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Is the Romantic Comedy Dead & Gone…

I’m a romantic at heart. I really am. Underneath my cold, cynical exterior beats the heart of a poet. A bad poet, no doubt, but a poet nonetheless. Which is why I find it somewhat disingenuous when my mother or my aunt feel the need to attack me for not appreciating or understanding films like My Sister’s Keeper or The Ugly Truth. It’s easy to joke that “ha, I’m a dude and dudes don’t understand the romantic or emotional drama movies!” and so on, but I think that belies the problem. And the problem is that I don’t like too many romantic comedies because… well, they aren’t good movies (or, to qualify, I don’t believe they are good movies). Read on to hear my reasoning.

The only gold standard in the traditional romantic comedy is Matthew McConaughey's fake tan...

Let’s take a look through gender-stereotyping mirror. That vague bastion of enlightenment, “common knowledge” informs us that girls inherently dig romance in all its forms – romantic comedies, trashy novels, Wuthering Heights – and that boys ‘just don’t get it’. On the other end of the spectrum, we’re also reliably informed by popular conceptions that guys love action movies – explosions! puns! slow motion! – and girls just don’t understand it.

I’ll ignore the gender commentary and instead suggest that the two genres share a lot of common attributes, at least in their most typical examples. They’re the kind of movies that the audience can be almost entire sure of the ending before the opening credits role – in romances, the couple (or single lady) on the poster will find love deep and true; while, in action movies, the good guys will prevail. Both genres are typically slaves to convention: you can almost tell whether you’re due a romantic hiccup (oh my god, why didn’t he tell her that was his sister she saw him kissing!) or moment of redemption (oh, look, the good guy’s almost beaten – he’ll never recover from that!) by the runtime remaining. With both kinds of movies, audiences can actually become more than a little bit ticked off if the movie isn’t predictable: imagine if Valentine’s Day ended with all of the leads alone and depressed or if Superman Returns featured a long negligence courtcase taken against the hero on his return to Earth.

The predictability and “safe” natures of both genres make them inherently less interesting than dramas where anything can happen or science fiction with its myriad of possibilities. We’ve been watching movies where guys and girls overcome an initial dislike to fall in love to a cheesy soundtrack for decades, just as we’ve watched sweaty heroes deliver one-liners as they walk away from exploding buildings for decades. Most follow a formula. There are examples in each genre of movies demonstrating the potential of that formula – Die Hard is a fantastic action movie, regardless of how it plays to the formula; When Harry Met Sally is a classic of comedy, even though it does little new.

It’s handy to use the analogy of baking a chocolate cake. Everyone loves chocolate, right? Now, imagine a bakery (let’s call it ‘Hollywood’) had been producing chocolate cake for half-a-century. Sure, they have other items on the menu, fads that come and go over the years, or more generic deserts which give the chefs the opportunity to try new things, but chocolate cake seems to be incredibly popular. The chocolate cake is generally baked in the same manner with almost the exact same ingredients each time. Sure, they might alternate the brand of chocolate stars that they decorate the cake with, or change th ratios of sweetness and bitterness, but it’s fundamentally the same. Even after all those years of eating chocolate cake, of which you may grow a little tired, you can still recognise variations in quality. Some cakes have a richer aroma, or use the best ingredients or are even produced in a slightly weird shape.

Being entirely honest, I think it’s harder for an action movie to be boring. That’s simply because the genre offers a larger opportunity for exciting visuals, which can help distract from a product which is more than a little bit stale. Explosions and car chases can create the illusion of interest far better, masking one-dimensional characters or average preformances. On the other hand, the individual charm of any given romantic comedies rely on the script and the leading actors. It can be a tough sell, particularly to the conventions of the genre.

