Criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's monthly series, our movie critic gives fresh consideration to the movies, actors, and pop culture moments that shaped entire generations. It’s time for a rewrite.
Just over a decade ago, audiences watched in a strange mix of horror and hilarity as Maya Rudolph, in a pristine wedding gown, popped a squat in the middle of a busy intersection in the R-rated comedy Bridesmaids. The 2011 film, written by Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo and directed by Paul Feig, was rightly hailed as an instant classic, a genre-bending feat that proved there was space for women to be sexual, awkward, and even gross on screen. Its resounding box office success ($288.4 million gross on a $32 million budget, plus two Oscar nominations) gave rise to a slew of follow-ups, including 2015’s Trainwreck, 2018’s Blockers, and of course, Girl’s Trip, which put Black women at the center of a traditionally white narrative. But nine years before Annie (Wiig) and Lilian (Rudolph) joked about dicks poking them in the eye during oral sex, Selma Blair’s Jane had already gotten one stuck way behind her tonsils in The Sweetest Thing.
Directed by Roger Kumble (Cruel Intentions) from a script by Nancy Pimental, the 2002 comedy centered around a trio of best friends — Christina (Cameron Diaz), Courtney (Christina Applegate), and Jane — living in San Francisco. More interested in what's in front of them right now rather than Mr. Right, their most serious relationships are with each other. They laugh hard and party harder as they flit from one short-lived fling to another. That is, until Christina meet-cutes with Peter Donahue (Thomas Jane) during a night out. He snubs a newly single Jane at a club, so Christina calls him a dick. He hears. Voila! The rest of history.
Leaving Jane behind in the arms of a purple furry, Courtney and Christina set off on an adventure that involves glory holes and burst pipes, a truly unparalleled makeover montage, and one very good bar mitzvah joke. After all, what are friends for if not to take a four-hour road trip to a stranger’s wedding to convince a man you’ve met once that you’re the one?
It’s a gloriously over-the-top, raunchy tale of love and female friendship — not unlike the one Bridesmaids’ would weave in an even more expansive fashion just nine years later. But The Sweetest Thing did not enjoy Bridesmaids’ critical acclaim. In fact, it was soundly trashed, and constantly compared to gross-out pros the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary, which also starred Diaz as a woman who leaves the men in her life pining for more.
“Straining at being a girl-power version of There's Something About Mary, it slathers on dumb jokes like mayonnaise at a cheap sub shop,” Elvis Mitchell wrote in his New York Times review. Roger Ebert, who prefaced his review with a disclaimer about his fascination with Diaz’ often underrespected talent, wrote: “The plot is merely the excuse, however, for an astonishing array of sex and body-plumbing jokes, nearly all of which dream of hitting a home run like There's Something About Mary, but do not.” Variety’s Robert Koehler added:
“The combo of screwball situations and star Cameron Diaz — whose goofiness charmed in There’s Something About Mary – has resulted in a movie that mimics the pics of the Farrelly brothers.”
The insinuation here appears to be that the realm of dirty comedy belongs only to men, with any attempt to stray being labeled as a poor imitation...for women. (Yuck!) It also ignores the fact that Pimental had significant raunch cred of her own by then as a writer on South Park. (She would later go on to work as a writer and executive producer on Showtime’s Shameless — a trailblazing show when it comes to unlikeable women protagonists and toilet-based opening credits.) Yes, The Sweetest Thing undeniably shares DNA with There’s Something About Mary, which hit theaters in 1998 and forever changed how we think about hair gel. But there’s one major exception: Where the Farrellys’ script got laughs at the expense of its woman lead, Pimental’s had us rooting and cheering for hers. That shift in perspective — now widely known as the female gaze — is acknowledged in the above reviews (see: “girl power version”), but its impact was trivialized, dismissed as imitation rather than something that could (and would) inspire a genre in its own right.
I was 12 when The Sweetest Thing came out, too young to catch it in theaters myself but old enough to trade mythical gossip about its rumored sex scenes over late-night phone calls with friends. That might explain why, after a very average gross of $68.7 million on a budget of $43 million, the movie’s cult appeal largely grew in homes, as teenage girls smuggled it into basements for midnight sleepovers. Pimental’s script, which was actually toned down for a theatrical release (the majestic song and dance number about a penis was originally cut from the movie, but the good news is you can now see it on Netflix), is unapologetically sexual, but also goofy and good-natured. The Sweetest Thing never shames women for enjoying and pursuing sex; rather, it celebrates the camaraderie that we build with each other when men are not looking. And yeah, we also like to talk about sex.
