Episode 06 - My 5 Wives
My 5 Wives (2000)
I like Rodney Dangerfield. Two of my favorite classic '80s films are Caddyshack and Back To School. But let's be honest here, he's a sexist prick and his movies are terrible. I like terrible films. I never said I had good taste in cinema. So when people started talking about this movie being a poly film, I was dubious. I mean, Rodney Dangerfield isn't exactly known for his sensitivity regarding multiple sex partners. Pretty much every film he's ever done and all his stand-up revolves around cheating, money-grubbing wives. So I was hoping that I could say, either A) this wasn't a poly film but it was a classic Dangerfield comedy and I enjoyed it; or B) it wasn't enjoyable at all but it had some poly stuff in it.
Sadly, I can say neither. The premise is of a poor-kid-turned-rich-man who is on his third divorce from yet another hot, young gold digger with a sexual appetite that he couldn't satisfy. His plan now that he's free is to build his dream ski lodge, and he just got a tip for the perfect piece of land in Utah. So he heads up north from Los Angeles to bid on the estate auction, only to find that the land comes with some interesting legal strings attached.
See, it's Utah. So that means that all women are considered property, because it's Utah. And the estate of the dead man that he just purchased includes all his land, his house, his cabin, and his 3 wives. Cuz Utah. Oh, and in order to be legally allowed to own all that property, the owner has to convert to the town's religion. Cuz Utah. The movie never says what the religion is, but it looks like the writers, directors, and set and costume designers all got together and between all of them could only come up with half-remembered memories of elementary school coloring books about the First Thanksgiving and life in early Pennsylvania and have confused Mormonism with the Amish.
The religion apparently consists entirely of women wearing shapeless prairie dresses, white bonnets, and black ankle boots, while the men wear linen shirts, suspenders, and straw hats, and requires complete abstinence from smoking or drinking. That's the entirety of the religion, as far as I can tell. Oh, that and the man being responsible for keeping his wives modest as his role as gatekeeper for his wives' entry to Heaven. But it's totally OK to buy your way into the church, and to tell dirty jokes and make sexual innuendo! Even in mixed gender gatherings and in public! Because the whole town finds him HI-larious!
I'll give the movie a point for explaining that this is, indeed, non-consensual. It's explained to Dangerfield that the women don't have a choice in this, but then it's also explained that, since they don't know any other way, they're totes cool with the whole women-as-property thing. All of the women. Totes cool with it. They revel in it, apparently.
Dangerfield does resist the idea, at first. He's disillusioned with marriage after his recent divorce, he's old and can't keep up with his husbandly duties of satisfying a woman (let alone 3), and he's not so keen on the whole non-consensual marriage thing. Until he sees his wives-to-be. Although I didn't check the casting on this, I'm pretty sure this movie was really just one of those porn-to-mainstream vehicles for several adult stars.
So, while he's putting up a token resistance, the camera shot switches to a slow-motion walk-up of 3 women with porn star-sized & -shaped boobs, porn star makeup, porn star confidence and movement, and porn star acting ability. It's made very clear to the audience that these women have awesome bodies underneath their shapeless gunnysack dresses because of the way they bounce and literally rub their dresses against their bodies to show that they are not wearing foundation garments underneath. The cinematographer really wanted us to know that there weren't any foundation garments under those dresses. And that it was sunny but really cold outside, yet, I guess they were too dumb to put on jackets. Or something.
Anyway, Dangerfield changes his objection right then and there and takes control of his new property. He weds the women that afternoon, to which they show their gratitude by showing us their porn star sexual libidos. I'm guessing the writers assumed that, as widows, they didn't have to write the women as demure, naive girls since that doesn't work with Dangerfield's shtick of an old man who is still highly desirable and yet unable to perform. If they even thought that clearly about motivations at all.
Eventually, Dangerfield ends up with 2 more wives when the sister of one of his wives becomes a widow (with her sister-wife) and Dangerfield is talked into taking their financial burden as his own, thereby passing off the wives as well as the tax debt. Hey, at least these porn stars can cook! That way Dangerfield can stop taking pot-shots at being stuck with 3 hot women who want a lot of sex but can't do what he really wants, which is make a decent pot roast.
This is the part that people will argue makes it a poly movie. The wives seem to like Dangerfield and he is clearly fond of them. I disagree because it's not consensual. I do not believe that consent or love can be true without freedom and choice. Consent is meaningless if you can't say no. Y'all can argue about the sexism in the movie if you want, but even sidestepping that issue, these women are not given any other option. They know no other life and they are in an insulated community which would have serious repercussions if someone did manage to come up with the harebrained notion that women are people. Forget the sexist bullshit, this is coercive.
