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THE BEST SCENES in It's My Turn simmer quietly with tension, brilliantly capturing the awkwardness that pervades ordinary encounters. This basically banal film speaks most eloquently when it says nothing. Its characters are often only vaguely aware of each other's existence. Just about every conversation is a failed opportunity. Even when lovers dance, their steps aren't graceful.
The fine portrayal of awkwardness that is the film's major virtue is also its downfall. In trying to topple the conventional stereotype of the career woman as a coldly efficient bitch, the film goes too far. It's My Turn tries to prove that a woman mathematician and professor at the University of Chicago can be femininely vulnerable; it ends up portraying her as a klutz.
Initially it works. After all, who can help but love a woman who easily masters equations but loses badly at pinball? Dr. Kate Gundzinger may be courted for a major administrative post at a prestigious university, but she still revels in giving her father a haircut or tenderly joking with her lover's children. What's more, she is played by leggy Jill Clayburgh whose girlish insecurities are often appealing.
The problem arises when the humorously sweet vulnerability intended to balance the mathematician's flawless competence becomes instead her most striking characteristic.
Hopelessly awkward in even the simplest social situation, Gundzinger trips on cobblestones, drops her sunglasses, gets sick at weddings, gawks when talking to male colleagues, and cuts her finger three times in less than two days. For an independent "modern" career woman, she seems curiously naive and ill-at-ease with her own sexuality; confused by her attraction to her future step-brother, she invites him to her hotel room for a drink and then awkwardly confesses she "has never made love to a stranger before."
EXCEPTING the very brief opening scene we never see Gundzinger do what she does best: teach math. While we are told repeatedly she is a career woman, we see little evidence of commitment or dedication. Throughout the film, her chief mathematical concern is that a particularly exceptional male student will solve a difficult problem before she does. One wonders how a woman so personally and professionally insecure could have managed to survive the tenure system at any major American university.
Gundzinger seems strangely out of command of her own life. Two days after she meets her future step-brother, Ben, she is ready to give up her mathematics professorship and take an administrative job she isn't really sure she wants, simply to be with him. The screenplay leaves it to Ben, a likeable ex-baseball player but admitted "dumb jock," to finally tell her how foolhardy it is for her to look to a man as the solution to her own problems.
If this be "feminism," it is feminism of the Unmarried Woman variety in which finding an Alan Bates, or in this case, a Michael Douglas, is the only way to make life as a career woman truly satisfying.
Despite Weill's attempt to make Gundzinger's feminism palatable through vunerability, Clayburgh still manifests many of the unsympathetic qualities that are stereotypically ascribed to career women. She expects her lover to display inexhaustible patience as she discusses her career "breakthrough," but when she aids him with his work it is only to criticize his sentence structure. "If I could just solve this problem, I'd be in a class with Euclid or Newton," she tells her lover as they lie in bed together. One sympathizes when, at the moment of their break-up, he laments, "It would be too exhausting to live through every moment of your life."
The film's inherently dull plot accentuates these character problems. As the film opens, Gundzinger is planning to return to New York for her father's wedding. He is marrying a woman she dislikes intensely--for absolutely no logical reason. It's a plot we've seen before, as we watch the two sides of the family acquainting themselves at the obligatory pre-wedding fete in a restaurant. We sit through another child's lament about a perfectly reasonable second marriage. The situation does not in the least seems traumatic, but Clayburgh plays the extreme neurotic, raging about how she doesn't want to go to the wedding, and ripping clothes on and off in front of a mirror. One wonders how many thirty year old women, let alone high powered intellectuals, feel such outrage at not being "daddy's girl" anymore.
THIS FILM is director Weill's first foray into Hollywood-backed, large budget production. She also directed the promising independent production Girlfriends several years ago. It's My Turn has lost the special personal intimacy of Girlfriends without gaining in technical virtuosity. Its visually unengaging photography may sketch the plot, but is without artistic merit.
Still, dull camerawork and cliched setting leave room for interesting subplots. We see Ben struggling to reestablish his identity after an injury forces his premature retirement from a promising baseball career. And we see Kate's dad and Ben's mother finding happiness together in their September years while their children founder about looking to become "connected."
Even Kate has a few gloriously feisty moments. When Ben derogatorily remarks that he doesn't "have any idea what the hell turns her on," she apologizes for giving him "more trouble than the groupies do." A few more well-placed retorts might have succeeded in giving Kate enough self-assertiveness to lend her vulnerability its intended poignancy.
But as it is, although Gundzinger may not be the emotionally frigid woman we expect in a mathematician, her exaggerated angst at life's problems seems to corroborate another insupportable stereotype; that a woman's intelligence is not a blessing, but a curse. Gundzinger's suggested brilliance--one only gets an inkling of it in the film--always conspires to work against her. The men who are attracted to her are attracted not because but in spite of her intellect. Her intelligence merely makes it difficult, if not impossible, for her to maintain satisfying relationships. The screenplay, by involving her with a somewhat pedestrian builder and a charming, but puerile ex-ballplayer, makes Gundzinger a perpetual misfit. One wonders why, among the University of Chicago's several hundred tenured male professors, she couldn't find a man who genuinely appreciates her.
The film's botched handling of a supposedly feminist message is only partly redeemed by its spotty ability to convey our awkward attempts to overcome personal isolation. Gundzinger does not love the builder but lives with him because "he gives me space and makes me laugh," and that is infinitely preferable to loneliness. In one of the movie's most subtly haunting scenes, Gundzinger faces her new future mother-in-law alone for the first time. Gundzinger has just thrown up, and is embarrassed. The older woman is embarrassed by Gundzinger's embarrassment. The two, who do not get along but desperately want each other's approval, cautiously search for a palatable topic of conversation. Finally Kate asks, "What color dress are you wearing (to the wedding)?" The older woman looks surprised by the question's inanity. "Blue," she answers. "Lovely," says Kate. What else can they say? Another opportunity for two human beings to "connect" has slipped by.
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