The Guardian suggested that the driving concepts of the romantic comedy were becoming increasingly outdated. In essence, the genre hasn’t evolved at all since the 1930s. Sure, it has gotten cruder, in keeping with the times, but the essence remains the same. Boy and girl meet, have chemistry and eventually overcome social barriers to fall in love. The problem is that such a simplitic view of romance, championed by ettiquette books of old, is long outdated. It has been suggested that attempts to insert just the slightest hint of edginess into the genre simply belies the weaknesses of the rom-com:

Perhaps film-makers should give up trying to reinvigorate this genre by injecting it with doses of grim reality. Maybe instead, they should follow the instinct behind this approach to its logical conclusion. How about giving us fewer romcoms and a bit more Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, The Wars of the Roses and Revolutionary Road?

Incidently, there’s a movie adaptation of a 1950s spoof of a 1950s etiquette book in the works as a romantic comedy. I think that’s an illustrative example.

Julia Roberts couldn't get out of romantic comedies fast enough... though even I'd come back for $3m...

The outdatedness of the genre has a darker side as well. Feminism, Sex & The Female Mind looks at the inherently sexist perspective of these movies:

Romantic Comedies set up these false expectations and make women feel like they NEED a man in their life in order to be happy. It’s like the 50’s where the woman is supposed to cook and clean in her pearls and heels and be happy about it. Why not just be ourselves, and not worry about the search for Mr. Right? Women become so obsessed with the expectations that romantic comedies set down that it’s difficult to find a happy teenager and the ones that are, are usually in drama-filled relationships and friendships and treat their problems like the protagonists in films do i.e. loudly, publically, dramatically, and by sucking as many of their just as dramatic friends into it as they can.

Sure society still believes in love, but does it resemble the inherently skewed representation of old? The Guardian lambasted The Ugly Truth as a feminist nightmare:

The fact is that nothing in The Ugly Truth is new. Most of its messages are taken directly from relationship advice guides for women. The Ugly Truth is He’s Just Not That Into You in spirit, if not in title. The message of these guides, paradoxically, is not that women should subordinate themselves to men because men are stronger and smarter. It’s that women should subordinate themselves to men because men are very, very stupid and deeply, unbelievably weak.

The convention of a female lead who is satisfied in every way but romantically is not a new one, but it’s one with dozens of unfortunate implications in the modern age. Male leads face a similar stereotyping. They just don’t understand women, apparently. They’re generally macho and combattive. Far from erroding this convention in the era of metrosexuality, it seems that movies like The Ugly Truth are playing it up. Because real men are louts and apes. They need to be tamed.

The central thesis of most romantic comedies seems to be a fairly disheartening one: in order to be in a loving relationship, you must be fundamentally altered by your partner. In short, everything you’ve ever been told about being your own person is lie, other people don’t want that. In most cases, such as 27 Dresses, this involves the girl changing the guy, ‘taming’ him for lack of a better word (‘fixing’ would also seem appropriate, as these movies delight in rationalising any undesirable male traits as the result of ‘being burnt once too often’ or the fact they’ve ‘been hurt in the past’). Occasionally it works both ways, like in The Ugly Truth where she emotionally educates him while he ‘sluttifies’ her. The central message seems to be that you are broken and must be fundamentally altered in order to find love. It’s never something realistic like ‘he must learn to put the toilet seat down’ or ‘she must learn to wash down the sink’ – those would be too mundane to be the hurdles to true love.

This logic is the product of a different time. A time before gender equality emerged as an aspiration. A time before divorce meant that you didn’t have to worry about finding your one true love – if you mess up, you can just try it again in about five years. This is an era where it isn’t taboo to talk about relationship troubles and where governments sponsor marriage counselling. It’s a world where the fantasy of meeting an individual and changing them into someone you could love through hard work and stick-to-it-ive-ness seems more than just a departure from reality, but counterproductive. Surely romantic comedies should engage with this real world rather than offer us the same old outdated fantasy?

I stated at the start of this (rather long and rambling) piece that I am a romantic at heart, and it’s true. I am a through and through romantic – watch me attempt to supress a tear during that montage in Up, for example. I consider Chasing Amy to be the highlight of Kevin Smith’s filmogaphy. (500) Days of Summer was among the best films of last year, as was Up In The Air. Wall-E melted my heart. All of these movies demonstrate that there is life yet left in the romantic movie, albeit not necessarily one produced in the cookie-cutter mold. All these movies offer new glimpses at romance – romance in the twenty-first century.