So I'm gonna say that, even though the women seem content being married to Dangerfield, because of the coercive, non-consensual nature of their life and the fact that they marry him within hours of being introduced, "love" is not the emotion they feel. And even though Dangerfield uses the word "love" to describe the women, I think, at best it's a fondness that grows from having personal slave girls who fall over backwards to please him, unlike his previous wives who seemed to hate him. It's non-monogamy, sure, but it's not polyamory. And I don't even want to include it on a list of poly-ish movies because of the ending, which I'll get to in a moment.
The rest of the movie is typical Dangerfield - a rich but dumb man find himself accidentally and through no fault of his own but his naivete the target of Big Bad Men whose nefarious get-rich schemes are thwarted by Dangerfield's innocent meddling and he has to bumble his way out of trouble.
The one ... well I hate to call it a "saving grace", but the part of the plot that I didn't hate was at the very end. And yes, I'm going to ruin the ending of this movie because fuck this movie. It's a Dangerfield movie - how suspenseful do you think it's going to be? So, Dangerfield takes his wives with him to Las Vegas, where he introduces them to thong bikinis and they meet other women without any overbearing male presence looming over them. The other women introduce the wives to Molly Shannon, a ball-busting self-help feminazi who tells them to "kick your husbands where it hurts ladies! It's in the book!"
So the wives come back with a new sense of feminism and a whole new sexy wardrobe, they get jobs, and they stick Dangerfield with the household chores. Now, don't get me wrong, this is still a misogynist's version of "feminism", but I did like that part. But that's not even the part I was alluding to.
So, skipping over the big climax with the Big Bad Men and how Dangerfield manages to dig himself out of trouble, at the very end, Dangerfield's foreman advises that Dangerfield read this book that has the wives being all feminist now. See, Dangerfield is at a loss as to deal with his wives gaining their agency, and the foreman suggests that, if he reads the book, he'll know what it is that the wives are wanting out of their marriage and their lives.
So he reads the book. And he actually comes to understand. He doesn't use the book as a script for the right language to get back into the wives' good graces - y'know, how misogynists think that feminist men are just parroting back feminist language to get laid by feminists. No, Dangerfield actually learns "what women want". So when it's all over, he sits the wives down and tells them that, now that they've found themselves, he will support them in whatever choice they want to make, although he hopes to remain married to them. But no matter what they want, he's got their back.
So all five of the wives ... leave. That's the part I like and that's the part that says "not poly" to me. The second, I mean literally the second the wives are given, and understand that they have a choice, they do not choose this life.
Even with the apparently fond feelings that everyone has for each other, I refuse to support a relationship as "poly" that does not honor consent. I know there are lots of people out there in relationships that look like poly relationships but that are coercive and violate consent. Hell, I was part of a family like that without realizing it. And it can be argued that those relationships are poly. But when it comes to poly representation in film, I won't endorse it when it's clearly a polygynous, non-consensual arrangement and not more than two people who love each other in a romantic relationship. As my soundbite goes: Polyamory is multiple loves, there may or may not be marriage; polygamy is multiple marriages, there may or may not be love.
But how is that different from Paint Your Wagons (which, if you're not familiar with it, you'll hear all about it in an upcoming review)? They were stuck in a culture that treated women as property too, weren't they? Well, yes, but the 3 of them sat down as equals (or, rather, they stood up and yelled at each other as equals) and they negotiated a mutually beneficial arrangement that developed and fostered loving feelings for all the participants.
You could argue that their triad also broke up as soon as they had the option, but I say that they always had the option and only chose to do so when their arrangement no longer suited their changing situation. And, I say that the tone was sympathetic whereas this movie was not. Dangerfield never wanted to have multiple wives. He remarks in several places that he's an old-fashioned romantic and he really just wants the standard mono-centric fantasy.
The implication in this movie is that plural marriages are not what people want nor what we should be wishing for. Tone is much more difficult to point to tangible evidence, but this movie did not have a poly tone, in my opinion. So, combine that with the lack of consent, and I do not want to recommend it as a poly movie.
And considering some of the really terrible movies with terrible messages that I do recommend (grudgingly) as poly films, that's saying something. The one thing that all those movies had in common was consent. Fucked up, they may have been, but the characters all chose their relationships. And given that they were all choosing something unusual, they could hardly be accused of false consent due to cultural pressure. I think that's an important distinction. Consent is why cheating movies don't make the list. So non-consensual polygamy shouldn't get a pass either.