Cameron Diaz is returning to screens this week in The Other Woman as an updated take on a familiar character type—the object of desire, the one who causes everything around her to go crazy. Whether she's friendly and chipper (There's Something About Mary), dementedly insane (Vanilla Sky) or a plot device in a boring love triangle (Gangs of New York), Diaz has been many a femme fatale over her 20 years in Hollywood. Her debut performance in The Mask was her introduction to audiences, but her work in little-seen 1996 indie Feeling Minnesota established her most enduring mode.
It's easy to figure out how such a bad film was brought to screens for such a low budget with such an interesting cast. The tl;dr version: it was the mid-1990s. The Sundance Institute was in full swing, fostering independent cinema that was booming in the wake of Quentin Tarantino and his festival-favorite contemporaries. Feeling Minnesota was the first, and so far only work from director Steven Baigelman, who also wrote (he continues life as a scripter-for-hire in Hollywood, it seems), and has a wonderfully eclectic cast: Keanu Reeves and Vincent D'Onofrio as brothers, Diaz as their object of affection, Tuesday Weld as their mother, Delroy Lindo as a gangster, Dan Aykroyd as a crooked cop, Courtney Love as a waitress who shows up at one point.
It also has one of those plots that indie movies could just get away with in a post-Pulp Fiction world. Keanu is a miscreant who's in and out of prison and who at one point knocks over a gas station like he's just going out to buy a Snickers bar. D'Onofrio is his braindead psycho of a brother and Diaz his new wife, forced into a shotgun wedding by Lindo to repay some debt. The details of this are never made clear—how could they be, since there'd be no way to make any of this remotely plausible. Feeling Minnesota is billed as a romantic comedy but features a few cold-blooded murders, including D'Onofrio shooting Diaz in the chest and leaving her for dead about halfway through the movie.
I'll give her full credit: when Diaz is onscreen, she just about keeps the damn movie chugging along. Reeves is his most subdued throughout the movie—his character is named "Jjaks," explained as a typo on his birth certificate, and Reeves portrays him as a sad sack who life constantly gets the better of. In his first scene, he arrives at his brother's shotgun wedding, is cornered by Freddie (Diaz) in the bathroom, and they immediately have sex. Diaz is a prominent entry in the '90s canon of manic punk dream girls—they were much like the sweet pixies of the '00s (the now over-used term was coined by The A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin) but they toted guns, did hard drugs, and generally encouraged men to live life to the fullest, at almost suicidal levels. Freddie drives everyone to do insane things for no real reason other than she's bored and trying to get out from under everyone's thumb.
So there's a lot of shooting and bum-fighting and disinterested inquiry by the police, who are just as crooked as everyone else. The big twist of the movie is that Freddie fakes her death halfway through, and it'd be completely implausible if the characters surrounding her weren’t so incredibly stupid. D'Onofrio, in particular, is giving one of those performances he's seemed so fond of throughout his career, dialing up everything unappealing in his character and giving you absolutely nothing to find even vaguely magnetic. Somehow his moronic character survives almost the entire movie despite being at odds with everyone and not having two brain cells to rub together. Once Diaz is mostly gone for the latter half, it makes Feeling Minnesota particularly unwatchable.
Feeling Minnesota came as Diaz was still casting around for an identity after the smash success of The Mask (she'd had parts in She's the One and The Last Supper but no other major hits). She struck upon success in 1997 with My Best Friend's Wedding, followed a year later by There's Something About Mary, both versions of the same character: a sunny personality with more underneath than you might expect from first glance. At her career height, she subverted this type (Being John Malkovich, Vanilla Sky) just as well as she reinforced it (Charlie's Angels, The Sweetest Thing).
With The Other Woman, which follows on the heels of surprise box-office smash Bad Teacher, Diaz is tapping back into her roots as a bad-ass who uses her wiles as much as her looks to get away with things. But both reflect a self-awareness about the impact an actress' age has on her status in Hollywood. In Bad Teacher she was desperately trying to land a man just to hit paydirt, and in The Other Woman she's a mistress who realizes her man is also dating a younger, "hotter" woman. While she hasn't always picked the soundest projects to star in, Diaz has always been remarkably smart about the types of roles she should be occupying.