A Rom-Com Memoir of the 2000s
[The third installment in the serialization of a work-in-progress essay that I'm publishing here this summer.]
What is it trying to sell us, the romantic comedy? Certainly one that stands out from the many mediocrities of the pre-9/11 era, when I was a mostly happily married man, is Bridget Jones's Diary (2001). Witty, even naughty, it's also a model of the kind of female fairy tales we wanted to believe in at the time.
The British bestseller it was based on had struck a resonant chord with late-'90s women on both sides of the pond, since its heroine embodied a prevalent predicament of unmarried 30-somethings trying to better themselves through self-help. As wryly depicted by author Helen Fielding, who co-wrote the adaptation, Bridget's scrupulous annotation of each pound lost or gained, every cigarette smoked and liter of alcohol consumed, was belied by an uncomfortable truth: that this feminist-based striving for empowerment was only deemed an achievement if it landed you a man.
Having put on an extra 20 pounds, a convincing accent, and a look of perpetual confusion, Renee Zellweger made Bridget's struggle against her worst enemy (Bridget) believable. Smart enough to realize how stupid she's been, with heart on disheveled sleeve, Zellweger nailed Bridget's embattled but game spirit: head held high no matter how low she's sunk herself.
It's axiomatic that a romantic comedy heroine who's been steeped in humiliation be rewarded with a cornucopia of wish fulfillment fantasies (WFF). Bridget sleeps with her handsome cad of a boss, Daniel (Hugh Grant, relishing his role of a reprobate after years of wussy heroism), and after he's betrayed and dumped her, gets to quit and eloquently tell him off in front of her entire enthralled office. Cheered on by not one, but a group of enviable buddies, she lands a dream job and, helped by the man who's now courting her, Mark Darcy (the supremely chivalrous Colin Firth), becomes a media celebrity - for in a rom-com, regaining your self-esteem after surviving the loss of love always lands you the job you want, or wins you a promotion.
The greatest WFF, however, lies in how this Cinderella wins her prince. Bridget and he have had nothing but embarrassing encounters while she was busy kissing froggy Daniel. But now the dashing Mr. Darcy pursues Bridget, when she exits a nightmare dinner party where she's been the sacrificial singleton lamb to a galley of Smug Married Couples. After listing the reasons Bridget should be a must to avoid, he declares that he likes her. In fact, he adds, "I like you, very much... just the way you are."
Just the way you are. Why, some sentimentalist pop songwriter might make a fortune from this phrase, should he set it to music. For is it not the holiest of romantic holy homilies? In recognizing what's lovable in Bridget, the all-accepting Darcy symbolizes a just universe. Everywoman's dream: to be seen and appreciated, understood on your own terms. This politically correct notion flies in the face of consumer culture's tyranny, which hounds women with projections of how they should look and live.
But if Bridget is lovable as Bridget, all flaws intact, then the Diary self-help program she's embarked on is a fool's errand. The movie's target demographic (i.e. single women in their thirties looking for love) are being told that if they lose those extra pounds, master those vices, and stop victimizing themselves with Mr. Wrongs, they will find their Mr. Right. Yet what is the use of trying to better yourself, when ultimately you want to find someone who will embrace you as you are?
And since Darcy makes his declaration to Bridget well after she's launched into her self-propelled makeover, it's as if the movie is calling all that self-help stuff a con (Darcy likes Bridget, after all, because she's funny and irreverently fun)... but adding that still, it wouldn't hurt for you to get your act together and spruce up a bit, love. This is the dishonest sleight of hand that lies at the movie's thematic core, along with its claim that there's no shame in being single, so long as you end up with a prince.
The real kicker comes when we contemplate said prize. Mark Darcy's human reality is supplied by Firth, a Brit so well-bred that one can't imagine him doing an uncouth thing. But Fielding originally based her Mark Darcy on the character of Mr. Darcy as played by Firth in the popular BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (by Diary co-screenwriter Andrew Davies). So actor Colin Firth is playing Mark Darcy, a character based on Davies' version of Austen's character, Mr. Darcy... as played by Colin Firth.
Talk about your meta hall of mirrors. The only thing missing in this perfectly artificial construct is like, a real person. "He's a fantasy character," director Sharon Maguire muses in her DVD commentary. "Paternalistic, bright, aloof, kind... Those men don't exist, I don't think. At least, I've never met them in real life."
This is one thing that drives a man crazy about the effects of romantic comedies. Because of them, we're supposed to measure up to fabricated men of fantasy - which is why most men feel about rom-coms the way most women feel about porn.
[To be continued]