There are a lot of bad remakes out there. Believe me, KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown has only scratched the surface. But even the most miserable excuse for a remake retains one saving grace. Its existence can lead people to watch the original and almost always superior production. How many people would have the inclination, or even the opportunity, to watch the first versions of things like Godzilla, The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty if big budget remakes didn’t bring attention to them and, sometimes, even push studios to reissue the originals? So, no matter how stupid, craven or pointless a remake might be (and The Day the Earth Stood Still with Keanu Freakin’ Reeves is all three), it is never completely useless.
Ripoffs are another matter entirely and this week we’ll be taking a look at one of the more brazen ripoffs Hollywood has ever vomited up.
First, though, you may be wondering what the difference is between a remake and a ripoff. It’s pretty simple. A remake acknowledges the original. Whether it’s with the same title or the same characters or a mention in the credits of its predecessor, a remake is always upfront with the viewer that they’re watching one person’s take on another person’s story. A ripoff doesn’t do that. A ripoff simply steals the ideas, the themes and sometimes the entire plot of another motion picture and tries to pass it off as an original piece of work. And about the only thing that prevents The Roommate (2011) from being THE most brazen ripoff in Hollywood history is that when its actors were doing their little media tours to promote the film, some of them openly acknowledged they were doing another version of Single White Female (1992). Give the cast a point for honesty and then take away about hundred points for being part of a ripoff in the first place.
Single White Female is good movie. Not great. Good. It is one of the more memorable films of its era, with numerous other ripoffs out there and even, I believe, one of those cruddy, cash-grabbing, direct-to-video sequels in 2005. That legacy, however, isn’t because of outstanding quality. It’s more due to Single White Female being the vanguard of a new cultural zeitgeist. Before there was Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, before there was Caroline in the City, there was Allison Jones in Single White Female. The whole “young, single woman on her own in New York” became a thing in the 90s in both drama and comedy and this was one of the first works that helped make it a thing. I’m sure a decent amount of nudity is also why it’s fondly remembered by some all these years later, but that’s a different thing.
Allison Jones (Bridget Fonda) is newly moved to New York City. She’s got a big and most empty apartment, a slightly older fiancé named Sam Rawson (Steven Weber) and a gay best friend named Graham Knox (Peter Friedman) who lives upstairs. Yeah, this movie also helped cement the stereotype of every urban female past puberty having a gay best friend. Oscar Wilde must’ve gagged on that, wherever he is now.
In less time than it took for the opening credits to roll, Allison finds out that Sam just slept with his ex-wife. She tosses him out, cries on Graham’s shoulder and decides to get herself a roommate. That’s when she has a “meet cute” with Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that back then was turning the traditional boy-meets-girl scene from a romantic comedy on its head. Today, you’re more likely to see that in a lesbian romance flick but, again, Single White Female was on the cutting edge of that social revolution.
Hedra moves in. She and Allison bond over domestic chores. They get a puppy. Allison even gets a big professional break and is hired by a lecherous clothing designer (the criminally underrated Stephen Tobolowsky) to install her marketing program onto his computers. And then Sam sweet talks his way back into Allison’s life and her pants, demoting Hedra to third-wheel status. But like another famous female of 1990’s cinema, Hedra…
Her behavior devolves from “friend who needs too much” and past “have you ever thought about seeing a therapist” to “Holy crap! She’s got a gun!”
Adapted from the novel “SWF Seeks Same” by John Lutz, Single White Female has the wonderful narrative construction of a good thriller, lacking only the propulsive acceleration. Thrillers are like rollercoasters. They slowly build up and then send you plunging down into twists and turns. This movie has that same kind of plot but with the pace and sensibility of a relationship flick. Allison, Hedra and Sam aren’t just pawns being rushed hither and yon until they’re ready to be smashed by the Almighty Plot Hammer. Writer Don Roos and director Barbet Schroeder make a real effort to give these people human depth and emotion. Allison is more than a designated victim. Hedra is more than a dangerous loon. Even Sam is more than a simple cad.
A great example of that is the period in Single White Female, before things spin off into melodrama, when Hedra tries to befriend Sam. There are a few scenes where you can see that she’s willing to accept Sam and Allison as a couple and is trying to carve out a place for herself in that relationship. But it is Allison who slams the door on that because she doesn’t trust Sam around women, even Hedra. It’s a wonderfully nuanced bit of the story where Allison, the putative hero, becomes kind of a bitch who tosses aside this woman who befriended her. Allison is afraid Sam will cheat on her again but rather than admit that’s a problem with her and Sam, she displaces that anger and anxiety onto Hedra. There’s been a bunch of these “my new best friend turns out to be a psycho” movies since Single White Female, but in how many of them do you ever empathize with the psycho?
