The representation of menopause and its trials and tribulations is scarce in American cinema. Occasionally a film will feature a character undergoing the so-called “change of life”: Think of a desperate Samantha in Sex and the City 2, denied her hormonal treatments at the UAE border, turning to moisturizing her skin with yams, or Kathy Bates’s Evelyn, who, in Fried Green Tomatoes, channels her midlife-crisis fury into a warrior-woman alter ego named Towanda. From the frank, bold title of her new film, The Hot Flashes, it’s unquestionable what Susan Seidelman thinks about this lacking representation in our popular culture.
The Hot Flashes, concerning a middle-aged housewife, Beth (Brooke Shields), who starts a basketball team for women her age to raise money for a mobile mammography unit, is refreshing in its depiction of women’s issues and use of raunchy humor. Each team member undergoes a different crisis vaguely tied to the emotional hurdles of menopause and the women’s shared insecurity of feeling unwanted by society due to their age. The earnestness with which The Hot Flashes depicts their problems, however, cannot save a film that turns on predictable plot points and features one-dimensional characters.
Seidelman has a history of directing films about underdogs overcoming major obstacles, but too often her quest narratives are so formulaic that they seem to possess near-mathematical precision. In one scene, Beth cannot accomplish one small thing to bring her closer to victory; in the next, the problem has been magically solved. A typical getting-the-team-together sequence begins her mission as she approaches one skeptical woman after another, each of whom gives her a firm “no.” Yet they all show up for practice anyway, as if turning Beth down was their way to save face. The exception is Florine (Wanda Sykes), the town’s prim and proper mayor, who only needs a touch more guilting before she reluctantly joins.
Once the women are united, it’s the rest of the town they must convince that their cause is a worthy one, and that they’re capable of playing against the high school’s agile basketball champs. Everyone from Beth’s daughter to her distant husband, Lawrence (Eric Roberts), is a naysayer. It’s a bit of a stretch that nobody, not even Beth’s family, is willing to give an ounce of support for what’s obviously an important campaign, but in Seidelman’s fictional universes everyone is always out to get the little guy. The uncaring, unfriendly universe is a well-known trope typically reserved for solipsistic teenage protagonists or adult men, and it’s heartening to see disenfranchised older female characters empowering themselves through friendship in spite of everyone and everything. But in The Hot Flashes the ignorance and disdain woven into the peripheral characters is rampant and one-note, a barrage of negativity that quickly becomes unconvincing.
Seidelman’s attempts to provide positive, alternative representations of marginalized people and problems is overly ambitious. Beth’s decision to hire Paul (Mark Povinelli), an unlicensed veterinarian, to be their team’s coach—a man who has no experience for the job and who is a little person—is a bizarre joke that borders on offensive instead of transgressive. The intentions behind such casting decisions are noble, but given the numerous other issues the film is trying to tackle (namely, the multitude of experiences of menopause), Povinelli’s casting feels like an afterthought, and unnecessary.
The Hot Flashes should be appealing enough in its humor and approach to a meaningful, under-appreciated issue that it could become a mainstream hit for an older female audience. Given the vacuum of films about women, let alone ones about hidden issues like menopause, this is hardly surprising, but profoundly depressing.