Written by Barry Strugatz & Mark R. Burns
Directed by Susan Seidelman
In watching films in this series, my hope is always to come across a maligned picture that’s actually better than people make it out to be. I’d love to be surprised and discover some lost gem that was misunderstood in its time. The movies are chosen based on either the status of the performers or the franchise being adapted. I picked She-Devil because the names on the marquee are Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr. Barr was particularly huge at the time with a hit tv series, and this film was seen as a stepping stone into big-screen work. What happened was that the film flopped, and Barr stuck with her television gig. But is the movie as bad as audiences and critics believed at the time?
Ruth is a housewife trying to keep her husband, Bob, interested in their marriage. During a chance meeting, he falls for and begins having an affair with romance novelist Mary Fisher. Getting to lounge around a mansion and escape from his domestic duties leads Bob to formally leaving Ruth to shack up with Mary. This is the event that causes Ruth to snap, and she embarks on a quest to deconstruct every aspect of Bob’s life. She goes incognito as a nursing home aide to get close to Mary’s aging mother. She starts a staffing agency to help women like her and uses this to get a spy on the inside of Bob’s accounting agency. It’s a fairly light-hearted comedy in the end, which is sort of the problem.
The first big problem with She-Devil is Roseanne. She’s playing someone who isn’t her, and that just doesn’t work. The reason why her sitcom worked for so many years was that she was mainly playing herself. It was the same snarky, sarcastic wit that was present in her comedy. Ruth has to be meek and mild in the first act, and this falls flat. Even with Ruth should be more calculating and vicious, Roseanne plays everything so bored and uninterested. It’s emphasized because the rest of the acting is pretty good, especially Meryl Streep, who just goes for the farce of the story.
The other problem is that the screenplay cuts the ferocity of Ruth’s righteous anger. The film is based on a novel that was also adapted as a British mini-series, and those versions of the story go a lot darker. The original book ends with Mary developing cancer & dying, Bob going to prison, and Ruth having surgeries & makeovers to make herself look like Mary with plans to sexually dominate Bob and torture him when he’s released. The film concludes with Bob learning a lot about himself in prison, half-heartedly apologizing and hinting that Ruth might get back with him. What the hell?
All of the real thematic power that could come from this story is muted, likely from a weak script and studio notes to diminish the feminist message of the picture. The novel goes into an exploration of the way women tear their flesh apart to please men, and that’s limited to an opening makeover in a mall in the film. Bob is never the villain he should be, and the wink at the end makes us think this was all in good fun. This tonal inconsistency is what confuses a viewer about what the comedy is trying to say in the movie. Is this a dark comedy or a comedic sex farce?
This is the first film in my series that I wish had been better because the building blocks of a great movie are here. I honestly would love to see another writer-director take a crack at this with a modern cast, leaning into the darker aspects of the novel. I think Jim Hosking (The Greasy Strangler, An Evening with Beverly Luff-Linn) would bring a fun, dry & weird tone to the film. Casting wise, I think Aubrey Plaza would make a great Mary Fisher and maybe Aidy Bryant as Ruth. She-Devil is a story that is so relevant today, and it’s a shame that the film we have is so poorly executed.