MSF: THE HIDDEN REDBOX GEM THAT'S SO BAD, IT'S HILARIOUS
There’s a particular difficulty in reviewing so-bad-they’re-good films. By the very fact of including “bad” in the descriptor, you’re necessarily being critical of the creative forces behind the movie. Rare is it that an intentionally “bad” film turns out to be enjoyable. The true shining stars of the trashterpiece subgenre are those made with, if not total sincerity, then at least an attempt to create a basically decent film. When those efforts fail, and I see a film that’s just genuinely awful, I tend to simply not review the movie at all; I take no pleasure in tearing apart the hopes and dreams of those whose best efforts simply weren’t good enough. What happens, though, when that ineptitude crosses a line past mere badness and into the realm of “this is so awful, it’s fun to watch”? What to do when the movie is legitimately enjoyable, but for all the wrong reasons? Should it be ignored, too, to spare the creative powers indignity? Or should the film’s failings be shared in a critical yet gently appreciative way, in order to share the joy with audiences?
These were the questions bouncing around my head as I watched MSF: Male Seeking Female, and, as you can probably tell by the fact you’re reading this review, I eventually settled into the latter camp. This is a movie so overwrought, so filled with absolutely over-the-top ridiculousness, that it must be seen; and I can only hope that the individuals involved in making it can appreciate that, even if they didn’t create what they probably intended, they’ve produced a masterpiece of a very different sort.
A brief note before we proceed: Although I rented this from Redbox under the MSF title, an IMDB search revealed that it was originally produced as a Lifetime film under the title The Girl he Met Online. That pedigree only goes part of the way towards explaining the badness of the film, though; there’s Lifetime crazy, and then there’s MSF.
Gillian (Yvonne Zima, of ER fame) has a problem: She’s bonkers. True, there’s a throwaway scene where it’s implied the character is meant to be bipolar, but her behavior crosses the threshold from textbook bipolar behavior and enters Single White Female territory. Case in point: When we first meet her, she’s in the midst of the world’s gentlest breakup, with her latest boyfriend letting her down on the phone on his way to Estonia. (In the first of the film’s many off-the-wall subplots, it’s kinda-sorta implied this guy is a gangster. Spoiler: the movie doesn’t really go anywhere with that). Setting the tone for her behavior for the rest of the film, Gillian goes to his house, trashes it, vandalizes his car, cuts up all of his clothes, and finishes things off by spray-painting over a modern art painting in his den. All this over the supremely lackluster opening credits (MSF: Brought to you by Helvetica).
If this sequence weren’t enough to show that Gillian is an incredibly unhinged and unlikeable person, we almost immediately cut to her browsing through this universe’s version of OKCupid and hatefully dismissing a bunch of average looking guys for reasons she arbitrarily makes up as she goes along (although, to be fair to reality, anyone who’s spent a fair amount of time on a dating site has probably received similar treatment from seemingly normal people, so we might just chalk this scene up to the writer’s bizarre grasp of the online dating world). She finally settles on Andy, not so much because their interests mesh up or because he seems like a decent guy, but because he looks like a model and a search of his name reveals that he’s the millionaire scion of an online marketing empire. It just so happens, though, that Andy really is a decent guy, and the pair hit it off. They hit it off so well, in fact, that Andy starts to consider making their relationship long term; and it’s at that point, dear readers, about twenty minutes into the film, that things go completely off the rails.
From this point forward, MSF becomes such a cavalcade of madness that I don’t want to spoil anything for you. Although there is a coherent storyline that dominates most of the film’s running time, it’s bogged down in a variety of subplots that rival Tommy Wiseau’s The Room for their sheer insanity. Prostitution? Sexual blackmail? Robbery? Frickin’ murder plots? It’s all here, and then some. Before the movie is over, Gillian will have gotten involved in seemingly every criminal enterprise imaginable save drug trafficking, and if the movie’s running time were just a tad bit longer, that would probably be in there, too.
The movie’s spastic tone is the result of a number of factors, all of which perfectly coalesce to bring this into “must see” territory. Most glaring is the script, which, in addition to its’ wonton sensationalism, suffers from a compulsion to have Gillian narrate her own actions, apparently in an attempt to let the audience in on her thought processes. The result is that we get a sort of weird blow-by-blow of exactly what we’re seeing onscreen, almost like a film for the visually impaired. In the opening sequence, for example, we don’t just see Gillian get pissed and destroy her boyfriend’s house, we have Gillian tell us she’s pissed and tell us she’s going to destroy her boyfriend’s house. She’s not breaking the fourth wall, mind you—she says these things out loud to absolutely no one while sitting alone in her car and wandering her boyfriend’s early 2000s sex palace.