In one memorable scene, Christina and Courtney are in the bathroom of a club when a stranger asks the latter if her boobs are real. “They’re fake,” Courtney replies. “You can touch it if you want to.” Grabbing the woman’s hand, she slaps it on her breast and continues giving Christina a reality check about Peter. Soon enough, the stranger has called multiple women over to squeeze and prod at Courtney’s fake breasts, while the latter remains completely unfazed. Meanwhile, two men walk by and glimpse the scene through a door that’s been left ajar, and completely lose their minds over the scene. What was not at all sexual is made so by the male gaze and, on a broader level, the pop cultural notions that exist about what happens in the women’s bathroom (and at slumber parties, and in sorority houses...the list goes on and on). But The Sweetest Thing manages to pull of a neat trick — it acknowledges that gaze without completely buying into it. Maybe women do touch each other while alone, but not in the way patriarchy mythologizes.
Take another scene when Courtney and Christina are mid-road trip to the wedding. Courtney drops her lip gloss cap, and Christina bends down at her feet to retrieve it. A man on a motorcycle passes them, and Courtney decides to put on a show, feigning that she’s receiving oral sex from her friend. It could be perceived as a moment meant to appeal to male viewers who might see this overly-excited motorist as a stand-in for their own desires. But through Applegate’s tongue-in-cheek performance, you never get the sense Courtney’s doing this for them. She’s having fun, making herself laugh, and inviting women in on the joke as a result. Plus, she’s telling peeping toms everywhere that maybe they should mind their own fucking business.
The amount of star charisma in this movie should be illegal. Diaz is a master at creating characters that you both want to be and be with. Meanwhile, Applegate gracefully skips across a tightrope, avoiding falling into the stereotypically Samatha Jones persona that has been carved out for her. Courtney may talk a big game, but every now and then, Applegate grants her character moments of sweet earnestness that make her feel real. And Blair humming her way through Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” with ahem, an intrusive pierced object in her mouth? High art! Despite acting as a catalyst for the action, the male characters don’t really matter to the plot, but an honorable mention does go to Jason Bateman as Roger, Peter’s brother who proudly and unironically wears hats like this one, and Jane, who gives a great reaction shot when Christina eventually tells Peter he’s a disappointing kisser.
And on that note: If quiet, forlorn horniness (the smoldering glances in Emma, the hand flex from Pride and Prejudice) was the movie mood over quarantine, the summer months are ushering in something a little different. After over a year spent inside and alone, and vaccinations offering up a glimmer of hope, a hum of frenzied energy is in the air. It’s not quite the end — in fact, in many countries around the world, the pandemic is still ramping up — but there’s a (privileged) sense that the United States might have a frisky summer to remember. The Sweetest Thing meets that moment. It’s a movie that crackles with physical contact, rejoices in intimacy with friends, and offers up a plethora of early aughts going out tops inspo for nights out on rooftops. It’s exuberant in its horniness, and a little messy; ready to match that post-pandemic summer vibe.
In other ways, though, The Sweetest Thing does feel anchored in its own time. For one thing, like many women-centric comedies of the early aughts (Legally Blonde, She’s The Man, Bring It On, to name a few), it was written by a woman but directed by a man, a choice that speaks to power dynamics within the industry that are only now starting to shift. The casting also reflects a longstanding pattern wherein women can be allowed to transgress and flout the rules, but only if they are white, straight, and conventionally attractive.
One could feasibly argue that the reason that the movie still feels fresh today has less to do with its own quality, and more to do with Hollywood’s slow-footed journey towards making complex and nuanced works about flawed and unapologetically sexual women. But I’m not so sure. To watch The Sweetest Thing, even 19 years after its release, is to be instantly transported into a group of friends with a lifetime of inside jokes. For 84 minutes, you’re just another girl in the bathroom, being invited into the fold. So, tell me: Do you like pina coladas?