Alex looks at the romantic comedy genre, what it says about its viewers, himself, and the different types of films in the genre. He also discusses Eggo waffles, Rashida Jones’ impeccable complexion, the perceived masculinity (or lack thereof) of Justin Long, and Ke$ha.
A couple friends and I were out recently, when we ran into an old friend named Celine. She quickly invited us to come join her table, which she was sharing with “[her] friend Dave.” Approximately three seconds after sitting down at said table, however, it became evident that Dave was hoping to become more than just Celine’s friend after tonight.
When Dave got up to go to the washroom, I immediately asked Celine if we had crashed a date, to which she essentially told us, “Obviously yes! But thank you for doing so.” When Dave never returned from the washroom, instead escaping through a back exit and biking away in the background without saying goodbye*, we knew where he stood on the issue. But Celine stayed and continued to hang out with us. We continued to talk and catch up, and eventually things between her and I seemed to be going well enough that our other friends left us** to finish our drinks by ourselves before I walked her home and et cetera. It seemed like a sequence of things that could never happen, until it actually did. Despite my abs being less impressive than those of Matthew McConaughey, and Celine being prettier than Kate Hudson, we had more or less experienced the beginning of the ‘falling in love’ montage in a romantic comedy.
*Although he did pay Celine’s bill, which I suppose is the classiest way to wordlessly bike off into the night.
**With a goodbye, but not paying for our drinks. There’s always a trade off.
Except that this (of course) can’t be the case, because (of course) the things that happen in romantic comedies don’t happen in real life.
When somebody calls themselves a ‘romcom enthusiast,’ it’s not unlikely for people in the general area to look at this person sideways, if only because the average romantic comedy is terrible. When Happy Endings sent Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) and Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) to the movies this past season, it did so to make fun of a genre with conventions that are even more tired than those found in Steven Seagal films. But since Happy Endings is itself a romantic comedy – and a good one at that – the show also paid tribute to the genre in its own way. As these characters continue watching the movie, a different two continue on a date that echoes what happens in the film, with a few key exceptions. Towards the end of the episode, Happy Endings tweaks many of the same generic constructs of the movie into something that doesn’t suck and seems more plausible than any rushed motorcycle ride to an airport ever was. The implication the show makes is that The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past sucks, but that doesn’t make the romantic comedy form worthless. Similarly, most genre movies are forgettable and not worth talking about; for every great blockbuster like The Dark Knight, there are ten movies like Total Recall… And Total Recall fucking blows.
Despite the majority of the entries into this genre being Patrick Dempsey vehicles about the unhilarious hijinks that come from being a male maid of honour, or Katherine Heigl dealing with the irrational fear of having too many dresses, there tends to be one or two romantic comedies released each year that transcend its genre’s conventions. Within these films, there are two different variations: those that take those tropes and obliterate them, and those that simply happen to be perfectly executed uses of the more traditional style.
When one sees a poster for a Sandra Bullock film, the easiest assumption to make is that it’s probably not a good movie. Bullock herself remains immensely likeable at all times, but her movies almost never are. These will be movies that deal with divinity and sisterhoods and whatever Ya-Yas are, or forced green card marriages, or (perhaps worst of all) Hugh Grant. But sometimes Sandra Bullock and a series of ludicrous romcom tropes add up into a movie that isn’t terrible; sometimes the movie in question is The Proposal.
Now, The Proposal may not be a great film, but it is an extraordinarily entertaining one, which is a feat in its own right. Bullock plays the executive editor in chief of a New York publishing company, albeit a Canadian one with a newly expired Visa, which forces her to leave the company for a year while she gets her shit together. Until, of course, she realizes she can talk her non-Canadian assistant (Ryan Reynolds) into marrying her so she can secure a green card because, you know, these things totally happen. Since you, the reader, are likely a person who has seen a romantic comedy before, you probably know that these two people do not particularly like each other at the beginning of the film, but will definitely love each other at the end of it… Or will they?
Yes. Yes, they will, and you fucking know it. The Proposal does not stray from the conventions of its genre once in its 108 minute running time, but the casting is good, and the actual scripted jokes are funny enough, allowing said actors to make the movie a worthwhile venture for film fans. The things Reynolds is good at – having better than average comic timing, being unreasonably good looking – suit him perfectly for romantic comedies, and Sandra Bullock is significantly better at both of those things. Add in Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, plus Betty White as the sassy grandma character she has perfected, and you have all the elements necessary for an enjoyable, if not particularly weighty, film. I learned nothing about myself by watching The Proposal, and the film did not attempt to make any type of political statement about immigration laws, but I certainly laughed a bunch, and generally enjoyed myself to forgive the formulaic approaches of the film.
