[This post is the first installment in the serialization of a work-in-progress essay that I'll be publishing here over the course of this summer.]
It's been a decade since it happened: the moment I lost my faith in romantic comedy. The genre I'd loved all my life was in crisis, and sitting amidst the wreckage of a failed second marriage, I was having a crisis, not sure I could believe in love's happy endings anymore, in reality or in make believe. The reasons for my own romance's end were perfectly clear. But it was particularly galling to realize that romantic comedy couldn't offer me any counsel and consolation.
Pronounced dead in critical quarters, seemingly doomed to unconscious self-parody, the average studio released rom-com of the early 2000s had all the cringe worthy appeal of a 50-something matron in go-go boots and a bell-bottomed aging playboy gamely trying to dance the Watusi.
The movie would star two exceedingly beautiful people, who'd meet in some contrived bit of cuteness: Jennifer Lopez, her high heel stuck in a manhole cover, nearly flattened by a falling dumpster before she's rescued by Matthew McConaughey (The Wedding Planner). After falling in love for no convincing reason, they'd be torn apart by a misunderstanding, or the revelation of a secret that any real life lovers would have revealed going in, like Patrick Dempsey suddenly discovering that Reese Witherspoon is married (Sweet Home Alabama). Inevitably, one of these stars would save the day via the grand gesture of running after the other to declare his or her love, as in David Duchovny flying to Italy and joining a bicycle race there to retrieve Minne Driver (Return to Me).
Flying to Rome to win back my real life Italian wife was not going to do the job, far as I could see. Tried that - didn't work. And meanwhile, in its rigid adherence to a series of tropes that were replete with far-fetched sentimentality to begin with and had grown increasingly irrelevant with age, romantic comedy was turning into the Miss Havisham of cinema: a batty old biddy passing out stale bits of fossilized wedding cake for a party that had ended decades earlier.
The traditional rom-com's retro values made little sense at a time when songs like "Big Pimpin'" and "Bootylicious" topped the charts. And its happily-ever-after belief system wasn't jibing with the tidal sweep of a statistical shift that I'd unhappily just joined: shortly after the turn of the new century, nearly half of all American marriages were ending in divorce.
Romantic comedy's failure to address my issues really hurt. It wasn't an idle pleasure for me, this form. The ethos of the genre had helped shape my sensibility. I was the original sucker. I believed in it - the bracing banter of smart, sexy people, the amusing confusion of gender collision, the transformative power of true, hard won love. In my gullible mind, I had intertwined what was up there on the screen with what could be out here in the world, imagining that my own future would be a combination of the two, that I would get to live a romantic comedy. And now, not only the life I'd been living, but the movies that embodied this dream life had become virtually indefensible.
Losing my religion led to my questioning its tenets. While I struggled with reentering the single life in middle age, I took a long, hard look at what the romantic comedy’s belief system is about, how it both reflects our culture and influences it. And while I was trying to deconstruct the symbiotic relationship between romantic comedy and all of us, the declining genre shifted direction.
For better or worse, a new generation of men writing from their own point of view took it over, reinvigorating a tired paradigm with the raunchy irreverence and contemporary edge of such movies as Wedding Crashers and Knocked Up. Expanding its audience, romantic comedy rose, phoenix-like, from the detritus of formulaic pap.
Then, after one gender's hijacking of the genre, at the decade's end, with movies like Bridesmaids and a surge of female writers leading the charge, the other gender began to reclaim it. And while my obsessive relationship with romantic comedy had formerly compromised my relationship with reality, I finally found a more realistic kind of love and happiness, the kind that actually can exist in the world beyond the silver screen.
Maybe what I learned in loosing the genre's grip on my romantic imagination helped me reconstruct a healthier personal life. At least, it's sweet to think so. I'd like to believe that the genre's resurrection, simultaneous with me getting past my crisis of faith, signified growth for the both of us, but looking back on what happened over the past dozen years and seeing where we are now, I wonder: How much has romantic comedy really changed, and how much have I? This is something I'd like to know.
[To be continued]