“The Real Blonde” (1997)
by A.J. Hakari
I happened to come of age during the Great Irony Boom of the 1990s. Detachment was the order of the day in much of the media I consumed, be it Clerks having an effect on my sense of humor to “Daria” shaping my taste in women (for better or worse). But while the approach isn’t in and of itself dated (trends come and go, but sarcasm is forever), the films that depended so heavily on being all aloof to make up for a lack of intelligent writing are often the ones whose “coolness” doesn’t stand the test of time by a longshot. The Real Blonde feels like just such a title, albeit one made with better intentions than a lot of its contemporaries. It’s not insufferably hip, but most of its jokes, characters, and observations fall flat, leaving behind a largely superficial relationship dramedy with a couple movie references to its name.
Written and directed by Living in Oblivion‘s Tom DiCillo, The Real Blonde focuses on some of the most unsatisfied sadsacks you’ll ever meet. Joe (Matthew Modine) is a waiter and would-be actor whose refusal to perform even in commercials constantly thwarts his chances at a big break. His longtime girlfriend Mary (Catherine Keener) berates him for this snooty attitude, although her own self-esteem issues regarding sex aren’t helping diffuse any tensions. Meanwhile, Joe’s pal Bob (Maxwell Caulfield) lands a nice gig on a soap opera, after which he ditches his supermodel paramour (Bridgette Wilson) for a co-star (Daryl Hannah) who fits his requirements of having a romantic partner who’s naturally blonde. In their own ways, each of these misguided dopes strives towards an ideal that just doesn’t exist, blissfully unaware of that old adage about books and the covers by which they shouldn’t be judged.
As whatever potential for dramatic weight it might have conveyed dissipates with each passing frame, it’s only appropriate that The Real Blonde‘s key theme is that of illusion. Most of its characters make believe for a living (as actors, models, etc.) and delude themselves into thinking that there’s a perfection out there to aspire to, rather than recognize how good they already have it. Joe scoffs at accepting bit parts because he only wants highbrow scripts, Bob tosses a perfectly sweet girl to the curb because of arbitrary standards, and the beat goes on. But instead of acquainting viewers with the places from which these misinformed desires emerged, DiCillo gives us two hours of stupid people doing stupid things, without an inkling as to what we’re supposed to find so fascinating about it all. By the end, no one really learns anything, which is a reasonable conclusion to arrive at (history just repeats for certain folks), but with no understanding of what’s driving this troupe or why we should even care, any semblance of an arc that the writing attempts to mount is all for naught.
Not much of what anyone in The Real Blonde‘s ensemble says carries any wit or perception. It’s true that the movie doesn’t rub your face in its smugness, but I’d almost rather have had that instead of the absence of personality that holds sway for the bulk of the running time. Scenes such as Dave Chappelle as a Holocaust denier and an entire restaurant arguing about The Piano are memorable not because they’re funny but because that’s all the flick has; otherwise, there’s little to set these exchanges apart from the pop culture dissection so many indies indulged in after Quentin Tarantino made it popular. The Real Blonde is the kind of movie whose faults are almost entirely behind the camera, since so many in front of it are trying like mad to make it work. Modine doesn’t quite pull off the self-important sleazebag type, but Caulfield makes for a pretty solid cad, and Keener avoids making Mary into the shrew she could’ve become. Altogether, this is one incredible cast (which also counts cameos from Buck Henry, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Lloyd, and more), even though so many of its ranks are called upon just to say something offbeat for a moment before vanishing into the aether.
The ’90s forgot about The Real Blonde in a hurry, and so will you. While I haven’t seen anything else he’s done, DiCillo was a favorite of many in the decade’s independent cinema scene, so I’d like to think that this was a brief creative misstep or the result of some pesky postproduction meddling. Either way, The Real Blonde isn’t a hateful picture, but only because it’s too boring to despise.