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The anatomy of a chick flick

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.

"Men like a problem, they like a quest, and they like resolution," says Toby Miller, a film professor at New York University. "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, the 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 _ 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."

Columbus claims he's okay with the term "chick flick" _ he can afford to be, he's a guy _ but 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 her impossibly high standard.

"If I understand it correctly," says Sarandon, "every time there's a movie that has women or a woman'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. To constantly be assuming that this isn't a valid form of entertainment, that women do buy tickets and this might happen repeatedly and not just as a fluke."

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 massive success, too, 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 teenage 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 teenage boys, and a blue-eyed lad named Leo.)

Other chick flicks to score big among both critics and audiences: The Piano, Terms of Endearment, Sense and Sensibility, Fried Green Tomatoes, An Officer and a Gentleman, Ghost, Beaches, First Wives Club, The Horse Whisperer, The Bridges of Madison County, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sleepless in Seattle, Michael, The Joy Luck Club, Waiting to Exhale and just about everything done by Merchant-Ivory.

As for guys' reactions, Miller says the main masculine complaint is "nothing happens in a chick flick." But Columbus says that attitude might be masking a deeply emotional response. In other words, those aren't only women crying at 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.

On second thought, about the guys: Who cares?