Sunday, January 23, 2011

THE PROBLEM WITH ROMANTIC COMEDIES


I see a hundred movies in the theater each year. (I sort of consider myself a professional fan.) And because I see that much, the problems with Hollywood’s output become quite apparent, particularly when it comes to genre films. So today I am starting an examination of various genres that I find are struggling. Let's start with romantic comedies. I’ll take an establishing shot at what I think are the core problems and what can be done about them. And I look forward to hearing your thoughts about this beleaguered genre as well.

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.

If only finding someone to love forever was as simple as that tried and true three-point story arc that has been driving romantic comedies since the beginning of movies. But relationships aren’t that easy. They’re complex, full of problems and conflict, some big, and some small. None of which your standard rom-com wants to make time for. A rom-com clocks in usually around 90 minutes and that means the story will be told quickly and with bold strokes. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets her back. That simple. And more often than not, that boring. In order to check off those three points that quickly, a romantic comedy’s conflict will usually revolve around one, and only one “big obstacle” that will get in the way of its couple’s everlasting happiness. In the movie GOING THE DISTANCE (2010) the problem is that Justin Long is in New York while his girlfriend Drew Barrymore lives in San Francisco. That’s it. If they can live in the same city, all will be well. You think they figure out a way to do that by the end? In THE BACK-UP PLAN (2010) Jennifer Lopez becomes pregnant through artificial insemination and then meets the man of her dreams. You think she’ll get him to love her and someone else’s baby? These premises are one-note: simple, obvious, and because of it, very limiting.

In contrast, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER (2009) examined not one big problem but dozens of the niggling little things that eat at the relationship between its two lovers. And in the end, the boy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does not get the girl (Zooey Deschanel). It was a movie of many notes, including many sour ones. And because of that, it stood in marked contrast to all of the other over-simplified dreck in the genre. It was also the best romantic comedy I have seen in years.


Another drawback to the genre is the way a lot of the male leads are written these days. It seems lately that the female screenwriters, who are writing most of the rom-com’s, are creating the perfect man they’d like to encounter. Or perhaps that which they think the target audience desires. So we get all these gorgeous men with great jobs, big hearts and one teensy-weensy flaw that can easily be fixed by a smart and modern woman like Katherine Heigl. Ashton Kutcher has made a cottage industry now out of playing these kind of guys and it’s getting quite inane. He’s always  handsome, fit, successful, with a heart of gold and a perfect little butt to ogle. In his latest, NO STRINGS ATTACHED (2011), he and co-star Natalie Portman have a nice, sexy chemistry together, but again he’s playing an idealized man with no real discernible faults. It's not realistic and frankly, not very interesting.


 My third biggest issue with the rom-com genre is the fact that one movie looks almost exactly like the next. They have the same a bright lighting; the same soundtrack full of tinkling pianos or the latest pop songs cued to the emotions we’re supposed to be feeling in a scene; the same well-to-do, well-dressed characters with high-powered jobs in big cities; the same smart-ass friends. It's like there's a rom-com factory and they're sending the same film off the line every few weeks. Even the posters of these movies tend to look remarkably similar. Check out the two Katherine Heigl movies below. Frightening how alike they seem. And then look at the characters that J-Lo, Heigl, Kate Hudson, Cameron Diaz, even Renee Zellweger have played in recent rom-com’s. They’re all the same type too – smart, beautiful, with perfect bodies and successful careers. Not very colorful, just idealized and again, quite boring. My God, they’re female Ashton Kutchers.


The genre is stuck in a rut. It needs to break out of its cookie cutter formula with perfect Barbies and Kens living in shiny plastic worlds that have no relation to reality. The romantic comedy needs to start  exploring modern relationships more honestly, with the focus on the ups and downs of what real couples go through, not the manufactured silliness of one-note obstacles put in their way by high-concept Hollywood. The movies need to have believable characters, ones that are flawed, seriously flawed, struggling to relate to one another.

The romantic comedies I've really responded to, movies like WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989), ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004), KNOCKED UP (2007) and 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, were ones that tried harder. They were more honest, less predictable, full of believable and fascinating men and women trying to make their relationships work. Everything wasn't so gorgeous. And they were a lot easier to love because of it.

9 comments:

  1. OK, that's it. Our first joint project is the breakout RomCom and I have a great idea. ;)

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  2. As I began to read the opener to your entry today, I immediately thought of just 1 RomCom in recent mind that had done it right...and then I scrolled down and saw your photo example from that same movie. So yes, I completely agree on the 500 Days of Summer example of a RomCom hitting the sweet spot of authenticity. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship can tell you that it builds and unfolds in a series of ups and downs, highs and lows...and most of the time, it doesn't work out in the end, leaving one person broken-hearted and confused. 500DoS captured all of this so incredibly well, all the while leaving you with a bit of hope to go on. Great post! I look forward to more, my friend.

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  3. Bart and Adam, great thoughts. And thanks for posting. Glad you're following The Establishing Shot!

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  4. When I think about exceptions to the "Boy meets Girl..." formula, they tend to hold up well. Sadly, we have to go back a ways.

    Nora Ephron's SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE
    Rob Reiner's WHEN HARRY MET SALLY
    George Cukor's HOLIDAY and PHILADELPHIA STORY
    Frank Capra's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

    All break the formula. All work well.

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  5. 500 days is one of my daughter's favorite movies. she made me watch it with her and i loved it. reminded me of annie hall. which i made my daughter watch. she loved it.

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  6. BTW, The annual NEWSWEEK Oscar Roundtable is posted. Well worth the read.
    http://www.newsweek.com/2011/01/24/inside-six-actors-minds.html

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  7. Great read, Mike. Thanks! And glad there are even more fans of 500 DAYS OF SUMMER out there like you two, Mike and Dave! BTW one other good rom-com of late was FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. It's also a really funny movie in a bit of that Judd Apatow vein. I also liked CYRUS from this past year.

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  8. @ dave. Indeed Annie Hall is another great romantic comedy. The twist here is that it ends with "boy loses girl."

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  9. Movies like ANNIE HALL, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, the others my followers have listed here, even FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, they all have such strong dramatic elements as well as comedy. Perhaps the better term would be "romantic dramedies."

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