Said palace brings me to another source of the film’s unintentional knee-slappery. It becomes an important plot point that Gillian lives with her mother. Mama suffered a heart attack not too long ago, and Gillian’s money from her job as an office manager largely goes to pay the bills and keep her mother in good health. Throughout the film, Gillian goes to Three’s Company-level lengths to cover up where she lives, not because she’s embarrassed of her living situation but because her house is ostensibly such a dump that not even Mama June would live there. At one point, she even goes through a complex charade in order to make Andy think that she lives with her sister, just because she’s so embarrassed of her absolute dumpster dive of a house. The thing is, though, that Gillian and her mom’s house easily cost $125,000 and is more beautiful than any home many of us will ever live in. This isn’t a case of Gillian’s character having unrealistic standards, mind you. Her sister’s house, which is apparently so much nicer that Gillian would sleep on the couch just so she can be seen on the porch in the morning, isn’t any nicer. It’s just that the people making this movie apparently couldn’t be bothered to either find a house that looks like a struggling lower-middle-class family home, or they honestly had no idea what one looked like. This “hovel” has two 12x12 bedrooms, an eat-in kitchen, and a spacious family room, not to mention beautiful furniture that includes a six-foot-tall, solid oak vanity setup for Gillian. Yet this is all supposed to be so seedy that when Gillian finds out Andy has seen where she lives, she literally tries to strangle someone.
And that leads me to both the source of the film’s biggest flaws and why it is so eminently enjoyable: Yvonne Zima. If I had to guess from her performance here, I’d have to say that either Yvonne Zima woefully misunderstood the script, or she’s one of the nicest people walking the planet. For all of Gillian’s alleged craziness, meanness, and downright evil, Zima projects a warmth and gentility that’s simply irresistible. That could have worked for the character— the most dangerous psychos are the ones who charm us. Yet even when Gillian is supposed to be in full-on freak out mode, her viciousness comes across less as the venom of a disturbed individual and more as the flirtation of a very self-possessed young woman. When she snaps at someone and says something particularly vile, it seems like it should be followed up with a wink and a toss of the hair. You come away thinking not so much that Gillian is a sick maniac, but that Yvonne Zima would be a really fun girl to date. It’s not necessarily a bad performance, it’s just not the performance the script calls for, and Zima’s natural charisma is enough that I’d watch another movie simply to see her in it.
(Far be it for me to objectify Ms. Zima, but a word must be said here about her wardrobe. It’s something of a time-honored tradition for certain Lifetime movies to skirt the boundaries of softcore porn, and this is one of them. While such gems as Sex and the Single Mom usually meditate on both the male and female form, though, MSF is Zima’s show from start to finish. Hardly a scene goes by in which she isn’t in a sexy and/or revealing outfit, whether she’s on a date, preparing for a hookup, or just hanging out with her mom. It’s difficult to tell if the director was just a sleaze who took advantage of being able to dictate the clothing of a beautiful young woman, or if it was a conscious decision to draw in the male companions of the ostensibly female target audience by keeping them in a state of constant arousal. All of this casual sexiness culminates with a scene in which an enraged Gillian She-Hulks out and literally tears her blouse off for no damn reason other than so the camera can linger on her finely sculpted cleavage for the next five minutes. It would be embarrassingly sexist if it weren’t so hilarious, and if Zima didn’t seem to be having such a fun time).
The badness of the film diminishes in its’ final fifteen minutes, during which everyone seems to suddenly realize they were trying to make a halfway decent movie. I’d believe that it was shot in chronological order on a very tight schedule, and that at least some of what we’re seeing is the result of the actors not having enough time to get into the spirit of the movie. The tone becomes a bit more serious, and even Zima begins to show some traces of real menace; but then, the movie’s just over. Not since Final Justice have I seen so blatantly anticlimactic an ending. It’s like the production ran out of either time or money, so the movie doesn’t so much end as it does stop when it seems the narration has reached a logical conclusion, with no falling action or satisfying resolution. Just as the movie very abruptly starts in media res, so too does it end when it seems like there’s at least something to be said about everything we’ve just seen.
As I said, I found MSF at a Redbox, with crazy cover art depicting a woman who is not Yvonne Zima reclining behind a shattered computer monitor showing a picture of a random dead guy who isn’t in this movie (apparently there’s alternate cover art featuring Zima reclining behind a blank monitor, but I have no idea where that was utilized, if anyplace). A Google search shows that it’s almost sold out on Amazon and that it’s got barely any reviews floating around out there. This is a cinematic crime which must be corrected. I’ve no doubt that if this had aired during MST3K’s heyday, Michael J. Nelson would’ve tried to acquire this for the show. It’s simply so hilariously, broadly, endearingly bad that it truly becomes more than the sum of its’ parts and, against all expectation, turns into a good movie.
Start out 2017 as a great year. See MSF. When you’re done laughing, you’ll thank me for it.