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Piece of paper chase

(New Line Cinema)


Piece of paper chase

Painful questions lurk behind the popularity of He's Just Not That Into You

While watching the star-studded romantic comedy He's Just Not That Into You (rated PG-13 for sexual content and brief strong language), it's impossible not to wonder whether this uncomfortable advice was something women needed to hear a few decades ago. The line is based on a comment from a character on Sex and the City that later became the title of a best-selling self-help book for women. And like Sex and the City, the movie centers on a group of single women trying to find and keep love, albeit in Baltimore rather than the Big Apple.

Each character represents a struggling archetype on the modern dating scene. Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin), who narrates the film, becomes obsessed with every man who shows the slightest interest in her. She calls them, "accidentally" drops by their favorite hangouts, and generally makes herself so available to them the guys are left running toward the nearest exit. Beth (Jennifer Aniston) has been in a serious relationship for over seven years with a live-in boyfriend (Ben Affleck) who won't commit, insisting marriage is "only a piece of paper." At one point Beth tearfully asks her boyfriend if he ever plans to marry her only to be met with awkward silence. Femme fatale Anna (Scarlett Johansson) seems confident, but after starting a relationship with a married man on the advice of her friend Mary (Drew Barrymore), she allows herself to be humiliated in the grossest possible way. And Janine (Jennifer Connelly), wife of said married man, realizes her marriage may be on the rocks in part because she strong-armed her husband into proposing years before.

What all these story lines have in common, of course, is women chasing after men, desperate to hang onto them even when the men are clearly "not that into them." While that doesn't sound too amusing, the resemblance of these characters to real-life women we have all known or been is so canny, the result is a funny though sometimes painful story that has women trekking to the theater in droves. (The movie was No. 1 at the box office in its opening weekend, with females making up 80 percent of the audience.)

But behind the laughs, and, indeed, behind the film's popularity, is an unspoken question: What left women in such a precarious position? Why do we so rarely see romantic comedies that show men pursuing women anymore, as opposed to merely "realizing" they're in love two-thirds of the way through the film? As Gigi resorts to pathetic seduction lines and Beth agrees to continue her relationship without that piece of paper she so deeply desires, the culprit reveals itself.

Because the women here have been liberated from the social norm of saving sex for marriage, the men are free to approach dating not as a way to court and win women but as an activity to maintain an active sex life until they're ready to settle down. Even further, the men feel justified in scoffing at the things women have always wanted (because who could legitimately argue that most women do not still desire marriage and family?) as something women should be ashamed of. As Beth puts it, she's afraid to bring up marriage because she doesn't want to seem "clingy or psycho," knowing that merely admitting she wants to be married will equate her with the rabbit-boiling Glenn Close character from Fatal Attraction in many men's eyes. The only way for women to escape this Catch-22, the story starts to imply, is for women to insist on more traditional mating roles by refusing to do the pursuing.

In the end, though, the movie seems to find the truth it shares with women too hard and tries to back away from it, assuring them in the final scenes that they can be the exception. They can trade their hearts and bodies away for nothing but the most cursory attention from men and still attract love, respect, and happiness. Too bad all the women who relate to He's Just Not That Into You (not to mention our declining marriage rates) prove just how few and far between those exceptions are becoming.