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May 1, 2015

The cultural gulf that separates New York from Los Angeles is just about as clichéd a subject as the one that separates men from women. And, as with movies about men and women Not Getting Each Other, stories about New Yorkers and Angelenos tend to be better when each side is presented as having something to learn from the other. Hollywood being where it is, that doesn’t tend to happen very often, and when a movie like Ride is written and directed by its star, Culver City native Helen Hunt, well, balance just isn’t in the cards.

Looking back, Hunt’s most iconic roles in Mad About You and As Good as It Gets have tended to be the relaxed nurturer playing off an uptight neurotic urbanite. This time, she tries to play the other role herself; Jackie (Hunt) is a high-powered literary editor at a New York magazine, and her son, Angelo (Brenton Thwaites), is an aspiring writer about to head around the corner to college at NYU. The result is kind of a mean-spirited parody, to be honest. Hunt paints her as a kind of egomaniac — the sort of smug pedant that corrects people’s grammar when they say they’re feeling “good” instead of “well”. And since I’m the sort of smug meta-pedant that realizes why “good” actually is correct, it comes off as a cheap and ill-considered joke at the character’s expense.

Angelo — and I mean, can the naming get any more obvious? — goes off to California for the summer with his father, only to drop out of college before it even begins. I guess he didn’t want to live with a roommate majoring in “science” who has “no sense of humor” — another really cheap and mean-spirited jab. Jackie hops the next first-class flight and hires a driver (David Zayas) to attend to her every beck and call while she tries to talk her son out of his newly-adopted surfer-dude lifestyle. And no, they never call her out for treating an Hispanic man as her own personal servant just because she offers him money.

Then, with little explanation, she decides to learn to surf herself, which she initially insists she can do all on her own because she’s a New Yorker which makes her much smarter and more capable than all these stupid California beach bums. After a bad spill she gives in and hires an instructor (Luke Wilson) who she makes fun of until she falls in love with him while he pees on her jellyfish-stung foot. How romantic.

There is, in fact, more to her situation than just “being from New York”, but we don’t learn about it until the climax of the film. There’s a huge piece of this family’s story that comes totally out of left field just in time for the big cathartic breakdown, and it’s never explained or properly dealt with. I cannot for the life of me understand why Hunt chose to keep it a secret from the audience so long when she could have introduced it much earlier and used it far more productively as motivation for her character. But she did, and I’ll respect that choice here. If you really must watch the movie to find out, consider yourself duly warned.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears on Punch Drunk Critics.

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