Single White Female has all the hallmarks of an early-90s erotic thriller, a curious subgenre that mostly disappeared with the dawn of the porn-happy internet (to say nothing of the MPAA’s evolving preference for ultraviolence over sexuality). In SWF, stars Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh are relentlessly naked. All the dudes are lying dolts with bad hair. Half the film takes place in the most blue-tinted hour of the evening. But the film has had a surprisingly long tail in pop culture, right up to this weekend’s The Roommate, which seems more than a little influenced by SWF‘s vision of friendly live-in sisterhood shading into obsession.
Keith Staskiewicz: Watching The Roommate, it’s impossible not to think of Single White Female. But it’s also interesting to see another movie with a woman who wants to be/have sex with/murder/all of the above with another woman so quick on the heels of Black Swan. It’s an interesting sub-genre. Although to be fair, Single White Female is itself beholden to Fatal Attraction: Obsessive crazy lady, irrational jealousy, poor murdered house-pet…
Darren Franich: To get really Swedish for a second, there’s also a clear debt to Persona, in which a plain woman becomes obsessed with her more glamourous friend, and the two womens’ identities merge over the course of the movie. (The last shot of SWF is a clear Bergman homage, with the image of the two actresses’ faces combined into one.) I’m not sure how well The Roommate fits into that structure. Between Leighton Meester and Minka Kelly, who’s the “plain” one?
KS: That’s like the inverse of the Alien Vs. Predator tagline: “Whoever loses, we win.” There’s another key hallmark of the ’90s erotic thriller in SWF: no minorities. Come to think of it, isn’t the phrase “Single White Female seeks same” a little racist? There’s got to be anti-discrimination laws that would make Bridget Fonda at least consider some Single Black Females or Single Latina Females.
DF: There’s that great montage where Fonda is seeing potential roommates. There’s an incredibly butch lesbian, a silent-but-hot Italian sexbomb, a neurotic Jewess who talks too much, and finally a demure blonde WASP. (I’m not being reductive. In the credits, these characters are actually called “Mannish Applicant,” “Exotic Applicant,” “Talkative Applicant,” and “Perfect Applicant.”) So we’re very much in Bizarro-Manhattan, populated almost entirely by white people with great apartments and good jobs, but still, such problems. Keith, between this and Reality Bites, why were white people so upset in the early ’90s?
KS: I’m guessing it’s because of a general fear of the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park eating them. SWF is an interesting movie: It’s directed by Barbet Schroeder (respected filmmaker/documentarian/colleague of Eric Rohmer), Jennifer Jason Leigh lives up to her three-name status by playing a crazy murderer, and it made men wary of stilettos for at least a couple of years. It’s always interesting when an everyday object gets used in a movie murder, like say an ice pick, a pencil, a ballpoint pen, or, um, a giant ceramic penis statue. We all have one of those, right?
DF: SWF is also written by Don Roos, who had a brief indie-fabulous moment when he wrote-and-directed The Opposite of Sex, but is most recently known as the co-screenwriter of Marley & Me. I mainly enjoyed SWF in its first hour, before it becomes an apartment-building slasher movie. Perhaps accidentally, Bridget Fonda plays Allie as one of the most obnoxious people on the face of the earth, so you actually kind of find yourself rooting for JJL. By the way, I’m dumbstruck that Bridget Fonda hasn’t acted in almost a decade. I’m not sure she had “talent,” but she definitely had a memorable screen presence. Where’s her TNT cop show?
KS: I’d watch that. It’d be called Autumn Falls and her character’s name would be Autumn.
DF: At the very least she deserves a reality series about her comeback called Lost and Fonda.
KS: Or give her a new CNN talkshow called Bridget to Nowhere. But seriously, you are right, Allie is a terrible roommate. Sure, she doesn’t dress up like you and murder your friends. But she’s snobby. She snoops around JJL’s room the first chance she gets. And she totally screws her new roomie over when she gets back together with Stephen Weber. I mean, JJL specifically asks if she’s going to go back to him and make things awkward, and Allie’s like, “No way, absolutely not.” Cut to a month later: “We’re getting back together! Sorry about that, but we’ll give your new landlord a good recommendation.”
DF: Unlike Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct, SWF is told completely from the woman’s perspective. Actually, the movie seems to directly predate Sex and the City in some ways. Allie is a professional gal with a huge apartment and a massive wardrobe. She has an adorable Stamford-esque gay best friend, a douchey Mr. Big-type boyfriend, and a highly-inappropriate boss (an archetype that popped up plenty of times on SATC). Of course, SWF is ridiculously alarmist and queasy about everything SATC would celebrate. The message of the movie can be summed up as: “New York sure is scary for a single white female!”
KS: Too bad they never made Single White Female 2, where she gets a lavish apartment in Abu Dhabi. There really aren’t any truly likable characters in this movie, with the exception of the gay neighbor and Buddy the dog. It’s especially weird since they cast actors known as “nice guys” in nasty roles; Weber isn’t the wiseacre from Wings, he’s a cheating jerk. Stephen Tobolowsky isn’t Needlenose Ned Ryerson, he’s a skeevy near-rapist. It’s pretty grim.
DF: I can’t decide if Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance in the movie is good or bad. On one hand, her Hedy is clearly gonzo insane from the moment she walks onscreen, so it’s hard to take the slow-burn plot seriously. On the other hand, she’s such a weird conglomeration of psycho modes — she’s got the brain of a twelve-year-old, but she’s also Tom Ripley-style murder plotter — that she gives Single White Female a ton of camp value that the movie wouldn’t have otherwise. You kind of wish Hedy and Catherine Trammell from Basic Instinct could’ve had a Freddy vs. Jason-style spinoff.
KS: I like her performance. I think she sells “legitimately unhinged.” I also like that there are moments where they give glimpses into the extent of her craziness, but don’t delve too deeply into it. Like that bizarro night club scene. It makes you feel that there may be a lot more to her insanity, but regardless you probably don’t really want to know about it.
DF: It’s exactly what they don’t do in The Roommate.
KS: Oh my god, I just realized something: Jennifer Jason Leighton Meester.
DF: [Head Explodes]
NEXT WEEK IN HISTORY: Adam Sandler stars in Just Go With It opposite two ridiculously attractive love interests. Back in 1995, times were different: he could only afford one ridiculously attractive love interest. Return with us, friends, to Billy Madison, and help us figure out how Adam Sandler became one of the last true movie stars in Hollywood.