USA , 1991
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 03 July 2006
Source Universal DVD
Categories Chick Flicks
Based on the lengthy, lorish novel of Alabama author Fannie Flagg, Jon Avnet’s Fried Green Tomatoes follows four close-knit Southern women through decades of friendship, hardship, and independence. Beginning with a 1990s housewife named Evelyn Couch, whose name denotes her sedentary lifestyle, and an old woman known as Ninny Threadgoode, Avnet explores the importance of togetherness between women and generations.
Evelyn, visiting a nursing home, is unexpectedly immersed in a story told by Ninny about Whistle Stop, a small community now in the throes of ruin. Ninny’s hometown, Whistle Stop was a locomotive stopover famous for its homespun entertainment and indigenous food, including a large barbeque and fried green tomatoes. Among the residents are the Threadgoodes, an upper-class family with children Idgie (who is later revealed to be Ninny) and Buddy, who is engaged to an upper-class woman named Ruth. When Buddy dies, Ruth and Idgie become distant, with the former retaining her privileged lifestyle while the latter, a rebel child, seeks refuge in the backwoods.
The two reunite years later. Ruth, still posh and conventional, is appalled by Idgie’s adopted lifestyle, and both attempt to change one another. Despite these exterior differences, they soon form an indelible bond that will benefit them in the tumultuous years ahead. Ninny’s story of Whistle Stop intrigues Evelyn, who returns on every week to hear more; before long, Evelyn herself begins to change, embracing the free-spiritedness of both women and altering her outlook on life.
In Flagg’s novel, the relationship between Idgie and Ruth is based more on illicit love than friendship, with a detectable romance emerging between the two. In Avnet’s cinematic abridgment, their strong bond is downplayed as being a dedicated closeness, though a food fight later in the film doubles as a visual metaphor for sex. In fact, sex in Fried Green Tomatoes is either unkind or altogether nonexistent: Evelyn and her husband are never intimate, while Ruth’s pregnancy is more depressing than joyous. Children are either dead—both Ninny and Mama Threadgoode’s sons died tragically young—or distant, with the Couch’s son away from home and Idgie becoming a runaway after Buddy’s accident.
Though much of the film is set after World War II, when women retired their rivet guns and became homemakers, men hold almost no influence in Whistle Stop. Aside from Ruth, whose husband is an abusive KKK member named Frank Bennett, women are authoritative and sharp-tongued. Nevertheless, Fried Green Tomatoes is largely anti-conventional in tone, and Avnet offers us straightforward dismissals of social and marital standards rather than subtle scorn. Idgie, for instance, is a strong, self-supporting, and single woman whose untamed and boorish lifestyle contrasts with society’s expectations; she’s not refined like Ruth or motivated like Mama Threadgoode, but she is enormously compassionate, a female Robin Hood to the local dispossessed.
In the present-day scenes, Evelyn attends two seminars in the hopes of resurrecting her marriage: The first promotes mind and inspiration over body, while the second encourages an understanding of sexuality. Neither works effectively, as Evelyn daydreams during the first and leaves the second in embarrassment; understanding her present self is not the problem. Instead, Evelyn’s kindness and womanhood is revitalized by Ninny’s stories. Once passive and languid, the “new” Evelyn is active, spontaneous, foul-mouthed, and vengeful. Rather than being a pawn to her emotions, she disregards etiquette and “womanly” protocol to take her rightful place in the dog-eat-dog world. In the film’s most famous scene, after two arrogant twentysomethings take her parking spot, Evelyn smashes their car with hers. The joy on her face is both amusing and telling, as this is the commencement of her renaissance.
Fried Green Tomatoes relies heavily on social commentary to create a more in-depth storyline. Scenes including rail accidents, impoverished Southerners, abuse, racist language and the KKK keep the story from becoming idealistic, keep the women from being seen as dainty Southern Belles, and keep the film from being categorized as only a chick flick. The finale, in which we learn of Frank Bennett’s dark end, is an atypical dénouement. Murdered by a woman (and an African-American, nonetheless), he is chopped up and barbequed at Idgie’s suggestion, and served at the Whistle Stop Café to a racist Georgian detective investigating Bennett’s disappearance. Ironic, fitting, and darkly humorous, it highlights an underlying theme of Ninny’s tale: no matter your race, your age, your outlook on existence, or the circumstances of your life, there will always be an indelible bond between women that cannot be broken by adversity, tragedy, or time.
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