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Boys and Girls Together

06/26/2013 04:25 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2013

Once upon a time Joss Whedon wrote a TV show about a teenage girl who was basically Superman. Not a muscle-bound dull pretty-boy movie Superman but a wry, hot, silly chick-hero with a clever grasp of the cultural zeitgeist and a wicked way with a pun. She fought for her little corner of the world and for the world at large, with wit and sex. Now Whedon has joined the army of directors who make movies about lots and lots of boys, flawed idols and manipulative strategists, with the odd token babe thrown in to be polite. (Though even that minimal representation seems to be waning, with Hollywood cheerily aping the radical-Republican corners of our new America). Anyway, it turns out the fans don't care, or possibly even notice, and the perks are way better.

Whedon did take a break from the soulless task of making franchise money to film a contemporary version of Much Ado About Nothing, a prospect that cheered some of us, though the play's not tops on my personal Shakespeare hit parade. Whedon would make the most of a female lead named Hero, I told myself; his flair for sassy verbiage was sure to complement the Bard's time-tested wordplay in delicious new ways.

A black-and-white curio set in contemporary L.A. (at Whedon's house!) with cell phones matter-of-factly coexisting alongside ye olde Shakepearean dialogue, Ado is the story of a virgin slandered as a slut. The film opens with yin/yang duo Beatrice and Benedick fleeing an unexplained sexual encounter, a sly note that grounds their animosity in the complications of a relationship gone sour for reasons perhaps not clearly understood by either party, something that should resonate with anyone who has ever dated.

Yet other than providing a subtext for the film's main -- or at least most interesting -- couple's eternal sparring, Whedon does little to transform his tale beyond its glossy style makeover. The film's sexual politics are hazy: vilified virgin Hero's true love and loving father both publicly wish her dead for (allegedly) being unchaste, but Bea & Ben's carnal history and other players' trysts have no impact on how their characters are perceived. Did Whedon hope to filter his piece through contemporary eyes to show us what a long way we've come, baby, or how little has changed? Considering our culture's tabloid-hysterical coverage of women who don't meet our ideal of likability -- whether wives who fight their batterers, rape victims not pure enough to garner sympathy or girls possibly guilty only of exercising their appetites (see: the recent contempt visited upon Amanda Knox for giving voice to her own story at last) -- the evergreen tradition of verbally stoning post-pubescent females is rife for exploration. It would have been interesting if Hero, so brutally betrayed by those who claimed to love her, found that once her reputation was restored the poison of that betrayal had altered her heart's affections; what drama (or plausibility) is there in blithe forgetting and forgiving, after all? Sadly, Whedon, who imbued his vampire slayer Buffy's episodes with deep currents of feeling, leaves his Shakespearean players skimming the surface, the emotional reality of each plot thread given no real traction.

Ado's cast is game and L.A.-photogenic (the women de rigeuer skinny), and it's not unenjoyable to watch them go through their paces as they strive to handle the language naturalistically, a task at which they kind of mostly succeed, if sacrificing the ability to convey more than one emotion at a time. Some Whedon regulars shine (inspired buffoons Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk give the film its only unlabored moments of comedy), but the stars lack the gravitas to give the leading roles the depth they sorely need. Because the cast's too-evident effort forecloses any possibility of fluid dramatic momentum, the story can't take flight.

Endless love

Save for about 6 minutes of screen time, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's This Is the End dispenses with the female of the species altogether. There's a moment with romantic cautionary tale Rihanna, flashes of bimbos servicing that macho brute Michael Cera to burnish his rep as a dissolute sex pig (typecasting!), and a few seconds debating Emma Watson's rapeworthiness. But really, when the end of the world is nigh, why pretend to be interested in anything but your buds? Whether battling the End of Days or enjoying the glorious heavenly afterlife, it turns out females aren't even necessary.

I laughed through every frame of Rogan's End, whose impolitic filthy hilarity the Hangover series only dreams of. I confess a secret relief at having girls written out of the orgy of abuse; not since Reservoir Dogs have I been so grateful to be spared the standard recycled tropes of female victimhood. (I'm also glad to forego the verisimilitude with which women's "feelings" are portrayed in the Ap(atow) Pack's films). What's truly groundbreaking about End -- it takes my breath away even as I lament the fading possibility of someone forging a brave new coed language -- is the way even the time-honored girl roles of rape victim, jealous bitch and nagging harpy are happily filled by its actors, with that old chestnut of homosexual panic providing nary a qualm. James Franco's gay abandon is merely one float in the boy-parade; his love of Seth Rogen is its rainbow.

Think of England

In America coming of age stories tend to be like Mud, boy-centric sagas whose female characters are largely disloyal, masochistic or reviled. With the notable exception of Beasts of the Southern Wild, pictures told from a young female perspective are as rare as speaking actresses in tentpole movies. Until things change, there's England, capable of giving us a picture like Broken, a gripping tale of modern struggle in all its ugliness and glory, with a fearless clear-eyed girl at its helm. Broken is the kind of movie we don't seem to make in this country: a portrait of rapacious cruel youth that still somehow grants them their humanity; a thriller using the terrors of madness and loss to wring redemption from violence; a love story between family members and unlikely romantic partners that refuses to give easy answers. Compelling from its opening moments, Broken has a quiet assurance; we're happy to follow its distinctive storytelling wherever it leads. There's something deeply satisfying about heartless female bullies not the least bit prettied up, sharing a canvas broad enough to include a wildly disparate group of people while still granting primacy to its irrepressible young lead. Broken's uncompromising girl is the kind of hero Joss Whedon would once have made the center of his story. Maybe for his next palate cleanser he can update it as a musical.