Thelma Adams is the film critic for US Weekly and, come to find out, my neighbor in upstate New York. She’s also the author of Playdate, a hilarious new novel about a weatherman-turned-stay-at-home dad (or SAHD, for the uninitiated)-cum-Girl-Scout-cookie-distributor whose marriage may or may not go up in flames — flames, it might be added, that are being fanned by the Santa Ana winds (the book is set in Encinitas).
She was gracious enough to answer questions on her new book, her day job, and her guilty pleasure movie of the year:
(Adams, her novel, and Bari Nan Cohen)
Inveterate readers of TNB know that I’m a big fan of, and subscriber to, US Weekly. Before we talk about the book, please give us outsiders the straight poop: are stars really just like us?
They’re just like us in that they are the same species, Homo sapiens. They’re just a lot more high maintenance.
I knew it! You are now a published novelist, which means that you have a day job. Yours is one that Belle Ramsay, the daughter in Playdate, would have had better luck talking about on career day: professional film critic. How did you get such an enviable gig?
I was a self-sacrificing saint in a past life. And, in this life, I was never satisfied reading the existing film critics because I didn’t hear my voice, my point-of-view in their writing, however wise or witty. So I was relentless in getting my voice out there, first for college papers as a lark, then for Manhattan neighborhood rags, and then at the newspaper I always carried under my arm: The New York Post. The jump from a newspaper to Us Magazine when it went weekly was a millennial shift, the product of being at the right place at the right time with the right skills and a hand-up from a terrific mentor.
Who is your mentor?
In that case, it was Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, although he would scoff at being termed my mentor. He’s too modest; entourage, maybe. He’s the greatest.
Do your kids dig your line of work?
Yes; it’s meant a lot of free stuff over the years and meeting celebrities from Melissa Leo to James Gandolfini to Robin Williams to the entire cast of the Narnia movies.
Tell us your “guilty pleasure” movie of the last few years—something you wouldn’t necessarily rave about, but like in spite of yourself.
Oh, this is easy and recent: Burlesque! I went on a weekday night to the Roosevelt Cinemas with my eleven-year-old daughter and one of my best girlfriends and the only thing that marred the evening was my daughter shushing us when we got overenthusiastic. She couldn’t hear the music.
You must have been very overenthusiastic, because Christina Aguilera isn’t exactly quiet.
No one has ever accused me of being quiet, either.
I love it when somebody like Jessica Simpson is all over the magazine for weeks, in advance of some desperate flick like Private Valentine, and then your review comes out and you pan it and give it half a star. Do you ever feel pressure from the editors or the celebrities themselves to be kinder in your critiques?
We go for the sin of omission. Sometimes, in reviews, if we don’t have any thing nice to say we keep silent.
Until now, you’ve been the one offering criticism on someone else’s creative endeavor. How has it been for you, now that the tables are turned?
The process is scary. I try not to cry. Some days I’m more successful than others.
It can be really brutal. You just have to accept the praise and tune out the negative stuff—easier said than done, of course. But hey, at least Paris Hilton isn’t on Goodreads. I could see her wanting to hurl rotten tomatoes at you.
Well, in Paris’s case, I’m not sure she could string the biting sentences together to really slay me.
Playdate centers around Lance Ramsay, an erstwhile weatherman who, when the success of his wife’s business compels the family to quit Barstow for Encinitas, quits his job and becomes a househusband. I’m wondering about the impetus for the novel. Are you, or have you ever been, a stay-at-home dad?
No. Never. However, Lance does have a daughter. I do, too. His wife Darlene had trouble with breastfeeding and so did I. And, like their daughter Belle, I had an autocratic elementary-school teacher named Mr. Baumgart who had a buzz cut and dandruff.
He was based on someone real? Oh, man. He’s a dick.
Mr. Baumgart, if you are still alive, I toss a chalkboard eraser at your head.
Lance is viewed as both loser and lover, hero and heel. I find that there is this duality about stay-at-home dads, which I write about extensively in Fathermucker—our patriarchal society is not quite evolved enough to accept them wholesale. You delve into this during the (highly awkward) dinner scene, in Robin’s speech:
[SAHDs] face social prejudice just for being who they are. Even as America becomes more aware of their presence — like people with disabilities in the nineties, gays coming out in the eighties, or the civil rights and women’s movements of the sixties and seventies — these men are still rare enough to be considered a Jay Leno punch line. And, like anybody else who works, like any stay-at-home mother, they want respect for what they do. They want acknowledgement that raising kids is important, even if they don’t get that paycheck validation.
What do you think?
I think parents are underappreciated in the professional classes, and that goes double for dads because they can no longer define who they are by what they earn. On the other hand, if a father of triplets takes his kids to the grocery store, the other customers ooh and aah. Less so a mother with squalling toddlers. So like the loser-lover, hero-heel duality, SAHD’s get extra props for doing things mothers have done for centuries, but they also face a different wall of social criticism.
Well said. Lance’s wife owns Darlene’s Diner, an eatery whose popularity is based on the fact that it’s extremely kid- and mom-friendly. I love this idea (the Barstow version, anyway). Is this based on anything in reality?
Not that I know of although I’m sure that they are in the works. It came from my fantasy of a place to take my kids that was better than the ball pit at the Burger King.
The one in Highland? That’s a damned fine ball pit!
And I’m sure it’s also a great place to contract chicken pox.
Yeah, it’s pretty much a CDC lab in there. But there are some great diners in upstate New York. Have you been to the Eveready?
I love the Eveready. My favorite diet meal: scrambled eggs and sweet potato fries.
My favorite diet meal: cheeseburger, onion rings, and large Diet Coke. I don’t want to give anything away here, but there’s, like, a lot of sex and sex-talk in your book. Is there really an Idiots’ Guide to Tantric Sex?
I bet Sting has a copy. Your book’s greatest strengths, I think, are the plot (snappy, with a big finish) and the dialogue (witty, with a number of zingers). This, plus the aforementioned sex, means that Playdate has all the elements of a Hollywood movie. Did you approach the novel cinematically? Did you have that in mind when writing it?
My first impetus was to write a script that crossed Shampoo with Mr. Mom. I’m the rare writer that was too lazy to write a screenplay and wrote a novel instead.
Last question: if they made a Playdate movie, what would happen when it came time to review it for Us Weekly? Would you have to recuse yourself, like a Supreme Court justice?
Yes. I take my job as seriously as if I was a Supreme Court justice, and I spend almost as much time sitting.