Columns / Discourse / September 23, 2010

Check the Reel

Let’s face it: human beings don’t get sex.

They don’t get love, they don’t get intimacy and they most certainly don’t get what makes someone attractive. Is it their looks? Their humor? Charisma? Sensitivity? The ability to lift their leg above their head? All very important traits in a person, but not the greatest indicators of what makes a relationship work.

Because love is such a confusing, subjective emotion, efforts to portray it in art often fall flat – that goes for books, music and television. It also goes for movies and the most infamous of the “chick flick” genre: the romantic comedy. And here we reach the issue at hand.

Romantic comedies have been around since the early days of cinema. Cary Grant began his career with a series of successful rom-coms that included Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was an unabashed rom-com, and is probably the most iconic example of the genre in its earliest form.

By the 70s, Woody Allen gave the romantic comedy its first subgenre: the sex comedy, which emphasized physical relationships and their many pitfalls. He also introduced drama to rom-coms with his Oscar-winning Annie Hall. Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride also engaged in genre mixing by combining the romantic comedy with fantasy-adventure. The more recent Scott Pilgrim vs. the World mixed love with action and a video game aesthetic to great success.

Yet it’s easy to forget these accomplishments when the genre’s most recent outings include Sex and the City, The Bounty Hunter and Valentine’s Day. Romantic comedies are growing blander each year, with more emphasis on sex appeal and formula plots, making it one of the most hit-and-miss movie genres this side of horror.

So why have good rom-coms become so hard to find? Is it the difficulty of making a love story funny? The simplification of a complicated emotion like love to something more digestible? The endless casting of Gerald Butler and Michael Cera? Maybe, but there’s something deeper, too.

Part of it isn’t the filmmaker’s fault. Studios have caught on to the fact that the genre’s predominant audience is female, so they only greenlight films they think will appeal to women. As a result, every plot has to have a soft-spoken, misunderstood male (or a hard, grizzled male who learns to become soft-spoken) who meets an outspoken, independent female and by the end, they reconcile their differences and have copious amounts of sex. Of course, there’s the unfortunate implication that making a relationship work requires giving up your independence, freethinking and everything that makes you, well, you, in favor of codependence and physical intimacy – what I call “The Twilight Syndrome.” It’s also a bland approach that encourages formulaic, dull plots.

But those movies won’t stop being made so long as they bring the studios money, until Hollywood finds another film genre to bastardize. That half of the problem is out of our hands, mostly, and so we turn to the other half, which can be fixed in the short-term.

Filmmakers, to compensate for their inability to grasp romance’s many intricacies, mask their ignorance with an artificial hipness. In other words, they go for the ever-receptive indie audience, the “tween” crowd. Market a rom-com as indie and suddenly it’s better by that fact alone. Films like Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and (500) Days of Summer use it as their main selling point, and nine times out of ten they fail because of it.

Just by including an indie soundtrack and having the main characters bond over their appreciation of Silly Bandz doesn’t make the romance more genuine. It trivializes it, bases it on a culture of insincerity and materialism. The best rom-coms succeed not because they get love, but because they understand their shortcomings and don’t try to hide them. They portray love the best they can, as they see it and hope we come along for the ride. That way, story, characters and entertainment take more precedent than demographical appeal.

If filmmakers adjust to that mindset and use it for future reference, romantic comedies can only benefit. Love will be no less complicated, but it’ll certainly be a lot more fun to watch.

Ivan Keta
Ivan Keta is a weekly film columnist for The Knox Student. In 2013, he won first place in Critical Film Review from the Illinois College Press Association, competing in the open division against dozens of other Illinois college newspapers.

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