What is it about Barbra Streisand?

The multi-hyphenated Jewish icon’s appeal has long eluded me, despite a lifetime of exposure and noodging by my mother. There’s always been something too grandiose, deliberate and insistent about her that overwhelms every song she sang and every role she played.

But, after recently watching Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 screwball comedy classic What’s Up Doc? (available on Apple iTunes), I can finally say I get what it is about Barbara.

Led to the absurd and thinly-plotted film by my ongoing exploration of Hollywood’s 1970s golden age, I came away charmed and delighted. And it was all down to Barbara’s effervescent turn as the improbable Judy Maxwell. In fact, it was Streisand’s ability to know the absurdity and at the same time fully commit to it with her deliberate and insistent style that won me over.

This is even more surprising given that Judy Maxwell is a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl – a problematic archetypical romantic comedy character, as coined by critic Nathan Rabin, that solely exists in a story as an agent of chaos “… to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures…”. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a character trope that I typically find grating and alienating, that has undermined my enjoyment of rom-coms over the last fifty years, through Goldie Hawn in Cactus Flower (1969), Melanie Griffith in Something Wild (1986) and Natalie Portman in Garden State (2004), to list a few.

And while there are a handful of films that have presented interesting counterexamples of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, none have done it better than Stephan Falk (Orange is the New Black, Weeds) in his hilarious, just completed four-season cable-TV run of You’re The Worst (available on SBS On Demand).

Set in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, You’re The Worst is a compellingly binge-able romantic dramedy that explores the personal evolutions of erratic, self-destructive and miraculous Gretchen (Aya Cash) and cynical, smug and petulant Jimmy (Chris Geere) through their turbulent romance.

What makes You’re The Worst such a fresh and rewarding contrast to the conventional rom-com is how Falk’s team have grounded Gretchen’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl traits and her consequent role in positively transforming Jimmy in an unflinching study of clinical depression. This perilous high-wire act of drawing entertainment from mental illness, audacious in concept, let alone execution, offers viewers meaningful fun beyond anything I have seen in a rom-com. At times dark, scabrous, crude, confronting and meandering, I am sure you too will be won over by You’re The Worst, just as Ms. Streisand eventually won over me.

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About the author

Trent Bartfeld is an award-winning filmmaker, a freelance writer and educator who has developed and created content across multiple mediums in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.


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