A Rom-Com Memoir of the 2000s
[9th installment in the serialization of a work-in-progress.]
Writing well is the best revenge, I tell my screenwriting students, and mutter to myself in moments of pique. In the years following my second marriage's end, I took revenge not on Claudia, but on reality, writing a romantic comedy in novel form that helped me to process what had happened to us... and to fantasize. It was the story of a writer who, in order to win back the wife who's left him, invents an imaginary girlfriend - who then takes on a life of her own. By 2005, when Ruby Sparks wasn't yet a gleam in Zoe Kazan's eye, I was on my second draft.
As any writer of fiction knows, living inside an alternate reality that you can control is a great way to offset the uncontrollable and often difficult challenges of navigating the real world. And being able to write about an imaginary girlfriend, safe within my literary bubble, was easier than dealing with the real females I was starting to encounter, as I warily tiptoed into the modern world of post-divorce dating. 'Cause it was crazy out there - for all of us: being an emotionally wounded and still healing middle-aged singleton who hadn't dated in years, I was probably about as nuts as half the women I met.
The culture's poster couple at the time was Brangelina (glamorously assassinating people together in their hit rom-com/spy thriller hybrid Mr. and Mrs. Smith), while the bestseller Twilight made young vampire love the new model of eroticism. A non-fang baring not-a-hunk like me was just trying to find someone reasonably attractive, and reasonable, to have dinner with. Not as simple as you might think.
Given that the montage of bad dates is a rom-com clichê, I'll spare you my litany of internet assignations gone kerplooey. They did run a gamut, from a woman who led us through a labyrinth of meeting logistics, replete with flirtatious postponements, only to ultimately stand me up, to a woman who was instantly available, yet instantly wasn't really there, the moment I arrived. Is it any wonder I turned to my imaginary girlfriend for refuge?
And what was I looking for, anyway? Sex, of course. But being a romance junkie who wasn't ready for another major relationship, I was looking for... well, a romantic comedy: a fling, a fun affair, something with an amicable beginning, middle, and end. Unless I lucked into a romance with a stranger perfect enough to make me swallow my scruples and commit. Not that I could handle a commitment. Wasn't I a catch! Meanwhile, the kind of woman who would've done the trick could be easily found up there on the screen.
The term that defined her hadn't been coined yet, but she was already ubiquitous in romantic comedy, and a few years later, Nathan Rabin, in his A.V. Club pan of Cameron Crowe's 2005 Elizabethtown, would dub her the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. He defined this bubbly, sunshiney brand of male wish fulfillment fantasy as a creature who exists "to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." Like Kirsten Dunst in Crowe's movie, she was beautiful, quirky as hell, girly and giving, a selfless vehicle of compassion who primarily existed to succor and support the male hero.
With her origins in the screwball era's madcap socialite (e.g. Carole Lombard in 1936's My Man Godfrey), the contemporary MPDG quintessence had been embodied by Natalie Portman in the previous year's Garden State, complete with a quirky downside: her pixie was a pathological liar. But that was small potatoes. What's amusing about this fantastical construct is how profoundly counter-intuitive it is in terms of non-movie reality. I'd had my share of pixies (you might even say I had married the Italian version of one), and my dating forays confirmed that these fun salvos of idiosyncratic femininity tend to be fundamentally narcissistic. Such dream girls met in real life are usually Damsels in Distress who are trolling for princes, i.e. caretakers.
In the romantic comedy of the 2000s, however, such left of center lovelies fulfilled many a man's fantasy. It's an interesting tell for the decade that the MPDG was so prevalent just then, because her presence presaged the subtle but profound shift that had been sneaking up on the genre once thought to be solely the province of female protagonists and audiences. Romantic comedies starring and aimed at men now topped the box office charts: movies like Meet the Parents ($166 million), American Pie 2 ($145), and 50 First Dates ($120) paved the way for what became, in 2005, a virtual takeover of the romantic comedy by a new male point of view.
One of this year's triumvirate of male-powered rom-com hits, a movie that seemed to mirror the traumatic nature of my being dumped into the meat market wilderness of midlife dating, was the story of an aging male virgin... and oddly enough, its oddball chemical formula for comedy had been cooked up on my own company's watch.
[To be continued]