A Tenth Anniversary Re-Post: September, 2007
It happened again this morning. Just when I thought it was safe to read another romantic comedy screenplay, out of the dark, brackish backwaters of its third act, the horrific rom-com Cliché That Will Not Die reared its monstrous head, jaws spread wide in a sickening grin.
Boy has lost girl, and where has she gone? Where-oh-where, do you suppose? And learning of this, pray tell, whatever does the poor boy do? Can you possibly imagine?
HE RACES TO THE AIRPORT TO STOP HER FROM LEAVING BY DECLARING HIS LOVE.
After I threw this spec script across the room (where the wall is peppered with little dent marks from the brads that have hit it before) I sat for a moment in contemplation of the scene that must have transpired behind this scene.
I pictured the screenwriting team in their office, seated behind dueling lap-tops, working diligently, sweatily, caffeined-ly into the night (or at least until after rush hour on the 405), trying to come up with that killer ending, the one to assure their ascension into the Screenwriting Hall of Fame. They've tried this, they've tried that, they're banging their baseball-capped heads against their flat-screens in desperation, until Scribe 1 turns to Scribe 2 with a mad genius gleam in his eye. "I know!" he cries. "She decides to fly off to Paris after all, and he--!"
It's at this point in my fantasy that a screaming 747 drops on their office, but on second thought, it's too kind a fate. These screenwriters should be bound and gagged in a room with 100 incessant car alarms for a week, forced to watch Gigli on an endless loop, made to listen to further tales of Billy's fun at Burning Man (Hey, campers: ready for Virgin Burns Part 4?!) -- at the very least this is the moment where Bill Goldman and Bob Towne should bust down the door flashing their Guild badges and revoking these guys' license-to-scribe.
Because, I mean, how? How is it possible that in September 2007, any screenwriter who hasn't recently been lobotomized thinks that it's viable, nay, permissable to end a romantic comedy with a race to the departure gate? The mind reels.
Even the parody of same has been done, done, done. From the neat tweak pulled off near the end of Alice Wu's Saving Face(Girl races to airport to declare her love for Lesbian Lover, Lover goes "Sorry, babe," and gets on the plane) to the reductio ad absurdum of Richard Curtis's Love Actually (in which everyone in the entire cast shows up at the airport), knowing satirical spins on this cliché are already rampant.
Meanwhile, what continues to confound me about this routine is its complete lack of grounding in real life as we live it. Of course movies embody fantasies, but come on: Have you ever rushed to the airport to stop your lover from boarding a plane? Do you know anyone who has? And if so, did it work? Earlier this summer, writer Ken Levine did a funny post on how an actual race-to-the-airport climax might play out as an entire movie, noting how a few simple realities (parking? use of a cell phone?) could render the entire proposition absurd.
This movie ending is preposterous. Its over-use is ubiquitous. Yet as if trapped in a recurring nightmare, we cannot escape. They're still writing these scenes, they're still shooting them. Why, Romantic Comedy, why?!!!
This question was actually put to me just the other day by a journalist doing a blog column about rom-com heroines and the clichés embodied in their portrayal, and for once, Mr. Rom-Com was stumped. I could only posit that screenwriters who are intellectually challenged (and the studios who enable them) must believe that they're supposed to write such obligatory scenes -- as if the romantic comedy genre was so severely codified that contemporary audiences would be unhappy without an airport race climax.
We know that's not the case, here in the Year of Apatow, where the romantic comedies that willfully go against the traditional grain are the ones reaping millions, while same-olds tank with numbing regularity. Still the cliché persists, and I find this most mysterious and perplexing. So I put it to you, my sagely Living Rom-Commers: Why do you suppose this romantic comedy inanity refuses to die?
And is there any way that we the public and pros and produced-writers-to-be can kill it? It's not just the fate of our genre at stake, it's my sanity: there's only so many thrown-screenplay spec missiles my wall can withstand, before my mind snaps and I'm writing one myself, brain-dead as the next rom-com zombie: every good boy stops flights, every good boy stops flights, every good boy...