She's the Man

She's the Man is the story of how a teenage girl's passion for soccer takes her on a two-week cross dressing mission to defeat a rival school's team. After being informed by both her coach and boyfriend that she's not fit to play with boys, the tomboyish Viola (Amanda Bynes) decides to pose as her brother Sebastian (James Kirk), who has up and left for Europe with his band before starting his senior year in a neighboring prep school. Viola's physical transformation is easy enough: she asks her gay hairdresser friend to abrade her womanliness with a wig and sideburns. Next she must apparent a boy in her mannerisms and speech, a task which sets up the film's main comedic contrivance.

Bynes as Viola succeeds in awkwardly delivering girlish renditions of typical macho guy lines in a performance nearing the gusto of Lindsay Lohan's out-of-body mom in Freaky Friday (2003). At one point she stops herself from asking dreamy roommate Duke (Channing Tatum) to look into his heart to find the girl of his dreams, revising that same logic to solicit, “Which [girl] would you rather see naked!” Much of the film proceeds in this fashion, hitting more lows than highs.

The script a rendering of Twelfth Night is the worst thing yet from 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Legally Blonde (2001) scribes Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith. McCullah and Smith's last effort, Ella Enchanted (2004), was charming though its integrity was tinkered by the slew of numb Hollywood producers on the film (among them the Weinstein brothers). The same seems to apply for She's the Man, a film that consistently plays it safe in the way it skirts potentially interesting gender themes.

The indifferent direction by Andy Fickman in his first gig outside of the direct-to-video market only exemplifies the inefficiency of the writing. Too many plot points are glossed-over in music montages (I counted seven in all), and none of the film's bit players are ever given more than a few cheap moments to put across their tired one-liners. Even veteran comics David Cross and Julie Haggerty are squandered in their respective roles as Viola's school principle and mother. Cross plays on his usual trope as a bald loser, and Haggerty reprises her de facto sheltered homemaker role.

The influence of cross dressing comedies of Hollywood past Some Life it Hot (1959) and Tootsie (1982) being the chief ones has never felt more apparent and more worn-out than in recent years. Big Momma's House (2000), Sorority Boys (2002), and White Chicks (2004) represent not only low-points in this particular sub-genre; they are some of the most insufferable films ever made.

However, if one opens She's the Man up to the interesting mix of comedies from the past years dealing with physical transformations, there's definitely something to be said about the narrative trends it seems to be following. In this grouping I include the acute and perverse Shallow Hal (2001) by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, Rob Schneider's good-natured The Hot Chick (2001), written by Schneider with director Tom Brady, Mark Waters' expertly crafted Freaky Friday, and lastly, the underrated The New Guy (2002), starring the talented DJ Qualls and directed by first-timer Ed Decter. Each of these films shares the same ideas about inner and outer beauty, whether dealing with obesity (Shallow Hal), gender (The Hot Chick), age (Freaky Friday), or just attitude (The New Guy), they create extreme situations for the main characters, who in the end go back to being more comfortable versions of themselves, though they've irreparably changed the environment around them in significant ways.

The morality might be the same as in subtly woven character studies, or in studied Shakespearean drama, but the physical extremities presented in these films has firmly supplanted audiences' expectations since the first time Dr. Julius Kelp turned into Buddy Love. There's something to be said about our longing today, more than ever before, to suspend our disbelief in order to be closer to some other. Perhaps it has to do with the internet changing forms of communication (it's much easier to have an ulterior persona online than it is in person); or maybe it's symbolic of Americans' growing acceptance of foreign cultures and gays. Viola's passion may be soccer, but that's not the only reason she wants to change into a boy. If only the makers of She's the Man were willing to take this predicament one step further.

Reviewed by Gabe Klinger