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The Real Blonde

The Real Blonde is about what’s fake: the carefully calculated images of success, power, beauty, and desire that Americans – willingly or unwittingly – ingest every day. Writer/director Tom DiCillo takes a skewed view at our image-creating industry, particularly the insidious outposts of fashion photography, music videos, and soap operas.

An actor on the sidelines of success, Joe (Matthew Modine) rages at how artificial images distort reality even as his girlfriend, Mary (Catherine Keener), pays the majority of their rent working as a make-up artist for a high-fashion photographer (a wickedly funny Marlo Thomas). Their relationship is at an impasse, with the increasingly frustrated Mary trying to build her confidence in a self-defense class (run by a controlling Denis Leary) while Joe spends more time as a cater waiter than an actor. Joe’s audition monologue from Death of a Salesman reflects his struggle to maintain dignity and idealism in a world that doesn’t prize them, but he sees a fellow waiter, the oily Bob (Maxwell Caulfield), land a lucrative soap opera gig, and learns that his fantasy girl (Elizabeth Berkley) works as a body double.

The Real Blonde could easily have been disparaging or as shallow as the world it lampoons, but Tom DiCillo is a rare combination: a satirist with a sentimental streak. DiCillo has used comedy to deflate the pretentious (Johnny Suede, Living in Oblivion) and celebrate the nonconformist (Box of Moonlight). He does both here, taking pot shots at celebrations of shallowness (MTV becomes Empty V) while keeping Joe and Mary’s relationship at the heart. In a slyly funny scene, the debate at one table turns into a restaurant-wide discussion of the pros and cons of Jane Campion’s The Piano. Everyone has an impassioned opinion, no one missing an opportunity to comment on the cultural phenomenon du jour. With biting humor and affection for his characters, DiCillo shows how the artificial has seeped so deeply into our collective unconscious that it sets the standard for reality.

Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on February 27, 1997
First published in the Metro Times.