Manchester Film Festival ’18: ‘Bernard and Huey’ attempts to make misogyny endearing

‘Bernard and Huey’ is indisputably a film about women. The opening features a shot of an address book, detailing various female names and, presumably, phone numbers. Women are discussed in virtually every conversation, for their habits, their faults, their advantages. There are multiple female characters within the film, and a few of them even get the chance to talk.

Unfortunately, ‘Bernard and Huey’ fails to treat its female characters like actual people.

Set in modern day New York, the film introduces its protagonists through a flashback of the eponymous pair discussing how best to “make out” with a woman; whilst Bernard has never made out, Huey is popular with the ladies, a paradoxical achievement considering his misogynistic ways. He discards his women with an ease that Bernard approaches with equal disgust and awe – surely, women cannot keep falling for this abhorrent pig of a man?

David Koechner and Jim Rash in Bernard and Huey (2017). © Eat Bug Films LLC

Fast-forward twenty-five years and the tables have turned. Bernard (Jim Rash), now 49, is living a sparse lifestyle, caught in a cycle of break-up/make-up with a girlfriend. When Huey (David Koechner) turns up at his door, scruffy and drunk, Bernard does not recognise him: middle age has not treated his former best friend kindly. He’s now a divorcee with two kids that hate him and, though he frequently repeats that women would do anything to sleep with him, he cannot seem to find the spark he used to have when it comes to romance.

His daughter, Zelda (Mae Whitman) is yet another woman-shaped thorn in Huey’s side; Zelda hates men and channels this frustration into elaborate artworks of butchered penises. This tiring stereotype is vaguely funny at first, except that – unlike Bernard and Huey – we’re never supposed to empathise with Zelda, whose experience with men has been awful to say the least. Her wish to become a graphic novelist is nonsensical, and the ambition she has is pitied by the other characters and the male gaze of the camera. After all, how could a woman that hates men this much ever succeed in life? The detached, wry nature of the script could make this distaste palatable, but Huey, the central misogynist figure of the movie, the big bad of treating women like shit, continues to be granted his prejudices without much comeuppance at all.

Jim Rash and Mae Whitman in Bernard and Huey (2017). © Eat Bug Films LLC

Without spoiling the entire film, ‘Bernard and Huey’ looks at Huey’s misogyny almost fondly, as a vice of an overgrown puppy who just needs to be trained a little. Whilst Zelda’s hatred of men is portrayed as the vicious misunderstandings of a millennial with daddy issues, Huey is intended to be somewhat endearing, even if we do cringe at his outdated views. Furthermore, every conversation concerning women is so thoroughly objectified that even Bernard comes across as a complete tool most of the time. ‘Bernard and Huey’ is obsessed with the male perspective, on a topic that has been loudly spoken about by men throughout the history of cinema.

Maybe this is intentional, and the film is actually a commentary on the way media views gender. Maybe the female characters are supposed to be caricatures. Maybe the whole film is steeped in several layers of irony. The “maybe”, however, isn’t good enough from the perspective of this feminist reviewer. Now is not the time for maybes – now is the time for hard, decisive criticism of a patriarchal society that has kept women in the dark for centuries. If we are only now starting to see the light, then we must do so by championing female characters and female voices.

Writing a review like this is always difficult; the urge to keep some level of objectivity is certainly present. Indeed, Jules Feiffer’s script is witty, with a quick and dry humour that fits perfectly with the bleak realism of the characters. The direction is sleek, all white interiors of New York apartments and busy, compassionless streets. The acting is solid, the cast is stellar, the comedy perfectly timed.

I can state all of that with confidence. This is a well-made film. I’d encourage you to go and see it if the premise interests you – I’d always encourage seeing indie films regardless of whether I think they’re good or not, as this is how art develops and continues. The effort that went into making this film, which included uncovering a 25-year-old script, is admirable and I commend the filmmakers for their dedication.

I wholly believe, however, that film has a social responsibility, and in the case of ‘Bernard and Huey’, this social responsibility should probably stretch to viewing women as human beings. The glaze of satire that covers every interaction between the characters doesn’t excuse the fact that the male characters in the film are intended to be endearing in their hatred of women, whilst the one woman who hates men is caricatured as an evil penis-loathing would-be-“dyke”.

Come on, guys. We can do so much better than this.

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