Most people might know Adrienne Shelly for her 2007 hit Waitress, but her 1999 subversive rom-com I’ll Take You There perfectly celebrates her wry and optimistic outlook on life – and captures what made her such a one-of-a-kind. Unpacking the tweaked and reversed genre tropes of the rom-com, the film offers a critical celebration of the way we change each other – Gabriela Almeida tells us how.
It starts with a couple.
A woman sings to a man, not quite in tune, a whispered version of “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” “She moans the whole day long. I'll do the cooking, darling, I'll pay the rent; I knows I've done you wrong…” She stops and looks at him. They smile like they’ve just shared a secret and a kiss. The scene fades. Later, the same man, Bill, listens to the same song. But this time he’s in a kitchen, disheveled and alone — a shadow of the man we’d seen before. Bill shoots darts at a picture of a man on his wall. His shirt is dirty and worn and dotted with holes; his hair bedraggled. The woman is there, but only in his memories and, perhaps, his drooping, sad eyes.
After the release of her directorial debut Sudden Manhattan, Adrienne Shelly was no stranger to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. And so it was not surprising when, in 1999, critics deemed her sophomore feature I’ll Take You There a “semi-irritating” attempt at a romantic comedy. But where a lesser filmmaker would have made a film about putting the broken pieces of Bill’s life back together, Shelly turns a central portion of the rom-com into a testing ground for his character, examining the consequences of his actions with sprinkles of her distinctively wry and optimistic humor. In Shelly’s hands, the notion of formulas takes on a different meaning – they’re not something to be followed strictly and invariably, rather, something to be played with. If rom-coms propose uncomplicated and often shallow extremes from characters to narrative, I’ll Take You There questions whether the alternative – a balance between the airy, the real, and the disruptive of life and genre – might not be better, and more meaningful.
Like in most romantic comedies, there is a meet-cute, but the film evades the organic work meeting and the accompanying tooth-rotting sweetness in favor of a blind date gone wrong. Bill’s sister, noticing his emotional downward spiral after his wife’s betrayal, organizes a date with a friend of hers, Berenice. Berenice (Ally Sheedy) turns out to be eccentric; she speaks a mile a minute, and in a few seconds, explains unprompted why quitting the tuba made her a nicotine addict. Bill, too consumed by his own self-pity, unleashes a string of insults on her. To him, she is desperate, ordinary, and pathetic – an unfortunate reflection of himself, and one he doesn’t want to see.
From there, he finds her changed. Toying with genre expectations, roles are reversed, tweaked, or disposed of but not without reason. The film taunts viewers who expect Berenice to assemble herself into someone Bill (and they) might find more palatable – like the odd, nerdy girl who emerges after a makeover, an irresistible bombshell, similar to Sheedy’s Allison Reynolds in The Breakfast Club. Instead, Berenice now looks not unlike Bill: dirty, bare-faced, absolutely unkempt. There is no question about it; Berenice is decidedly not the type of woman to lead a romantic comedy, yet here she is.
The forcible performance of romantic gestures in I’ll Take You There highlights the artificiality of these gestures within the genre, and revels in them. As the story unfolds, Bill and Berenice end up on the road together; she offers him her car so he can visit his ex-wife in exchange for driving Berenice to her dying grandmother’s house, but the offer turns quickly into a threat when Berenice takes control in the style of ‘90s gun-toting anti-heroes like Tarantino’s Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, and shifts the traditional axis of power. She finds the gun Bill bought in a depressive haze at a local flea market and threatens that he has to do what she wants, or else. In an illustratively artificial moment, Berenice makes Bill stop the car on the side of the road because she feels like dancing. The two dance like lovers, while she holds a gun to his back. Back in the car, he remembers dancing with his ex-wife, forgetting, perhaps wilfully, that she must have been cheating on him then. The two scenes operate similarly, both calling the truth of the romantic gestures into question. Who’s to say which one is more true?
Shelly is not cynical, and that’s the film’s saving grace – her rejection of absolutes. The film is as hopelessly romantic and humorous as its characters, and to Berenice, dancing on the side of the road is her way of expressing her uneasy affection. Upon their arrival at Berenice’s grandmother’s house, the couple and the film temporarily settle into a different rhythm, marked by the love between Stella, the grandmother, and her new husband, Max, who takes care of her and the house. Here, the details of Berenice’s life are laid bare. And while up to now, the film has played with the rom-com genre’s propensity for quirkiness, the characters’ unraveling feels slow and deliberate, grounded in their experiences. They toe the line between charming and pathetic, but their eccentricities, particularly Berenice’s, aren’t played off as cute peculiarities like Kirsten Dunst’s manic pixie dream girl in Elizabethtown, for example. When Berenice initially refuses to play the tuba in front of Bill, it’s because she’s self-conscious and awkward and eager to please. Finally, Bill learns that what he believed to be craziness, like when she stole clothes from a store, was a result of her desire to keep her insecurities private. After the film’s most charming moment, in which the family sings “The Bastards Song,” a tune Stella wrote for her after Berenice’s failed wedding to a narcissist, Berenice and Bill have sex. And all is well. That is, until Bill runs after his wife the next morning.
But somehow, the film finds a way to balance sympathies between the two leads somewhat equally, etching a clear understanding of Berenice’s rightful pain and Bill’s heedless desperation, still never pronouncing Bill’s cruelty as an uncompromising failure or dismissing it as a joke. The event marks a turning point for both: Berenice realizes she no longer cares what people think of her, while Bill, in a moment of clarity, comprehends the depths of his callousness – he had hurt Berenice the way his wife had hurt him. And while his garnered understanding of his actions and his process of accountability might not be perfect or fully earned, that they spur the film into action displays a sensibility unheard of in most rom-coms. This becomes vital to the success of the film’s mirrored message: we are responsible for what we do to one another, but we are also human and err; we are human and err, but we are also responsible for what we do to one another. To connect with and love others implies that there might be pain and suffering in the future, but as Shelly once said, “Otherwise, it’s a kind of prozac.” The answer to living lies somewhere in that balance.
There’s a limit to a formula’s elasticity, though, to how far it can be pulled before it snaps. To retain its shape, it must, at some point, return to center, and so it does. Bill leaves his ex-wife at the airport and returns his useless fake gun to the flea shop where he bought it. He makes a last-minute exchange for a worn-down tuba. He chases after Berenice’s retreating figure and offers it to her as the camera pulls away, the two figures disappearing into the city. The melody of “The Bastard Song” swells and overtakes the memory of “Bill Bailey.” And faithful to its tradition, the movie ends with a kiss.
"It's a world of suffering,
In a sea of pain.
No matter how much sun you bring,
You're pummelled by the rain.
So what's the use in getting up
And what's the use in tryin'?
And what's the use in listening
When everybody's lyin'?
Don't let the heartless get you down,
Don't greet the heartless at your door,
Don't live among the heartless."
Gabriela Almeida (@BBgunsnaps) is a freelance writer and professional amateur. When she's not writing about horror, revisionist histories, or formally adventurous rom-coms, you can find her cooking or begging her friends to watch Shyamalan's filmography.