It worked for Shakespeare, so why not for Amanda Bynes?
Shakespeare had female characters pretending to be male because they were all played by men anyway. While his prodigious heart and brain certainly understood the rich and delightful narrative and comedic opportunities involved in having some characters in on the secret while others were not, even he probably did not understand how subversive and revolutionary the material could be. In his play Twelfth Night, Viola survives a shipwreck and arrives in Illyria. Thinking her brother Sebastian has been drowned, pretends to be a man to protect herself in a world that is treacherous for women who do not have anyone to protect them. She goes to work for a Orsino, a duke, who asks her to press his suit on Olivia. But Olivia has no interest in the duke; she begins to fall for the disguised Viola. As a man, Viola so resembles her brother that when he returns, not knowing she survived, he is mistaken for her, adding to the confusion.
The Viola in this story (Bynes) is a high school girl who loves soccer. The girls’ team is cut, and her boyfriend, captain of the boys’ team, won’t let them try out. So when her brother Sebastian (James Kirk) sneaks off to London with his rock group to play in a festival, she takes his place at at his new school, Illyria. Her plan is to try out for their soccer team as a boy and stay on long enough to beat their #1 rival, her school, with the team led by her now ex-boyfriend.
At first, the boys in the dorm think “Sebastian” is a little odd. But with the help of a friend, she gets a reputation as a hit with beautiful women. And she begins to get the hang of the guy thing, though there are still some challenges, like finding some time to take a shower when there’s no one around and explaining what the tampons are doing in her stuff.
Her roommate, Duke Orsino (Channing Tatum), captain of the Illyria soccer team, offers to help her become first-string if she will put in a good word for him with Olivia. But of course Olivia is attracted to “Sebastian,” especially after she reads the real Sebastian’s lyrics. Meanwhile, the twins’ mother expects them both at the Junior League carnival fund-raiser. Sebastian’s pushy girlfriend has to be kept at a distance so she doesn’t figure out what’s going on. And there’s that big game.
Bynes is a terrifically talented and appealing performer with the true fearlessness and lack of vanity of a born commedienne. This film doesn’t let her show off all she can do, but she handles the predictable complications well, from the quick changes in the carnival’s port-a-john to the faked grimace and moans when she gets hit in the crotch with a soccer ball.
First-time director Andy Flickman and a bright and able cast keep the energy high and the story moving. The opening credit sequence, a soccer game on the beach, sets a bright and brashly kinetic tone that keeps things bouncy as all of the characters and plot points come together for a happily ever after ending. Flickman and first-time writer Ewan Leslie wisely put a solid base of dignity and honesty under the pratt falls and close calls, avoiding the usual teen-movie gags (in both senses of the word). I hope they make a sequel, maybe an update of “Two Gentleman of Verona” set on a college campus?
Parents should know that the film includes some crude language (the b-word, etc.), and some comic implied nudity. There are a few punches and scuffles. But one strength of the film is that while the characters talk a great deal about who is “hot,” the film’s strong point of view is that the priority in relationships is emotional intimacy, not physical intimacy. Another strength of the movie is its casual portrayal of inter-racial relationships. While at first an unattractive character is played for laughs, ultimately, even she is treated with respect and affection.
Families who see this movie should talk about what led Viola to change her feelings about Justin and Sebastian to change his about Monique. What was the most important thing Viola learned? If you wanted to pretend to be the opposite sex, what would be the hardest part? Families should also talk about how important it was that Viola and Olivia valued themselves enough to make sure that they only spent time with boys who would value them, too. And they should compare this movie to Shakespeare’s version to find out, among other things, how Malcolm’s tarantula got the name “Malvolio.”
Families who enjoy this film will appreciate Disney’s High School Musical They will also enjoy the similarly themed gender-switching Just One of the Guys, and Tootsie (both with more mature material). And every family should enjoy the classic named as the American Film Institute’s top comedy of all time: Some Like it Hot. Families will also enjoy comparing this film to its source, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.