A Rom-Com Memoir of the 2000s
Those who belittle the genre for the rigid constraints of its form don’t understand that familiarity is a big part of any genre’s appeal. We enjoy recognizing what’s long been ours to own, re-learning wisdoms already received. No Bible story confirms the nonexistence of God, and it would be as blasphemous to end a mystery with its mystery unsolved (witness the 2010 television audience’s outrage at the inconclusive conclusion of the series Lost) as it would be to resolve a romantic comedy by saying love is not the answer – that actually, life would be better without love getting in the way.
No, such love in the movies is valued above all else, and it’s generally defined by sacrifice. With an act of valor, a rom-com lead proves he cares more about the loved one than himself. This is a beautiful thing, when it’s beautifully lit and shot, but it can be screamingly over-the-top. The genre’s stubborn belief in romantic love makes it a tyrannical emotion that sweeps up everything else – families, friends, people’s spouses – in its tidal path. In comedy, the destructiveness of passion is great fun, the pursuit of one’s soul mate at the cost of one’s dignity both ridiculous and noble.
In 2009, when disgraced governor Mark Sanford owned up to an adulterous affair at a press conference, his confession that he’d found his “soul mate” seemed merely sad. Hadn’t the wife he’d cheated on with his newly discovered soul mate been his soul mate first? If you can have more than one, doesn’t that make you soul-polygamous? (For that matter, does bromantic comedy suggest soul-mates are bi?) The juxtaposition of such high-flown romance with the societal pillars overturned on either side of him – wife and family, a political career – only heightened the effect of a man in the grips of a grand delusion. Perfect, too, that his mate was an Argentinian. She might been a Moor, or from Mars, such was the fantastical feel of this leap into an imaginary realm. Up on the screen, he’d have been a hero, and this press conference, his cathartic public climax, his race to the airport. Out here in the real world, nobody could quite see it that way.
Yet the romantic comedy thrives on this love trumps everything conceit – because its predominant story is a courtship story, where the winning of a romantic prize is the be-all and end-all. Such a story, tightly focused on the bloom and burst of a relationship, can indulge in all manner of myths and dreams in the short span from meet to get. Lovers in romantic comedy, for example, are somehow always evenly matched in the intensity of their love. You don’t have one beautiful star loving the other less in the end – that would be a soap opera, or tragedy.
If there’s a skeleton in the rom-com closet, it’s the corpse of loves abandoned. In real life, everlasting doesn’t always last, because the very real differences between people (be they based in gender difference or not) can irrevocably sunder the most passionately committed couple’s ever-after. The dark blot on my own personal rom-com narrative had been my secret selfishness. I did, after all, have two divorces, which betrays a very anti-rom-com stance of “I loved her, but ultimately, I loved me more.” I’d come to realize over time, though, that I was not merely narcissistic but also a victim of what psychologist Daniel Kahnaman refers to as the planning fallacy: “Our tendency to over-estimate benefits and under-estimate costs, and hence foolishly to take on risky projects.” What better definition exists for the contemporary romantic’s Achille’s heel?
Our relationship to the genre is meta in the way it mirrors our own inner conflict: there is always a tug between what we tell ourselves about our lives, and what our lives really are about. The romantic comedy keeps touting the best of love, glossing over the pain and wear and tear, the toll that real life love can wring from our souls. It’s genre cocaine, zapping our dopamine levels to simulate the chemical high that science tells us real life attraction creates. As the critic F.X. Feeney said of Manhattan, “It either plays to your memory or it plays to your hope.”
At its most cynical, the system spews out pure spiked soda pop, the blatant cheap fix that has given the genre its bad name. Such a genre nadir briefly picked the public’s pockets in 2010: Valentine’s Day, a film conceived and executed as a marketing strategy to further exploit that already exploitative holiday with a rank bouquet of bullshit story lines packed full of mercenary stars. As the nation’s most banal date destination, VD lured America into its synthetic web for one night and made its foul fortune, followed by the year’s biggest second weekend drop-off (a whopping 70%). In other words, we came, it sucked, and hardly anyone came after.
Meanwhile there were glimpses of the real thing, in non-rom-coms and romantic comedies alike: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo’s lesbian-heterosexual triangle in The Kids are Alright, Michael Cera shredding shards of punk poetry in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Drew Barrymore’s wry winks at mundane romance maintenance in Going the Distance. And as the reign of boy-men continued, I was impatiently waiting for the other side of the conversation to be taken up, for the other shoe to drop, for the arrival of strong female characters who would finally give Apatow’s arrested adolescent anti-heroes some game. Where were the women?
Not that I understood it at the time, but a project that would prove to be one big fat game-changing answer to this question was already sitting on my desk at work.
[To be continued]