*/**** Image B Sound B Extras B
starring Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary-Louise Parker, Mary Stuart Masterson
screenplay by Fannie Flagg and Carol Sobieski, based on the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Flagg
directed by Jon Avnet
by Walter Chaw A seedy, sleight-of-hand weepie that mines tears from hilarious deaths, servile Negroes, cannibalism, itinerant rail-bo shanty towns, and a hint of lesbianism, Jon Avnet's revered Fried Green Tomatoes is redneck porn and noble-geriatric/fat-girl uplift mashed whole-kernel into a confused feminist tirade that finds strength in the literary retardation and literal consumption of men. With castration or cannibalization the main options for boys, then, doomed cousin Buddy (Chris O'Donnell) should count himself lucky that a poignant train ends his contractual agreement as the film's "good" white guy. It's really no wonder that Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker) and Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) turn to the love that dare not speak its name after Buddy, the last virile, decent man, gets pasted into hash early in the flashback reverie of dotty old Ninny (Jessica Tandy).
Is there a problem inherent in the way men are portrayed in films like this? No question--the same problem afflicts women in guy flicks, shoehorned as they are into stripper, harridan, and hostage roles with discomfort commensurate to these abuser, cruiser, and gay friend archetypes. What this kind of movie seems to be, for the most part, is an opportunity for men to feel as used-up and weary as women do when they're dragged through Michael Bay movies by Neanderthals too bellicose and blinkered to recognize the violence they're doing to them. In that spirit, Fried Green Tomatoes' stroke of genius is sliding bored housewife Evelyn (Kathy Bates) into the role of audience surrogate: if her bookshelf isn't the exclusive grazing field of Oprah's Book Club (to which the inspiration for this film, Fanny Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, must honorarily belong), I'd be shocked mute.
With Evelyn in the present timeline doing her best to lose weight, explore her sexuality in workshops, and unleash her anarchic alter-ego "Towanda" to wreak havoc on the young, the beautiful, and her sports-obsessed husband (all while undergoing "the change"), Fried Green Tomatoes at least has the decency to demonstrate a little (if very little) homespun irony. It identifies exactly the demographic attracted to this fish chum and, in an unexpected trump move, elevates that collective She, on dimpled knees, into the rarefied air of holy sainted mother. Rosasharn she ain't. No accident that the film appeared three years into the run of Roseanne Barr's "domestic goddess" sitcom--a peculiar period at the beginning of the '90s where being crass, uneducated, and poor became the national velvet, the new-gilded American Dream having proved a fandango not worth chasing, maybe as a result of a hangover from the Gordon Gecko '80s. The lesbianism of the piece isn't so much subsumed into the subtext as made the white elephant: the picture is about gender politics and a legacy of communal repression too embarrassed to port over a nearly-platonic-anyway love story between two women (Idgie is so down with the matriarchy that honey bees don't sting her), hence spaying any kind of sympathetic heat the picture might have otherwise had. Who needs men when women can be femme and butch (if only one or the other and never elements of both)? The grey of Idgie rescuing meek Ruth from her Snidely Whiplash husband is whitewashed like a picket fence in this iteration just like every other action the two undertake. Cry not when Ruth takes a dirt nap: she's due to rise in three days' time.
Without nuanced characters, without a nuanced world (an aborted Klan rally has all the menace of a Rotary picnic), what's left are two-dimensional cut-outs peopling a fairytale of the South, going about their allegorical existences for the express purpose of validating the impotent rage of middle-class ladies middling away their middle years in Middle America. Careful: one misstep and we're equating the people we think are interested in Fried Green Tomatoes with demented old folks, cannibalistic inbred bumpkins, and dodgy fat persons. The film touches on their frustrations with their spouses and the loathing of their own widening hips and expanding waists (find here the seeds of toxic stuff like The First Wives' Club and The Hours), providing for them this bit of cathartic platitude that excuses them from their own mid-life crises. Yearning for that perfect boy from their hazily-remembered past, wondering if being married to a girl instead of a boy wouldn't result in a more satisfying exchange of feelings, fantasizing about killing and barbecuing their boring mates like proto-working class-hero/avenging bitch primogenitor Medea might have done had her kids the good fortune of first emptying the nest: it's all here, neat as a self-help aisle--explanation at last for the film's rabid popularity and, now, Universal's largely-recycled "Anniversary Edition" re-release of the title. But, land mercy, it's slip-covered! After all, once Kohl's' hand-towel section is emptied out, what else are they gonna spend their money on?
Avnet provides audio commentary over a soft 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film's "Extended Version." (To date, the 131-minute theatrical cut has not been released on DVD.) The DD 5.1 remix is equally unimpressive: the movie's not about tech specs, after all, and sure enough the presentation fails to disappoint. The director speaks at length of being the screenplay's true author, thereby making this another in a long line of "women's" movies adapted/written and directed by men and thus explaining simultaneously why it's so pandering to cheap, shallow ideas of women's lib. Comments on the cast, on the image of a "ghost train" that fuelled the picture's rail motif, and on picking out his family and the family of crewmembers milling around as extras round out the bulk of the commentary. If you love Fried Green Tomatoes, you'll probably survive this yakker, because you're clearly immune to inanity and mediocrity. A little over a minute of "Deleted Scenes" is uncommented-upon and pointless for the most part, though it does bear mentioning, I suppose, that two of them feature the character of Big George (Stan Shaw). "Outtakes" (3 mins.) feature the usual run of missed marks and flubbed lines, edited together in a way that's so free of context that any humour that might have existed in the ruining of these scenes is lost. Even in the flub reel, see, you need to know how it's actually supposed to go. Chief revelation herein is that Chris O'Donnell giggles like a dairymaid when amused.
"Moments of Discovery: The Making of Fried Green Tomatoes" (65 mins.) is a perversely long documentary that reunites the major players in an exercise as jaunty and self-congratulatory as it is worthless and aimless. Author Fannie Flagg talks about how her novel was an attempt to return to a gentler time (wherein, I guess, the Klan lynched the help and the help ate the ruling class--Sartre would have a field day) before admitting that she wasn't cut out for the screenwriting gig. I sort of enjoyed learning that the original concept for an adaptation was to turn the material into a musical, though I was less enraptured by Avnet's weasel-like visage and personality. "To Fannie's credit, when she read what I had written, she was very pleased." Yeah, bravo, Fannie. Some of the same casting stories return from the commentary and the cast, as actors tend to do, praise one another to distraction. Avnet saying of Masterson that "she's a little feisty one!" sort of made me want to 'pit up, though, truth be told. For what it's worth, everyone seems more comfortable with the lesbian text of the flick than the flick itself would have you believe. "Sipsey's Recipes" is a scroll-through feature that reprints, in essence, the recipes from the book. Advice on the best way to butcher and barbecue a grown man, however, remains missing in both incarnations. "Jon Avnet's Director's Notes" are essentially pages from the shooting script for the edification of no one; "Production Photographs" allows you to scroll or wait and have the disc scroll on your behalf through a bunch of behind-the-scenes garbage showing people at the craft services table and pies sitting on chairs draped with American flags. A "Poster Campaign" segment is exactly what it sounds like, rounding out a disc and a film that are also exactly what they sound like. But, hey, that slipcover... Originally published: August 28, 2006.