Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How the Rom-Com Lost its Way

or: Death to Poster Lean!

Note the lean
I'm a cynical, heterosexual male in my early twenties. For those reasons, it's perhaps wrong that I am so constantly frustrated and flummoxed by the prevalence of generic Hollywood rom-coms. You know the type. They can usually be spotted by a poster in the foyer alone: usually featuring two characters of opposite genders leaning against each other or a wall.  Matthew McConaughey is a frequent offender to the infamous poster lean, and I've included some irrefutable evidence of this heinous crime throughout this post. The films themselves tend to feature unlikable and often 'kooky' protagonists finding unexpected love, usually with the person they hated fifteen minutes beforehand, and hated with an unrivaled passion. They're mindless escapism, and we're led to believe designed for unfussy female audiences. Now excuse me if I balk at that concept for a moment. Gender should be no basis for judging a good film, although unfortunately there are films clearly marketed towards males and females. We men, similarly, are "meant" to enjoy Michael Bay films, full of brutish humour, explosions and carefully composed ass shots. And there's nothing wrong with mindlessness when it's done well, I stress. But may I stand up for men and women and suggest we all deserve better?

It may be surprising to you that many of my favourite films are could often conceivably be categorised as members of the romance or rom-com genres. Lost in Translation is an all time favourite, the ending sucker punching me every time (and many times at this point). I've mentioned Quiet City on this blog already, another one I'm very fond of. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - a consistent presence in my personal and deeply irrelevant Top Three for many years - is a rom-com by all accounts, albeit one which fucks with the structure something fierce. We have Before Sunset / Sunrise, Jerry Maguire, Garden State, The Apartment, Manhattan (most vintage Woody Allen at that) and countless others. Romance, in short, is often the stuff of great cinema. Then why, pray tell, is so much crap churned out?

Economics, distressingly. Just Go With It - the latest in Jennifer 'Cinematic War Criminal' Aniston's filmography of increasingly bland, formulaic romances - earned 140 million dollars. Not that significant compared to the $80,000,000 budget, but still a chunk of change. I haven't seen Just Go With It, but having worked in a video shop up until late last year, I was subjected to a wide variety of this sort of horrid stuff in the course of the job: The Ugly Truth (ugly stuff indeed), PS I Love You, Valentine's Day, He's Just Not That Into You etc... I'm sure they all made a significant dent in the box office.

More damning evidence of poster lean
Let's take the last example, He's Just Not That Into You as a case study of why the rom-com tropes currently popular in Hollywood fail at many fundamental levels. Firstly, unlovable protagonists. All the examples of 'good' romance I mentioned above are defined by carefully crafted, likable (yet flawed) individuals. You want them to get together. In HJNTIY, that just isn't the case. Here we have an ensemble cast of idiots and shallow assholes. The closest to a 'lead' in the film is the horrific individual played by Gennifer Goodwin, a parody of a woman whose sole motivation in life is to find a man. This is a problem considering it's impossible to care for her: any man ending up with her is inevitably an unhappy ending. Much of the rest of the characters have similar problems: hard to feel for Bradley Cooper's plight when he is torn between Jennifer Connelly and Scarlett Johannson, ey? Drew Barrymore's sole role is to dispense trite and sometimes outright awful advice. Ben Affleck shows considerable strengths in his role as a man refusing to marry his shrill whiny girlfriend played by (guess who!) Jennifer Aniston, who keeps insisting they have to get married for no apparent reason or tangible benefit. I silently cheered Affleck for showing backbone. And then? In the interests of a happy ending he gets back together with Aniston, eventually giving into her arrogant, looney demands. Arghhh!

Don't think I need to comment on this
If the romance is bad, the comedy is the ugly. Fittingly, a better example of the "com" part of the equation failing spectacularly (the comedy in HJNTIY is so unfunny it's not worth mentioning) is The Ugly Truth. Aptly titled, the film tells the story of a misogynistic asshole - played by another deplorable rom-com mainstay Gerard Butler - 'comically' mismatched with the equally shallow Katherine Hiegl (who has committed numerous crimes against genre after an appearance in the genuinely fun Knocked Up). The jokes here are the stuff of jaw dropping inanity. Not only resorting to the old and tired (should be retired) "Men are from Mars, Women from Venus" level of gender differentiation, it also has the cheek to resort to distasteful and obscene "jokes" about orgasms and the like.

L. O. L.
It is woeful stuff, and faces a serious identity crisis: who the hell is this film aimed at? The humour is the kind of stuff only twelve year olds (and particularly immature twelve year olds at that) find amusing, or at least should be the only people who find it funny. The romance is non-existent - these characters hate each other with such vitriol their inevitable union is frankly ludicrous and depressing.

These two are far from alone. The list of bad rom-coms is far far longer than the list of good ones. The Jerry Maguires and - so I've heard, haven't seen it myself - Definitely Maybes of this world are rarities: traditional rom-coms that have mainstream appeal and are actually good to boot. Instead, audiences are subjected to increasingly dreadful stuff. Judd Apatow and co., questionable claims of misogyny aside, initially seemed to be putting things on the right track with the likes of 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but even the Apatow stuff already seems somewhat stale.

Audiences, frankly, deserve better. This is coming from an audience member. People buy into this stuff, clearly. But - if you are one of those people - I assure you there is much, much better out there. There are genuinely warm and funny films out there where you root for the main characters to get together. Hollywood would like to tell you Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler belong together just because they're Aniston and Butler. It's the genre of wish fulfillment, the beautiful and rich living happily ever after. Asking questions of why they live happily ever after is strictly forbidden. It doesn't have to be that way, and it isn't always that way. There are so many great romances out there, one just needs to look beyond the posters of leaning McConaugheys.

Money speaks, sadly, and all this is unlikely to change anytime soon. But the fact that cinematic romance is far from dead despite the darndest efforts of the big studios is something to quietly cheer. You may get funny looks for yelling "Death to Poster Lean!" in cinema lobbys, but at least your intentions will be admirable.

Damn you, lean!

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