Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 29, 2006)
For years, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes has resided high on my list of most-hated movies. I saw it theatrically back then and absolutely loathed it. Smug, condescending, narrow-minded and man-bashing, I found it to be an insufferable piece of work.
So why am I watching it again now? Because I’ve not revisited it since the early Nineties and I’m truly curious to discover if I’ll view it differently now. I’ve certainly changed a lot over the last 15 years – will any of that affect how I interpret Tomatoes?
The film introduces us to tubby, mousy housewife Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates). When she and her husband Ed (Gailard Sartain) go to visit his elderly aunt in a nursing home, the old biddy chases out Evelyn. With nothing better to do, she takes a seat and immediately finds herself in a conversation with old Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy). At first she just seems like a doddering, rambling victim of senility, but as she draws Evelyn into the chat, she delights in her stories of her youth.
We flashback to the past to meet tomboyish Idgie Threadgoode (Nancy Atchison) and her brother Buddy (Chris O’Donnell). We see his crush on Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker) and the way those three bond. This ends in tragedy, though, when Buddy dies in a railroad accident.
The story ends there, as Evelyn and Ed need to leave the nursing home. We then see the state of their marriage. Evelyn attends a class to learn how to renew the spark in their relationship, but her efforts don’t succeed. Ed appears happy with the status quo, as he prefers his comfy life of beer, baseball, and a doting wife.
Evelyn re-encounters Ninny and finds herself caught up in another tale of the old days. The rest of the movie shows additional chats between Ninny and Evelyn, most of which revolve around stories about Ruth and adult Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson). The main one involves Frank Bennett (Nick Searcy), Ruth’s husband and the man Idgie gets accused of murdering. We also see how these tales affect and empower Evelyn in the present day and alter her relationship with Ed.
Here I am, 15 years older and potentially wiser. The big question: did I find any pleasures in Tomatoes that escaped me in 1991? The big answer: not a one. If anything, the movie may well have irritated and disgusted me more now than it did then.
There’s not an emotion found in this film that it doesn’t telegraph well in advance and then use to beat us into submission. Subtle this film ain’t. From its insanely obvious depiction of Idgie’s Alternate Sexuality to its portrayal of the characters to the way it shows its scenarios, everything comes across as obvious and without any finesse. The movie never gives us a chance to think for ourselves or view things in our own way. It prefers to shove its thoughts down our throats and pound us with its narrow views of good and bad.
And it does so really poorly, as its efforts consistently backfire. Let’s start with Idgie. We’re supposed to see her as a free-thinking rebel who doesn’t subscribe to society’s arbitrary rules. Instead, however, she comes across as rude, selfish and obnoxious. There’s not a single element of charm or likability in the character, and Masterson’s aggressive performance doesn’t help. She fails to bring out anything even remotely warm in the role, as she makes the character consistently irritating and unable to view anything from any perspective other than her own.
Of course, the movie wants us to see her as its most stellar personality. When she opens a restaurant, she practices integration, and the film makes her Alternate Sexuality patently obvious from minute one. Tomatoes doesn’t make out her unstated but blatant homosexuality to be just another option; it clearly touts it as the way to go in a world populated with cold, uncaring men. I have absolutely no objections to homosexuality at all, but I don’t want to see a film in which it’s made out to somehow be better than heterosexuality. I don’t see either as inherently superior to the other, so don’t beat me over the head with an agenda.
Heck, the flick even posits Idgie as some wonderful Robin Hood kind of character. Early on, she and Ruth hop a train and Idgie throws food to the poor who live along the tracks. Of course, she steals this grub, but who cares? She’s helping the less fortunate – that means it’s okay to do whatever you want, right? Blech!
The movie’s dreadful dialogue doesn’t help. Where is this world in which everyone speaks in faux meaningful stories? I don’t just mean Ninny’s tales, as they’re a crucial element of the plot. I refer to the way in which no one just talks; they always tell us fables with lessons to be learned. These start as cloying and go downhill from there.
