One of my favourite aspects of writing for this blog is it gives me an opportunity to go into a movie blind, where I haven’t watched any trailers or read a lengthy plot synopsis before pressing “play.”
This represents a nice alternative to our modern media landscape, where you’re inundated with clips and previews for every major upcoming release that leaves very little room for surprises once you enter the theatre.
By contrast, the randomized selection process that is a self-imposed signature of Corner Store Cinema™ has led me to discover some real hidden gems that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise, like the sublime slice-of-life dramedy Moscow on the Hudson (1984).
Other times I’ve been bamboozled by a truly bizarre creation like If Lucy Fell … (1996), which is so bad that I thought the filmmakers were playing an elaborate prank on the audience.
Mark Waters’ Head Over Heels (2001) definitely falls into the latter category, since it switches genres so often that it borders on being an experimental art film or a scathing satire of shallow American movie making.
But if you take a step back and look at this film from a distance, it becomes pretty obvious that Waters and his team of writers were just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick, without taking things like logic, consistency, or taste into account.
And while this approach caught me completely off guard and resulted in a memorable viewing experience, I’m under no illusion that Head Over Heels is anything more than a carnival freak show dressed up as a standard romantic comedy.
As you might have gleaned from the trailer, this film kicks off like alot of chick flicks from that era, where hard-working city gal Amanda (Monica Potter) falls for a good-looking fashion executive Jim (Freddie Prinze Jr.) despite their differences in lifestyle.
In order to capture Jim’s affection, Amanda enlists the help of her four roommates, who are all runway models and know a thing or two about attracting the opposite sex.
However, the plot takes a major turn when Amanda thinks she witnesses Jim commit a cold-blooded murder, and vows to get to the bottom of this mystery with her model roommates in tow.
It’s hard to describe in words how jarring this story pivot is, since the first 30 minutes of this movie contain nothing that foreshadows this sudden transition from Sex in the City-flavoured kookiness to Rear Window-style horror.
In fact, up until that half-hour mark, it seemed like the filmmakers were actively running through a checklist of rom-com clichés that were worn-out even by early 2000s standards.
Most of these tired tropes revolves around the main character played by Potter, who:
– uses a voiceover to highlight her romantic woes to the audience.
– has a gay best friend who only exists to be a sympathetic sounding board.
– holds down a job that is professionally fulfilling but socially isolating.
– is conventionally very attractive even though the screenwriters pretend like she is plain.
– possesses superhuman clumsiness that is constantly used for cheap physical comedy.
It also doesn’t help that the movie’s initial set-up, where the main character moves in with four high-fashion models, seems like a failed sit-com pilot that got smuggled into a feature film.
Outside of the stagy set decor, with a bright, open-concept apartment that’s right at home with ABC’s TGIF programming block, many of the jokes feel like they were written with a live studio audience in mind.
But without the presence of any canned laughter, there’s nothing to distract from the reality that a lot of these gags are lazy and being delivered by paper-thin characters.
One of the roommates played by real-life model Sarah Murdoch is probably the most obvious example of this pedestrian writing style, since she introduces herself to the main character by talking about her pet dingo, as if her thick Australian accent wasn’t a big enough clue to her nationality.
With that set-up in mind, the movie’s transition into a murder mystery after 30 minutes is a hard pill to swallow, since the filmmakers hardly deviate from the cookie-cutter cinematic style that has already been established.
This problem is further compounded in the final third of the movie when the plot turns into a spy thriller of sorts, which just left me feeling discombobulated.
Now, one may argue that Waters is using this structure to be intentionally subversive, especially his follow-up projects Freaky Friday (2003) and Mean Girls (2004) were all about deconstructing well-established film archetypes.
But while those movies tried to mine their shallow premises for a deeper meaning, Head Over Heels doesn’t have much on its mind beyond an overriding scorn and hatred for the fashion industry.
Plus, producer Robert Simonds outright stated in a behind-the-scenes featurette that his intention was to make more of a “throwback” romantic comedy, so any theories about Head Over Heels being a stealth critique of the genre can be thrown right out the window.
Because of this, all you’re left with is the movie’s cavalcade of dumb jokes and visual gags, which constantly flip flop between being family-friendly and adult-oriented.
One minute the characters are taking part in a cutesy make-over montage that is straight of a Disney Channel original TV show. The next they’re secretly ogling Freddie Prinze Jr. with binoculars, wondering out loud whether or not he’s had sex with the underage school girls who recently visited his apartment.
And if that tonal whiplash isn’t bad enough, the writing also suffers from an over-reliance on Three Stooges-esque physical comedy, something that is randomly deployed every time the filmmakers don’t know how to make a scene interesting.
With that being said, there are a few key moments where the filmmakers hit a home run in the comedy department, with some gross-out gags that completely blindsided me in a good way.
One of these scenes involves Freddie Prinze Jr. loudly pooping out some perogies in his bathroom as some of the investigating models hide in a nearby shower stall.
Later on in the movie, these same characters get covered in shit after they are caught in a public bathroom plumbing accident.
While the main appeal of these gags is the pure spectacle of watching pretty actors willingly subjecting themselves to such low-brow toilet humour, the film’s editor still nails the timing and does a great job of making these jokes land.
Unfortunately, these few genuinely funny moments (alongside some charming performances from members of the cast) can’t make up for the rest of Head Over Heels , which is a complete mess in terms of its writing and structure.
Even though part of me wants to admire Waters’ attempt at combining a rom com, a murder mystery, and a spy thriller into one 86-minute movie, the reality is that these disparate elements mix about as well as oil and water.
But even if this film is not destined for a Criterion Collection release, it still remains a fascinating cultural artifact that should be poked and prodded at, like some kind of grotesque laboratory specimen.
While genre mash-ups are interesting and can be done well, the crew behind Head Over Heels approach this concept with all the skill and subtlety of a drunk lumberjack performing open heart surgery.
Corner store companion:
Planters Zen Blenz (because it contains a bunch of stuff that doesn’t belong together)
-Release date: Feb. 2, 2001
-Budget: $14 million (estimated)
-Box office: $10,424,470 (gross in US and Canada), $13,127,022 (total gross including worldwide markets)
-There are at least three other feature films with the title “Head Over Heels,” according to IMDB. This includes a 1922 silent comedy, a 1937 British musical and a 1979 romantic comedy. A pair of short-lived comedy TV series from Britain and the United States, airing in 1993 and 1997 respectively, also bear the name “Head Over Heels.”
-The lead role of Head of Over Heels was originally supposed to go to Claire Danes, who dropped out of this project at the last minute.
–Surprise cameo: Timothy Olyphant briefly shows up to play Amanda’s cheating ex-boyfriend, whose infidelity sets the whole plot in motion.
–Musical highlight: “Head Over Heels” by The Go-Go’s (plays over a montage of the main characters stalking Freddy Prinze Jr. to see if he is really a serial killer)