20th Century Women

A few years ago a friend of a friend named Gordon went to see a reading at Powell’s bookstore. Afterwards I asked him how it had gone. He said that it had been fine overall but that it had gotten a little weird towards the end. At the post-talk Q&A session someone had raised their hand and said “I have a two part question” – a statement which made Gordon laugh out loud.

You see, Gordon thought the guy was quoting the very beginning of The Royal Tenenbaums – specifically, the scene where Bill Murray’s neuroscientist character Raleigh St. Clair introduces his newest test subject Dudley to a conference. As soon as Raleigh cedes the floor for questions a guy in the crowd stands up and announces “I have a two part question.” That Tenenbaums scene is played for laughs and Gordon thought his fellow Powell’s goer was also being ironic – but no, that guy really did have a two part question and he didn’t get why Gordon was “mocking” him.

I’m 99% sure that I think about that anecdote way more than Gordon does. For him, it was probably just a passing awkward interaction, but for me it gets at something fundamental about comedy: namely, that sometimes good comedy is basically inexplicable. Apparently Gordon can’t hear the phrase “I have a two part question” without rolling his eyes; in his mind that phrase always invokes overly-earnest dweebery. Meanwhile as a naturally verbose person that phrase makes perfect sense to me! Sometimes you have two separate ideas you want to convey in a public setting and you don’t want to get cut off halfway through by an over eager moderator. 

I’m bringing this up because last night I saw 20th Century Women and I totally loved it. I loved the characters, I loved its emotional warmth, I loved how funny it was. But as I was watching it I kept thinking: there is no way I could explain why any of this works.

For example: there’s a scene where Abbie, a young photographer played by Greta Gerwig, starts to make out with William, a middle-aged handyman played by Billy Crudup. She desires him… but she’s also hesitant; she just had a cancer scare, she’s feeling vulnerable, and she isn’t quite comfortable with emotional interactions, so she keeps interrupting their canoodling for various non-reasons. At one point William leans in and she pulls her head up out the way... Then, as if to justify her evasive actions, she sniffs his crown and proclaims in a pleasantly surprised voice: “your hair smells good.” Without missing a beat and complete sincerity William replies: “Thanks. I make my own shampoo.”

I laughed so hard at that moment, because of course hippie-ass William makes his own goddamned shampoo.

But as soon as I started laughing at that line I started thinking about “I have a two part question.” Gordon couldn’t really explain to me why he thought that was such a silly thing to say… Similarly, I can’t really explain why I think that “I make my own shampoo” is such a funny thing to say. I mean, I could probably give you the gist of it – William’s earnest reaction to her complete non-sequitir isn’t really appropriate to the situation, plus who the hell makes their own shampoo – but with that sort of character-based dry humor… Well, you either get it or you don’t.

(That said: the scene where fifteen year old Jamie gets into a fist fight with another boy at the skate park because he’s just read Our Bodies Ourselves and feels like he knows everything there is to know about clitoral stimulation is straight up legit funny. Oh God, fifteen year olds are the worst. And that applies equally to Jamie the know-it-all and to the bully who beats him up because only a "fag" would ever care about pleasing a woman.)

The cat is only in a few scenes but I loved him every time I saw him. He was a good cat.

The cat is only in a few scenes but I loved him every time I saw him. He was a good cat.

There's a lot I could say about 20th Century Women – how it felt so relateable; how it felt so human; how all of the performances were perfectly observed – but I’m not quite sure that saying any of those things would actually explain what makes it so great. It’s basically a long string of “I make my own shampoo” moments – scene after scene that perfectly encapsulate its characters’ idiosyncrasies, and which might make you laugh if you get why those little tics are ridiculous, but which are never actually presented as jokes. I thought it was uproarious, but even in the moment I recognized that it might be the ultimate “you had to be there to get why it is funny” movie.

So I’m not going to belabor it: I’m just going to cut to the chase and that you should go and see 20th Century Women as soon as you can. I thought Mike Mills' last film Beginners was damn near perfect, but to my surprise this somehow managed to be even better. 

...That said: I reserve the right to write a follow up review at a later date, just in case I decide that I have to fully express my admiration for Elle Fanning’s charismatic performance, or talk about how its portrait of a mother-son dynamic was so complicated and cutting and accurate, or get into its surprisingly timely politics. (The movie is set in 1979, but feels very of the moment.) And maybe that strikes you as ridiculous, but never forget: in my heart I am an “I have a two part question” type of person, which means that I am always ready to come back with a completely unnecessary follow up.  

Winner: Me

20th Century Women on IMDB