Continued problems come from the film’s tone. Its overriding theme: men bad, women good. Sure, the flick offers a few exceptions to the former, as it tosses out some innocuous decent guys like Symbolic Slave “Big George”. However, its two main male characters – Ed and Frank – are either simply inconsiderate or blatantly evil.
Frank may well be the most simplistically portrayed character in the history of cinema. The flick never gives us any sign about why Ruth married him. Instead, it paints him as pure nastiness. He beats her from the relationship’s start and even makes him a member of the KKK! All of this exists to decrease the film’s already low layer of complexity and make Frank’s eventual murder seem all the more justified. Violent, cruel and heartless, he exists as a symbol of the Men Bad theme and nothing else.
Unfortunately, this attitude taints Ed, who doesn’t deserve it. Of course, he never abuses Evelyn in physical ways, but the flick views him as almost as negative as Frank. Okay, that’s an overstatement, especially since the movie loses sight of Ed during its second half. Essentially it posits him as the root of Evelyn’s problems and then ignores him other than as an obstacle to her self-awareness.
Not for a second does the film give Ed a sympathetic portrait, as he stands as an emblem of all the selfish, uncaring men out there. I won’t go out of my way to defend Ed, though I think the story ignores Evelyn’s role in making him who he is. Her root problem isn’t Ed – it’s her lack of self-esteem. The movie nods in that direction at times, but it focuses more on Ed’s flaws than Evelyn’s.
This doesn’t seem right to me. Again, I don’t see Ed as a great husband, but I also fail to view him as an ogre. He takes Evelyn for granted but he’s not a bad guy. He certainly doesn’t deserve the antagonism Evelyn throws his way as the movie progresses.
Ah, Evelyn, otherwise known as “Plot Device”. At the film’s start, it presents her as a pushover too eager to please everyone and without any backbone. As the flick progresses, her meetings with Ninny empower her and turn her into an aggressive Amazon woman.
We’re supposed to see this as progress, but I can’t view it that way, largely due to the extreme behavior exhibited by the character. Take the movie’s famous trailer moment. In this scene, some obnoxious younger women take a parking place for which Evelyn waited. When she protests, they taunt her and say they’re “younger and faster”. Evelyn’s response? She batters their Bug and tells them she’s older and has more insurance.
I recognize this is intended as a movie fantasy moment, but it strikes me as an absurd message nonetheless. Is it really progress for someone to turn to idiotic acts of violence as a solution to problems? Never mind the stupidity of Evelyn’s comment about her insurance. How will insurance matter in a crash intentionally caused by one party? The movie tries to convince us that Evelyn claimed it was an accident, but that’s stupid beyond belief.
Essentially Evelyn goes from being too nice to being too nasty. Couldn’t the character find some middle ground? But in a flick that considers the selfish Idgie to be self-realized, I guess that’s the path Evelyn must take.
The movie paints its emotions in patently obvious ways. When Idgie throws the stolen food to the masses, the event comes along with sweeping, noble music and shots of an adorable, appreciative tyke. It even toys with us in regard to Ninny’s real identity. It’s always really obvious who she actually is, though the movie doesn’t deign to reveal this “secret” until the end. If you don’t get it, I’ll give you a clue: doesn’t it seem odd that none of Ninny’s stories mention herself?
Oh, I need to stop there or my blood pressure will skyrocket. Suffice it to say that Fried Green Tomatoes remains as insufferable in 2006 as it did in 1991. This is abysmal pseudo-feminist tripe with no redeeming qualities.
Note that this DVD features an “Extended Version” of Fried Green Tomatoes. This adds about seven minutes to the theatrical cut’s 130-minute running time. Because I’d not seen the film in 15 years, I didn’t identify the changes myself, but director Avnet mentions some of them in his commentary.
He tells of an added sequence in which Evelyn puts makeup on Ninny, and we also see a little of Idgie and Big George after the appearance of the KKK. The shot of Ruth in church is new, as is the portion with Ninny and Evelyn at the gospel church. We also get a brief bit in which Sipsey tells two boys not to eat the “special” barbecue, and there’s a piece with Ruth and Idgie as they chat in front of the café. Whether these added sequences help or hinder the movie should probably be left up to viewers who don’t loathe the film like I do.