Similarly, the 2010 romantic comedy Going the Distance* didn’t seem to be much more on the surface than one would expect. Despite their endless likeability, nobody seems to like Drew Barrymore or Justin Long, and the general public remains woefully under appreciative of the comedic talents of co-stars Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, and Christina Applegate, not to mention the bit parts for people like Jim Gaffigan, Kristen Schaal, Rob Riggle, and June Diane Raphael.
*Not to be confused with the 2004 Canadian road trip non-classic (with music by Gob!) that literally nobody other than me remembers. Gob probably even forgot about it.
Going the Distance tells the story of a couple, Erin (Barrymore) and Garrett (Long), who start dating in New York, only for aspiring journalist Barrymore to have to return to the West coast after six weeks, as her internship with a New York newspaper comes to a close. Garrett’s job working at a record label keeps him in New York, but they decide to attempt to engage in a cross-country romance, despite how unreasonable that idea seems to pretty much everybody watching the film. The ensuing story is unsurprising, and there are no twists and turns you will not see coming. Justin Long does not internalize his hurt and begin a career as a vigilante superhero; Barrymore doesn’t become an Extreme Couponer who is obsessed with Cinnamon Toast Eggos. And like The Proposal, I can’t spoil the ending to Going the Distance any more than your time spent in North American movie theatres already has. But Going the Distance is even funnier than The Proposal, as its trio of male friends talk about baby pigeons, DJing hook ups, and mustache time machines. Christina Applegate is also particularly funny, and Barrymore delivers a killer performance in a scene where she gets to drunkenly yell about homoeroticism and Michael Bay, which are two things that are always fun to hear people drunkenly yell about.
Even with its more formulaic approach, however, Going the Distance looks at one idea with a bit more depth than one might expect. The film interestingly puts its characters inside of two industries that are notably dying. The film is almost as much about Erin’s difficulty to find a job inside the world of newspapers as it is about relationships, and Garrett’s job at a record label is used to show the way the music industry has had to adapt to the death of the business model they had been following so long. While the film ends with Erin actually finding a job in her industry on the west coast, Garrett has to rethink his career in order to be with Erin. He ends up quitting his job and moving out west to manage a band whose music he actually enjoys, and in doing so eschews the typical masculine idea of having the woman in a relationship respond to the man’s choices. Garrett’s decision is not seen as one made by somebody who is unmasculine, he is merely seen as somebody that makes choices that are less traditional, but choices that are acceptable nonetheless. Going the Distance is a formulaic romantic comedy, but it is far more funny and interesting than one might think. And other films push these genre-bending ideas much, much further.
Ruby Sparks is 2012’s most enjoyable romantic comedy (so far), and it’s remarkably interesting as well. Calvin (Paul Dano) is a struggling writer without much of a life, and one who ends up writing a female character for himself to date due to his inability to meet women, which leads the movie to take a dramatic turn toward the unconventional when that character Calvin creates actually comes to life. In a world where the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a rampant archetype that seems cool in theory but is always frighteningly annoying in reality, this movie offers us a look at somebody putting his unrealistic expectations into a fake woman, only for this woman to actually begin to exist. Throughout the film, we see Calvin control Ruby (Zoe Kazan) in ways that are both humourous and a little unsettling. The movie is consistently funny and gorgeously shot, but it primarily shows how unhealthy a person who wants to be loved can be, and why being interested in somebody like Ruby is typically more of a reflection of one’s issues than anything else. When Calvin runs into his ex at a party, we find out that he simply ignored the traits of her that he didn’t like until she left him upon realizing he can only enjoy a relationship he has control over entirely. As this happens, the audience isn’t particularly surprised. We were almost expecting it.
I always assume I change traits of a woman I’m interested in, even though I really have no control over any given person outside of my own mind. Your perception of what a person is thinking often affects you more than what said person is actually thinking, and a misperception can be a killer. When trying to convince an adorably tiny Portuguese girl to date me by way of buying her meals and Annie Hall DVDs, I assumed us dating would have been a good thing, despite her having misgivings about the whole endeavor. Only now – months after it became clear that we would never date each other – do I realize she was right the whole time. Similarly, I realize now that a girl who gave me her number only to spurn me wasn’t actually for me, despite how weird said spurning might have felt at the time. This girl may have been cute, with a laugh like Kelly Clarkson, but she probably wasn’t really my type. I’m apprehensive towards writing about Celine for this same reason; I’m hopeful that we both want things between us to continue, but I really don’t have much of an idea as to what she thinks about this. And while finding out that you’re wrong about something in your personal life is always interesting in the long term, it’s almost never fun in the short term.
