On Romantic Comedies

So last night, I went to go to see Ghosts of Girlfriends Past starring a heinously unlikeable and past-his-prime Matthew McConaughey and a mis-cast Jennifer Garner (in one of the most boring, un-interesting romantic comedy female leads ever probably) and it turned out to essentially be one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in the history of the world.  Without exaggeration or hyperbole, the movie is a dredgery of un-interesting dialogue, hopelessly unrealistic characters, ludacrously un-realistic scenarios and awful, stupid, over-the-top people who I could feel NOTHING for.  Less than nothing.  It gets the big ‘fuck you’ from me on all levels.  Added to that, there isn’t a shred of a laugh to be had in a movie involving such blatant mysogyny or homophobia.  It’s a disgusting turd of a movie that should be avoided at all costs.

Normally, I hate movies about ghosts or any supernatural element at all.  It’s on a list of things I don’t like to see in movies.  However, Ghost Town starring Ricky Gervais is a movie about an endearing loser who sees dead people, and it was funny and charming and believable, despite its fantastical supernatural thread.  Greg Kinnear was good as well as the bumbling but jealous and loving ex-husband, and Kristen Wiig is always good in her scene-stealing bit parts.  Ghost Town isn’t filled with typical Gervais humour (as he didn’t write the script, merely acted in the movie) but his performance is fragile and believable and subtle, and comprable to the fine work of Bill Murray in his recent art house pictures, and the romance is very real and definitely sweet without being too manipulative on the part of the screenplay.  The film thus, is proof that a romantic comedy involving the supernatural can be done and done very well in fact.  It just has to involve some kind of intelligence, a great cast who knows how to play out a romance/comedy hybrid, and some true-to-life moments mixed with funny scenarios that are ACTUALLY funny.

‘Funny’ is a key word here, that is so often lacking in a genre with the word ‘comedy’ in the title.  To me, the genre is an ultimate irony and paradox in that so few of the movies under this bloated umbrella of films, is funny OR romantic.  The leads are generally unlikeable caricatures with little plausibility in their lives or personalities, and they sleep their way through a dead script full of stupid banter, food fights, falls and fires (the 3 F’s that always appear in these God-awful movies).  There are… God, I don’t even know how many per year, and most of them are pure creamed crap on a plate.  Some titles that come to mind that were awful to sit through, to the point where I felt embarrassed for the cast, no matter how little I liked the actors; You, Me and Dupree; Just My Luck; Just Married; The Wedding Date; Alex and Emma; The Holiday.  The latter is sweet at the end, but only because sweetness is so incredibly forced on you, you have no choice but to chew on it with a big smile.  But the rest of the films are so implausibly bad, they were unbearable to deal with or watch at all.  So I have an aversion to romantic comedies, as almost all of them that I’ve seen offended my sensability as a woman and a film student, and I’ve always judged women who loved them because so many of them make women into stupid, useless, desperate pawns who are dissatisifed without the love of a good man, and who parade around looking GORGEOUS when in their lives, they are essentially spinsters because they’re just SO selfless, career-oriented or clumsy.  Katherine Heigl as a spinster?  Not bloody likely.  But in the movies… yeah.  Hence, why I hate the genre as a whole and I bitch about them constantly for their predictability and outright stupidity.

Of course, there are acceptions to the rule.  And these exceptions demonstrate the difference between a great ‘chick flick’ and a stupid piece of garbage.  Here are some examples of those. (Author’s Note: I only took into account, for the purposes of this, contemporary romantic comedies.  There are far too many good ones from previous decades).

Love, Actually (2003).  This movie works on all levels; as a cute date movie, a charming Christmas movie, a hilarious British comedy for men, a hilarious British comedy for women, and a melancholic tragic domestic drama.  The cast is wonderful, the script is funny and endearing, the characters are subtle and SORT OF believable (okay, Hugh Grant in his typical Hugh Grant role as the prime minister of Britain is stretching it… but I like him so much, I don’t care).  Sure, the movie has its weaknesses, such as the porn set-up (if that’s the right way of putting it?) couple who meet while er… ‘setting up’ porno flicks… their storyline was a little awkward and un-necessary and a bad excuse to inject some titillating nudity into the film that was uncomfortable at best.  But Emma Thompson as a wife alone in her marriage who has a thing for Joni Mitchell, Laura Linney is phenomenal as a woman caught between the man of her dreams and taking care of her brother, and Colin Firth can do no wrong, ever.  What separates Love, Actually from either a typical clunky Christmas movie or a stupid romantic comedy, are the three things that were sought after in The Wizard of Oz; a brain, a heart, and courage.  The jokes are ballsy and gritty, the romances are believable, sometimes sad, but always a joy to root for and watch, and the script is whip-smart.

