down to the magical performances of its leads. Diaz does some of her best work as the awkward and inadequate Natalie, playing against her sexy typecasting. She is unbelievably gorgeous, but she’s also weird, and guileless, and there’s a truly hilarious shot of her in a mouthguard learning how to drive. With a killer smile, and an impressive mastery of the slo-mo hair-toss, she exudes the kind of star power that’s impossible to fake. The same goes for Barrymore, who keeps your eyes glued to the screen with a magnetic charisma that, despite what the critics above might have you believe, has almost nothing to do with her looks. And Liu — I mean, she wears a leather corset to cook! She literally cracks the whip on a bunch of tech nerds, and they thank her for it! She spends half the movie cosplaying as a dominatrix, and she’s taking names. (Also hilarious: She’s dating Matt LeBlanc, who seems to have taken ownership of Brad Pitt’s trailer from Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood.)
Jokes aside, Liu’s billing as one of the heroes in a blockbuster like Charlie’s Angels was a leap forward for representation. And though the film does deal in harmful stereotypes — Japanese culture is exoticized and fetishized to a disturbing degree — Liu’s character manages to avoid being typecast. She calls out Dylan and Natalie’s mildly racist comments rather than laughing them off, as might have previously been the norm. She’s not a math nerd, or a villain. And if the upcoming Charlie’s Angels adaptation has received praise for its diverse casting, we shouldn’t forget that it was Liu that paved the way.
The weakest link in Charlie’s Angels is its dialogue. Lines like “never send a man to do a woman’s job” are spoken unironically, smacking of an outdated concept equating empowerment with perfection. If Charlie’s Angels’ feminist ethos relied on women being good at absolutely everything, more modern interpretations have managed to find the power within the cracks of that myth of perfection. And still, there’s an effervescent joy to this movie that continues to feel fresh and unexpected in films about women protagonists. (Hot tip: Do not sleep on the end credit blooper reel.)
McG’s approach to action relies heavily on a post-Matrix brand of airborne kung-fu, which, though cool at the time, now feels like a nostalgic relic. Russell Carpenter’s richly saturated and vibrantly-colored cinematography, on the other hand, remains a stylish feast for the eyes: Barrymore’s red hair glows, Diaz’s red lipstick pops, Liu’s freckles aren’t covered up, and the California ocean looks bluer than ever.
Banks’ take on the iconic trio will almost certainly be very different. As she’s pointed out in multiple interviews, hers is a new movie, for a new generation, and one that will hopefully reflect a marked cultural shift that has taken place in the last two decades. If nothing else, having a woman director take ownership of this story is a victory in and of itself. Now, if we can just keep the slobbering to a minimum.