Part of me wonders if it’s time to throw aside the old template of ‘boy meets girl and they fall in love, but there’s a hurdle at an hour-and-a-quarter which they overcome for a big finale’. Love is more complicated than that, as is life. To pretend it isn’t is a gross oversimplification. To boil the complexities of modern relationships down to a level simple enough to make that idea work is trite and condescending.

The traditional romantic comedy is arguably a genre which has passed its sell-by date. The issue isn’t merely that the formula is tired and worn-out, but more fundamentally that the world has moved on. Other genres have proven themselves adept at handing the changing social fabric of modern society, as more and more subjects become legitimate fodder for examination, so why not romance?

Of course, maybe I’m reading too much into it. Manohla Dargis is film critic for the New York Times, and she offers a much simpler reason for why the movies don’t work:

One, the people making them have no f***ing taste, two, they’re morons, three they’re insulting panderers who think they’re making movies for the great unwashed and that’s what they want. I love romantic movies. I absolutely do. But I literally don’t know what’s happening.

Ironically, perhaps this sort of romance should take a cue from the lessons it seems to delight in teaching its own leading characters – if you want audiences to truly love you, you need to change.

8 Responses

  1. To take your cake analogy a bit further: let’s not underestimate the writers and directors who get involved with this type of movie:

    One cake is made by a master chef with thirty or more years experience and access to the finest ingredients; A second chef is young and talented and not afraid to take some risks, sometimes they pay of, sometimes they don’t; The third is a rubbish cook with a fifty year old cook book, he didn’t finish school and can’t read very well so is struggling with the instructions, to add to his woes the measurements in the book are in imperial and he only understands metric so guesses at the quantities. Just to top it off his chocolate is cheep and his eggs are out of date and a bit smelly. He knows his cake is rubbish but a supermarket is paying him lots of money, plus he is learning the trade and may get the chance to make something better in future.

    I have to say I find myself agreeing with the quote from Manohla Dargis in a lot of ways. The thing to remember is as bad as they are; a lot of these movies make good money. Rachel Getting Married had good reviews and has an 86% rating on Rotten, Anne Hathaway was nominated for an Oscar (I think she was unlucky to miss out). In the UK it came out at the same time as Bride Wars that was panned and has a 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Bride wars took over $115million, nearly ten times more than Rachel Getting Married.

    Take a look at my list from last month: http://fandangogroovers.wordpress.com/2010/02/14/top-five-romantic-comedies/

    • Yep, how much of this is our own damn fault? Nice list. I like my romances slightly subvervise, like Chasing Amy or 500 Days of Summer.

      On the other hand, I have an inexplicable love for As Good as it Gets.

  2. Ah that’s funny, I had a similar rant about romantic comedies a few weeks ago as well. It can be found here: http://www.anomalousmaterial.com/movies/2010/01/romantic-comedies-a-dead-genre/

    Anyways, let me read this and I will get back to you in a few 🙂

    • Good post, by the way. I can’t help but get the sense that all the critical railing-against-God (or the studios) is for nothing. As long as they keep making money, people will keep making them. All we need is one hugely successful original concept and that might send the message to the suits… but, then again, it may not.

  3. Outstanding post Darren. You elaborate on a lot of themes I touched on in my own rant. I don’t think the boy meets girl concept is dead. It will be alive as long as humanity.

    The main problem I see is that Hollywood is too far away from the real-life experience of a relationship. Most people don’t fall in love at first sight, and aren’t millionaires living in fancy penthouses. Where are all the gritty, real and honest rom-coms?

    Most of the premises and situations you see in The Ugly Truth or any of the latest rom-com simply don’t happen in real life, they are juxtaposed to extract some cheap laughs and tears but ultimately don’t mean anything to the audience.

  4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Punch-Drunk Love, and Lost in Translation are all good romantic comedies.

    • Yep, and I’d argue that they’re stronger for eschewing the format of the typical rom-com we see breezing in and out of cinemas every few weeks. Though, as fandango observed, they keep making ’em because people keep paying to see them.

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