The other 2012 romantic comedy that’s worth your time, Celeste and Jesse Forever, depicts a divorced couple that remains oddly close with each other, although that’s only kind of what the movie is about. By the half hour mark, the film is almost strictly about Celeste (Rashida Jones), as she begins dealing with the idea that maybe she didn’t try hard enough to get what she wanted out of her relationship with Jesse (Andy Samberg). She’s firmly believed in her choices to this point, but now she begins to realize she might be wrong more often than she thinks. Celeste’s job professionally is that of a ‘trend forecaster;’ not only does she know what’s going on in culture, but she knows everything about you as well. In an early scene, she judges Chris Messina’s character based on his car, and never thinks for a second that she might be wrong, a theme the film will come back to continually. Throughout the first half of the film, we see her argue points that she has already decided are correct, while her loafing artist ex-husband Jesse seems less sure of anything, even though he is the one in the relationship who actually seems to be moving on with his life.
Despite actually being more like Jesse, I found myself identifying more with Celeste throughout the movie, possibly because my complexion is just as impossibly perfect as that of Rashida Jones, but mostly because the movie wants us to. As somebody who spends a lot of my time arguing points that I know are concretely true, I can easily see myself in Celeste’s metaphorical shoes. I know that ‘the project should be organized like this because obvs,’ or ‘Friday Night Lights is an infinitely better show than Breaking Bad and you’re stupid for saying otherwise,’ or ‘we should clearly date, I bought you chicken fingers like a classy gentleman would.’ I’m not necessarily right in any of these points but, like Celeste does throughout the film, I certainly believe them and act on them as such. We are the type of people who yell at friends for thinking the Lord of the Rings movies are good, or who know that this person should date us, or who don’t hesitate to give Rob Huebel shit for cutting in line at Starbucks.
Throughout the film, Celeste is slowly proven wrong about pretty much everything, and must find new ways to live her life, which is something we are meant to believe is a positive for her. At the beginning, she’s been living her life the only way she knows; being best friends with Jesse, even though they are actually a divorced couple, and that the whole thing is really fucking weird. Everything about Celeste changes throughout the film, from her opinions on the Ke$ha-like pop star whose image she is in charge of, to how Celeste operates in her personal life. Celeste realizes she was never right as much as she thought she was, but the point is that this is okay. She won’t be right all the time, and she’ll have to take what comes with this, but it’s probably healthier in the long run.
Despite living in different cities, Celine and I agreed to see each other again, two nights later, before I left town. The same basics were there: mutual friends, beers, conversation. Things were (of course) different this time, however, as we both knew that two nights earlier the first paragraph of this post happened. There was more than an ample amount of awkwardness on the second night, awkwardness I might have learned how to get out of if I had paid more attention to the Tao of McDreamy. Sitting next to Celine on the second night, it was initially difficult to involve her in the conversation, mostly because I was exceptionally nervous. As somebody who is typically more Liz Lemon than Jack Donaghy, this was unsurprising. It happens consistently with people I am romantically interested in, and rarely am I able to adequately fight through it, typically fleeing the scene entirely instead of dealing with a momentary lack of comfort. But tonight I was determined, even if it involved eventually being proven wrong. I couldn’t afford to be Celeste, because tonight I was hanging out with Celine.
Celine and I again ended up as the last two people at the bar, and when she found out I sneakily paid for her drinks, she smiled at me like she had expected me to do so, but was still authentically thankful for it nonetheless. Again I walked her home, but since we were significantly less intoxicated this time, the evening ended in actual conversation, as opposed to drunken mumbling and makeouts. After a couple of minutes spent talking about how oddly cold it was that night, Celine blurted out the second best question she could have asked.
“How weird do you feel right now?”
“Pretty weird. I mean, I’m going to try to kiss you before I leave, I know that, but I do feel weird about it.”
“Okay, good. As long as we’re on the same page.”
We talked a bit longer – when I would be back in her city, how she had no real plans to visit mine – and the conversation made me more optimistic than the previous words in this sentence might make you think.
“Okay… I’m going to try to kiss you now,” I said.
She reciprocated, albeit for a much shorter period of time than before. “We can’t make out all night this time… I have to work in, like, seven hours.”
I knew that at least, but for everything else that is to come, I don’t know what’s next. If we never saw each other again, I wouldn’t be pleased, but I might not be entirely surprised either. Like a good romcom fan though, I have my hopes. These hopes may not always be realistic, but that hope is precisely what makes the process of experiencing them enjoyable at all. There will be no green card marriage here, nor will I move to Los Angeles to start managing a band, and I’m pretty confident neither of us has an affinity for Beijing Olympics reruns. I know none of those things will happen, because they’re all fiction. In reality though, I don’t know what comes next, and that’s interesting to me. But now I’m ready for things to not be interesting; I don’t need to remain safely sardonic at all times anymore. For the first time in a long time, I’m ready to be proven wrong. This time I’ll just have to hope I’m not.