Throw in a surprising number of nude scenes, including a glimpse of the Weber Wang, and all around quality filmmaking and Single White Female holds up quite well as non-frivolous entertainment.
In contrast, The Roommate is about a frivolous as you can get. It was made by frivolous people for a frivolous reason and in a frivolous way.
To begin, The Roommate is PG-13 while Single White Female is rated R. Which means this ripoff has no nudity, less violence and I can’t even remember if it even bothered to use the one F-word they let you have in PG-13 flicks. Has any PG-13 remake of an R rated movie ever been even remotely good? It’s not that so-called adult material is necessary but if the subject matter merited an R in 1992, why would it not in 2011? Flip it around and imagine that the new Hunger Games or the next Star Wars were rated R. What if Katniss Everdeen took her top off or Mace Windu talked like Samuel L. Jackson talks in almost every other movie he’s ever been in? R rated originals get PG-13 remakes solely because Hollywood suits believe they can make more money and no matter how many times they’re proven wrong, I don’t think they’ll ever get it.
Secondly, The Roommate’s story and characters are shallow. Forget about human depth. I’ve seen emojis with more emotional complexity than the people in this motion picture. Why are we supposed to identify with and root for the movie’s heroine? Because she’s pretty. Why are we supposed to care about her new boyfriend? Because he’s pretty. When a character who has been nothing but an off-screen plot device shows up and gets killed, why are we supposed to care? Because he’s pretty. It may be PG-13 but The Roommate has more of a horror feel to it, with characters that are nothing more than cows waiting to be slaughtered…which never happens, of course, because it’s PG-13!
The story, for which four people astonishingly received a writing credit, is about college freshman Sara Matthews (Minka Kelly) who moves into the dorms and meets her obviously-disturbed-from-the-first-moment-you-see-her roommate, Rebecca Evans (Leighton Meester). There’s a bunch of other characters, including Sara’s gay best friend and her estranged former boyfriend, and they all do some stuff but literally none of it matters. This script only qualifies as a story in the most technical sense of the word. No one in the film acts or talks like a real person. There’s no reason to care what happens to Sara. It never feels like there’s anything truly at risk.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. After establishing to the audience that Rebecca is bonkers, it shows us a meeting between Rebecca and a girl that we are clearly supposed to understand was Rebecca’s obsession before Sara. And not only is this girl alive and physically unharmed, but she’s so unafraid that she can insult Rebecca to her face. The only drama or tension this story can generate depends entirely on seeing Rebecca as a genuine threat but she is unable to intimidate a non-entity supporting character who is on screen for less than three minutes and has maybe four lines. How would Rocky III have worked if in the press conference in front of the statue, Mickey had knocked out Clubber Lang?
And while Single White Female had only five significant characters whose actions were cleverly interlinked through the plot, The Roommate has 11 significant characters who have little to do with each other. Allison had her gay best friend. Sara not only had a lesbian best friend, she also had a straight female friend and Sara’s straight female friend had her own female friend. Gah! 8 of The Roommate’s 11 characters don’t exist or serve any purpose other than moving the plot along.
I’m sure it’s no surprise that Single White Female wins this Weekend Ripoff Throwdown. About the only criticism I have of the original is that Bridget Fonda is outclassed on screen by Jennifer Jason Leigh. It’s not as bad as Tombstone with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer where Kilmer was essentially doing a completely different film than Russell, but there are moments where you’ll wish Fonda’s acting was more up to the task. There have also been so many other ripoffs besides The Roommate that it won’t seem nearly as fresh as it did back in ’92. But if you’ve ever wondered why there have been so many films, on TV and in theaters, with this same basic plot or you’d just like to watch a good flick, try Single White Female.
The only person who should watch The Roommate is Derek Jeter, and that’s only when he needs a reminder of why he dumped Minka Kelly.
Single White Female (1992)
Written by Don Roos.
Directed by John Lutz.
Starring Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Steven Weber, Peter Friedman, Stephen Tobolowsky, Michele Farr and Eric Poppick.
The Roommate (2011)
Written by Sonny Mallhi and writer Nick Bylsma, Chris Bylsma and Richard Robertson.
Directed by Christian E. Christiansen. Remember this guy if you ever want to make fun of someone named Mohammad Mohammad.
Starring Minka Kelly, Leighton Meester, Cam Gigandet…what? Cam Gigandet? Is that a name or someone speaking in tongues? Aly Michalka, Danneel Ackles (parents must have been Asimov fans), Frances Fisher, Tomas Arana, Billy Zane, Nina Dobrev, Matt Lanter and Kat Graham.