We've all been there. The music swells, the screen goes fuzzy, and the women in the audience start unraveling their Kleenex while the men shift in their seats and roll their eyes.
The sound of feminine noses being blown overwhelms the tap-tap-tap of male fingers on the arms of their chairs.
It's a gender clash, Hollywood-style.
"Men like a problem, they like a quest, and they like resolution," says Toby Miller, a New York University film professor. "Women like movies where feelings are what matter more than the successful attainment of a goal."
Crudely put, the good, old-fashioned melodrama still works its wonders upon particular tear ducts, a fact made abundantly plain by "Stepmom," this season's foremost example of that oft-disparaged genre -- the "chick flick."
"Stepmom" features more than one essential element of chick flickdom. It offers a focus on the family, a failed romance, terminal illness and what Miller calls "wistful disappointment."
Another chick-flick attribute -- one that's lacking in the catty story of "Stepmom" -- is a women-against-the-world attitude.
"And a Barbra Streisand song doesn't hurt, either," Miller adds.
To some critics (read: men) the term "chick flick" automatically connotes second-class status.
"Some of the comments I've had from some reviewers were, 'It's a chick flick, but I really liked it,' " says "Stepmom" director Chris Columbus. "That's just an awful thing to say."
While Columbus claims he's OK with the term chick flick -- he can afford to be, he's a guy -- the star of "Stepmom," Susan Sarandon, has other ideas.
"I guess 'Stepmom' is a chick flick because it's got two chicks that have bigger parts than the guys," Sarandon says, referring to herself and Julia Roberts, who play, respectively, the mother dying of cancer and the younger stepmother struggling to live up to the biological mother's impossibly high standard.
"If I understand it correctly," says Sarandon, "every time there's a movie that has women or a women's story as a focus, it's always a shock if it makes any money and it's seen as a rare kind of fluke. I think that it's the same kind of patronizing attitude that's systemic in the movie industry."
Sarandon, of all people, ought to know better. While she discusses her feelings on the subject, cash registers are chiming. After all, she starred in "Little Women" and the landmark chick flick "Thelma & Louise," two women-against-the-world films that did very well at both the box office and among critics.
A variety of so-called chick flicks have enjoyed huge success both critically and financially. How about "The English Patient," which swept the Oscars two years ago? And there's "Titanic," which was a huge hit, in large part because it appealed to teen-age girls prepared to cry themselves into dehydration again and again over the wistful disappointments, failed romance, and Rose Bukater-against-the-world elements of the billion-dollar blockbuster. (It also had the high-tech special effects to bring in the teen-age boys, and a blue-eyed lad named Leo.)
As for guys' reactions, Miller says the main masculine complaint is "nothing happens in a chick flick." But Columbus claims that that attitude might be masking a deeply emotional response. In other words, those aren't only feminine tears being jerked by "Stepmom."
"Obviously, the studio feels the picture appeals to women primarily, but I think that when men see it, they're moved," says the director, who also did "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire."
"I don't know, sometimes men can't deal with it. I know it's a cliche, but I've seen some hard- boiled studio execs come out of the picture, and at some of the other screenings, some older men, and they're sobbing. It's actually a great feeling, because you know those guys haven't been there in a while."
Top 10 chick flicks of all time
10. "The Way We Were": Failed romance, wistful disappointment -- and a Barbra Streisand song.
9. "Waiting to Exhale": Lots of failed romance, plenty of women against the world -- and a Whitney Houston song.
8. "Sleepless in Seattle": Wistful disappointments up the wazoo, happy ending notwithstanding.
7. "Beaches": Women against the world, terminal illness -- and a Bette Midler song.
6. "Four Weddings and a Funeral": Just dare a man's man to sit through this.
5. "Steel Magnolias": Women against the world, family focus, terminal illness, failed romance -- all in cute Southern accents.
4. "Little Women": Women against the world, family focus, failed romance, a near-terminal illness, and a couple of cute boys for good measure.
3. "Thelma & Louise": A groundbreaking women-against- the-world flick.
2. "Ghost" -- See "Four Weddings and a Funeral."
1. "Terms of Endearment": Chick flick jackpot. All the essential elements, sans Streisand. Pub Date: 1/06/99