A Rom-Com Memoir of the 2000s
[15th installment in the serialization of a work-in-progress.]
But it wasn’t as if we lived happily ever after. Expecting that would have put me in the position of Tom Baxter, the intrepid explorer character played by Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo, who steps off the black and white screen and is bewildered, upon kissing the real-life housewife played by Mia Farrow, to find that no lights have dimmed and that he’s expected to continue (“You make love without fading out?”). Anyone who’s loved and lived – lived, that is, past the non-fadeout that a real-life wedding represents – understands that nothing can be quite so simple between two complicated people. Judith and I were in it for keeps now, but this didn’t mean that we stopped tussling, probing and parrying, trying to adjust our own misshapen edges to fit into the puzzle of a picture that is any ongoing romantic relationship.
And life lacks a movie’s pat resolutions on every front. My novel was published, yes, but it sank into the vast ocean of published fiction with barely a ripple. Judith’s living next door, initially such an ideal set up, proved problematic – we kept losing things between the two apartments, generally the things we vitally needed at one in the morning – and when Judith went freelance, the double rent proved prohibitive. She moved in with me, which felt better to both of us, anyway... though the adjustment of two writers, two dogs, and two cats to closer quarters produced its moments of stress, including the night when an argument climaxed in Judith throwing a pound of frozen turkey meat loaf at me. Indefensible? The fight had been my fault. Nothing was all one thing.
And so it was with romantic comedy. It wasn’t as if, in the wake of a new male POV-triggered realism, the genre shook off all its hoary conventions and became a bastion of imaginative innovation. No, 2009 was the year of The Ugly Truth (a total ugh) and the awful, awful Couples Retreat, a majorly excruciating experience for the Universal analyst who’d had to suffer through its multiple drafts in development (that would be me). Bromantic comedy flourished (with the mainstream I Love You, Man and the indie Humpday at opposite ends of its spectrum), while middling programmers continued to do well: the ensemble rom-com He’s Just Not That Into You striking a cultural chord, and The Proposal, despite its formulaic nature, at least presenting a stronger-than-average heroine in Sandra Bullock’s conflicted attorney, a woman with credible how-do-you-have-it-all issues (and who doesn’t love Betty White?).
When one’s attention is newly caught by something, that thing is suddenly everywhere – when you’re moving, say, all you see wherever you go is potential packing boxes. Newly married, keenly aware of having abandoned romantic fantasy for the deeper pleasures of a reality-based love, I was particularly taken by movies that explored this very theme. The disparity between hopes and dreams and real-life time and space was very much on the mind of Up in the Air, which despite being a black comedy-drama and not a rom-com, featured the year’s best “meet cute,” between frequent fliers George Clooney and Vera Farmiga. Their perfect chemistry banter had the wit and verve of a vintage screwball. But the whole point of their story line was that it was based in the romance of fantasy. Clooney’s character was pure escapism for Farmiga’s, and as soon as he tried to set foot in her real life, she had to shut him out of it.
The romantic comedy that put this issue front and center was that rare bird – a rom-com that was as visually arresting, as cinematically smart as any auteur’s “serious” work. Clearly indebted to Annie Hall, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s script for (500) Days of Summer told the story of a guy who was in love with idea of being in love, and set himself up for heartbreak by refusing to believe that he’d picked the wrong girl to project on. Frisky and funny, craftily playful and even risky in its technique, (500) was shrewdly directed by Marc Webb, who articulated its subtext in an EW interview: “Most romantic comedies sacrifice honesty for the sake of wish-fulfillment. [Our theme] is that happiness lies within, not in the big blue eyes in the cubicle down the hall.” This is heresy. A story that says boy not getting the girl is the point is radical for a rom-com, dude. Watching deluded, lovesick Joseph Gordon Levitt’s doomed pursuit of Zooey Deschanel, I felt like a two-year A.A. member seeing a case study in addiction.
With such sickness in my rear-view, I found glimmers of insight about what might lie ahead beneath the glossy surface of a movie by an auteur I hadn’t much related to before. While milking the farcical laughs of its central “I’m having an affair with my ex-husband?!” gag, Nancy Meyer’s It’s Complicated addressed a territory most romantic comedies avoid: love among the middle-to-older aged. It was surely a guilty pleasure (this blog likened it to “cinematic Vicodin laced with helium”), but the mega-wattage of a Steve Martin, Meryl Streep, and Alec Baldwin triangle proved too powerful for a diehard rom-com maven to resist. At a time when the country was reeling from financial disaster and Judith and I were feeling the pinch, such un-cool, upscale middle-of-the road escapism was the kind of holiday punch that hit the spot.
[To be continued]