Anyone who's ever tried to write a romantic comedy knows how difficult it is to keep it credible - to put your two protagonists through the requisite meet-lose-get obstacle course without restorting to blatant contrivance. Anyone plotting one in 2012 knows it's only gotten harder: in our current culture of social networking and advanced technology, the "missed connections" gambit that's been the rom-com's coin of the realm since Shakespeare's day is no longer cutting it.
Blogger Danny Manus addresses the problem in his post How Technology Has Ruined Romantic Comedy, noting how the GPS and other such gizmos have rendered suspenseful romantic pursuits kind of moot, and how the mystery has gone out of any two perfect strangers' meeting:
Even if you bumped into a total stranger on the street and had that “love at first sight” moment, you’d go home and Google her, check out her Facebook page, her MySpace, her Linked In profile, her blog, and her Twitter account (which comes with GPS location and receipt counter so you could know exactly where she’s been and what she bought), and you’d know everything you could ever want to know in 5 minutes. Kind of takes the fun out of a good old fashioned stalking, doesn’t it?
True that, and it creates new challenges for any screenwriter on the level of story execution. The rom-com genre is constantly up against how fast the culture is moving forward. Lately I've been musing on an even larger disturbance in the rom-com force, a not-so distant rumbling that threatens to upend one of the genre's basic tenets: the concept of happily ever after.
The most significant takeaway from the climax of a recent real life romantic dramedy (or psychological thriller) The End of TomKat was the rumor of a marriage contract - the idea, urban legend or not, that Cruise and Holmes had committed only to a five year plan, one with an out-clause factored in from the get.
In Mexico City a legislative movement is afoot to establish exactly that: marriage as a time-limited contract with an option for renewal, say every few years:
Leftists in the city's assembly -- who have already riled conservatives by legalizing gay marriage -- proposed a reform to the civil code this week that would allow couples to decide on the length of their commitment, opting out of a lifetime. The minimum marriage contract would be for two years and could be renewed if the couple stays happy. The contracts would include provisions on how children and property would be handled if the couple splits.
It's the mythical painless divorce made real. And if such an approach really catches on, what becomes of the standard romantic comedy ending?
Matt Richtel's NY Times article on the subject of time-limited marriage is well worth a read. It points out that in America today, pre-nups are more popular than ever, cohabitation without vows is on the rise, and people are getting married at older ages than ever before (to this I'll add from my own research that the percentage of the population that's living alone by choice is accelerating). Richtel notes:
The kinds of things that are changing: we’re living longer; we live apart from families and are less inclined to religion, both marriage support systems; technology makes it easier than ever flirt or cheat and fuels instant gratification (“I will absolutely invest in this marriage after I watch this cat video”).
Richtel's exploration of where the marital institution may be headed leads him into some truly intriguing encounters, perhaps the most radical of them being with Virginia Rutter, an associate professor of sociology at Framingham State University in Massachusetts. In discussing the "20 year marriage contract" broached by Kenneth P. Altshuler, the president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, she posits that:
... the 20-year marriage proposal is “incredibly conservative.” As in: still too dogmatic. She says it presupposes people want to build their marriages around having children. Her solution takes yet another step toward eliminating the ideal, religious and platonic. “Ban all performative weddings, ban all crazy expenditures,” she said. “Ban the marriage pages in The New York Times. Ban those things that turn otherwise sensible people to start buying into that fantasy.”
She may as well have added, "ban all romantic comedies." But as a glass half-full kind of guy, I see this shift in the cultural axis as a great opportunity for the imaginative, adventurous screenwriter. What would a rom-com happy ending be, in a world where happily-ever-after marriage is no longer the norm? How does your romantic comedy play out when "boy gets girl" means "not for keeps?"
If we're tired of the formulaic (I know I am), it's high time we look at where we really are in this regard. I'm not suggesting that the next time a guy runs to the airport to stop a woman from getting on that plane, he declare his love to her with a legal contract in hand. But I'd love to see the romantic comedy that takes into account the resonances of what's already a subtle seismic shift.
What lies beyond the "love conquers all, forever" story? Living the Rom-Com wants to know.