About a Boy (2002).  Peter Hedges is a GREAT screenwriter.  He also penned another great ‘romantic comedy’, Dan in Real Life (as well as directed it) and seems to have a knack for stories about endearing middle-aged men who, for one reason or another, have lost their way and either know it, in the case of Steve Carrell’s subtle, sweet endearing Dan, or Hugh Grant’s best role ever, Will.  About a Boy is OOZING charm, it is hilariously funny (every joke is note-perfect and gets at LEAST a smile, if not a full laugh) and it’s romantic and sweet without ever being TOO sentimental.  It isn’t faithful to Nick Hornby’s novel, but rather movie-izes it, which in this case, works very well.  It’s simply a fantastic movie that gives you PEOPLE, not characters to root for, and has you both laughing, and thinking, about life.

Dan in Real Life (2007).  This film deserves its own mention on this list of good romantic comedies.  Although this movie is ALMOST more tragic than comedic, it definitely garners a LOT of laughs and Steve Carrell is fantastic.  The soundtrack is good (songs done by a favourite artist of mine, Sondre Lerche) and the romance is believable.  I HATE Dane Cook – I HATE him – but in this film, he SORT OF works as Dan’s younger brother with more swagger and more confidence.  And who doesn’t like Juliette Binoche?  She’s beautiful and scene-stealing.  This movie is so much more than romance and comedy – it’s a life movie too (all of the best romantic comedies are) with… mantras for lack of a better word about family, parenting, love, soul mates, death, siblings, and so on.  It is filled with a joy about life, and clear-eyed truth and empathy.  SO many romantic comedies lack empathy, and this one is loaded up.  We don’t just feel for Dan, we feel for his parents and brother, the love of his life, his kids… lovely and sweet, the movie won me over from the first few scenes.  Thus far in Carrell’s career, this is probably his finest hour.

13 Going on 30 (2004).  In many romantic comedies, the leads are chosen based on looks or their resume of other romantic comedies.  In this film, the leads have so, so, so much chemistry it’s hard to believe that Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Garner aren’t an item in real life (some real-life couples can’t even dream of the chemistry that Ruffalo and Garner carry here).  I believe them as childhood friends who fall in love, I believe Garner as a 13-year old in an adult’s body, I believed everything about this movie.  It’s too cute for words, and the chemistry is more magical than the film’s ‘actual’ magic.

Marley & Me (2008).  This movie contains three things that would normally have me dismiss the movie entirely; a dog, Jennifer Aniston, and Owen Wilson (I like Wilson sometimes… but in a movie like this, if You, Me and Dupree is any indication, is a BIG ‘no’).  Yet, I took a chance on it, because I was in the mood for some light fluff on a holiday Monday afternoon.  And guess what?  The film stole my heart completely.  What makes it different from other dog movies, is that the dog’s ‘antics’ aren’t stupid, overly choreographed, or overly unrealistic.  They’re realistic and true (any pet owner would understand them and laugh at themselves) and not exaggerated.  Aniston and Wilson have… not the BEST chemistry I’ve ever seen, but they certainly play a couple who are also good friends and supporters very well.  They deal with life’s problems realistically, they seem like the kind of people who would love their kids and talk through problems and give each other high fives when something good happens, and I genuinely felt for them.  In other movies I’ve seen them in (specifically romantic comedies), they were easy to hate and easy to dismiss, but in this movie, they play people.  I wanted to give kudos to both of them.  The ending of the film is just a life event, beautified with music and some close-ups but it doesn’t look too sweet so that you feel the director and writers putting one over on you.  There IS a heart to the film and there is certainly at least a few laughs.  But I smiled, and I cried, and I just… got it.  What this is, is My Dog Skip (another wonderful dog movie… there are SO few) for adults.  Because I saw this today, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past yesterday, it was shell-shocking and astounding to point out what a difference there was between these two films.  It’s worth noting too, that screenwriter/director Scott Frank generally works on projects that might be considered more ‘masculine’ than this film.  So it’s even a further testament to him that this film is sweet and likeable and pulled off without a hitch.

I’m sure there are other examples of romantic comedies that really spoke to me as a woman and film student, but these are the best ones I’ve seen that really drove the idea of ‘romantic comedy’ home.  What a difference smart choices and smart people can make for a film.  I DO have beef with the genre, and I always will.  What’s funny is that my first-ever film professor said something on the genre that I’ll never forget; that the fun in watching the films isn’t to see WHAT happens, because WHAT happens is inevitable; it’s HOW it happens that makes watching them fun.  This is true, except that when she said it, she was generalizing across the genre; she meant that this is the reason these films make so much money and do so well and continue being made.  She was right, though; but if HOW the inevitable happens is filled with groaning scenarios, no laughs, and dumb caricatures who are shells of real human beings, then THAT makes a shitty movie.


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