A Rom-Com Memoir of the 2000s
[7th installment in the serialization of a work-in-progress.]
When a marriage ends in bitter acrimony, you can take refuge in your rage and in harboring your many grievances. But when a genuinely loving relationship comes apart because you yourself have failed, fundamentally, failed to be the better self you aspired to be, and because the failures of your mate are similarly flaws of character as opposed to betrayals or other sins, it's much more painful. Drinking helped, of course, but the movies were a stronger narcotic.
Romantic comedy may have its limitations, but if there's one thing it's good at, it's misery. Precisely because it is comedy - a form steeped in the infinite varieties of human suffering - the rom-com thrives on depictions of romantic despair, the deeper and darker, the better. Partially this is the famous Mel Brooks dictum at work ("Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die!"), but to some degree, it does have to do with compassion. The genre indulges the most extreme versions of lovesick joy, so why shouldn't it take seriously the abysmal pits of love-stricken devastation?
The therapeutic, have-a-good-cry use of romantic comedy is so well established that this year's Ted gets a knowing laugh when its cynical teddy bear tells just-dumped boyfriend Mark Wahlberg not to worry about upset girlfriend Mila Kunis: "Oh, c'mon, she'll go home, watch Bridget Jones, cry a little bit, she'll be fine!" - and cuts to Kunis doing exactly that.
So I wasn't being a sucker for punishment when I went to see Richard Curtis's Love Actually in its 2003 release, I was looking for catharsis. It wasn't entirely what it delivered, though. Line for rom-com line, Curtis is arguably the best we've got, and parts of his directorial debut show him at the top of his form. Those were the bits that made me laugh and tear up. Other parts are Curtis at his worst, and these just pissed me off.
For all the great jokes in Actually - and there are many, from the delightfully dirty running gag of the two ever-rutting naked stand-ins in love, to any scene with Bill Nighy's aging rocker in it - there are swatches of glaringly sexist, classist chauvinism, evident in the fact that nearly half of the omnibus story lines feature subservient younger women throwing themselves at powerful older men. Marvelous Emma Thompson is give one superb, heart-wrenching scene: Reeling from evidence of her husband's intended infidelity, she reaches out to smooth her marital bedcovers and is caught, briefly paralyzed in grief before she manages to straighten up again, an indelible cinematic moment... and yet this story line is left unresolved, with hub Alan Rickman forgiven and left wholly unscathed at the rushed story line's end.
Most galling of all, though, is the movie's theme, which is glib to the point of inanity: the idea that love is all around you, and that all you have to do is recognize it, to live happily ever after. This notion felt so counter to my experience at the time that despite what I loved about this treacle-stuffed holiday package, I wanted to picket the damn thing (my sign might've read LOVE ACTUALLY UNFAIR TO REALITY).
When I was at the bottom of my black well, a bittersweet romantic comedy that had said hello to me was Paul Thomas Anderson's underappreciated, explosively beautiful Punch Drunk Love (aka The One Good Adam Sandler Movie). Now mainstream rom-com hits like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days were so remote from my reality that they seemed to explicate the mating rituals of an alien species in a far-off galaxy.
The one film that felt like home was Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. More a tone poem of melancholia and regret than a raucous Bill Murray comedy, it's an elegiac meditation on the impossibility of sustaining romance. The Murray protagonist is in a marriage that's long lost its spark, while the marriage of Scarlett Johansson's character is obviously over even as it's getting into gear. Studying aloneness, the movie glories in its moments of visceral isolation. An air of mordant despair permeates the wryly funny-poignant encounters between the two leads, as they slip into a tacitly doomed not-quite love affair that's clearly never meant to be.
I saw the movie twice in quick succession, escaping from my own haunted house of loss, marital failure still hanging over it like a shroud. I would've lived within Lost in Translation's velvety dream-like languors if I could have. I can remember the feeling of it, watching Scarlett be swallowed up by the skyscrapers of Tokyo with the end credits coming on. It was like: You go ahead - I'll just sit here in the dark and cry a little bit, and I'll be fine.
[To be continued]