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The Rom-Com Renaissance
October 3, 2014
This week’s theatrical release of what has been christened by critics as a “zom-rom-com”, Life After Beth, a love story between a boy and his undead girlfriend, has prompted much rumination on the state of probably the most loved and yet at the same time hated cinematic genre Hollywood has on offer.
It’s interesting how when you ask people what they associate with the term “rom-com” an astounding majority give a very similar answer. Many are under the impression that the genre is simply made up of low-budget, high-grossing dross starring Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson, designed to prey on the wallets of overly-emotional women (and men) who were never taught that Disney stories rarely bear any resemblance to reality. I used to put this misconception down to age: I come from the generation that grew up in the 90s and early 00s, with few taught any better in their film education.
And yet there are those who were fortunate enough to be young when The Graduate graced the silver screen, or a decade later when Woody Allen gave us Annie Hall and Manhattan, and they still pour scorn on a genre that has given cinema some of its greatest triumphs. Of course, since 2009/ 2010 the scoffing frequently heard when the words “romantic” and “comedy” are said together has begun to dissipate, replaced with a more curious and intrigued tone, largely thanks to one film and the plethora of inspired hits that followed in its wake.
The romantic comedy genre can trace its roots back as far as Shakespeare (perhaps further depending on how loosely you are prepared to consider the term), with some of his best-loved plays based around the theme of romance told through a series of comical incidents and encounters. The influence of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing can still be found in almost every modern example of the genre. Its history in film can be traced back through titles like Roman Holiday, The Seven Year Itch and Breakfast At Tiffany’s, easily remembered for the iconic shot of Audrey Hepburn decked in pearls, cigarette-in-hand outside the jewelers in New York.
Whilst these titles, and many others like them reserve their own place of importance in film history, and indeed the history of the genre, it is essential to skate over them to arrive at 1967’s The Graduate, perhaps the most essential piece of the jigsaw that makes up the current “rom-com” revival.
Starring Dustin Hoffman as 20 year-old college graduate Benjamin Braddock who is struggling at one of the many crossroads in life. He is eventually seduced by the much older Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), but soon after falls in love with her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Combining a sprinkle of drama and coming-of-age angst to the formula, The Graduate separated itself from what came before, in part, thanks to its wide appeal to different audiences.
Ben is immediately more identifiable to a younger viewer, with his reluctance to commit to his future after college (something that remains relatable to the teenagers and 20-somethings of today) and the fact he gets to live a dream of young boys everywhere, and enter into an affair with an attractive, older woman.
What is perhaps most striking about The Graduate though is director Mike Nichols’ ability to bring a sense of realism to a slightly more disbelieving premise. It never once feels like the childish, fairytale idea of romance so often found in the romantic comedy, but consistently brings a sense of awkwardness to Ben’s encounters, sexually with Mrs. Robinson and romantically with Elaine.
Debatably more essential to a “rom-com” than the “meet-cute” or the “fall-out” is the ending. Those closing moments of any film can decide what feelings you wish to impart on your audience as they head out the theater doors. It is typically a convention of romantic comedies to give viewers a “feel-good” ending to their stories, for man and woman to run into each other’s arms and kiss in the rain to prove that love really does conquer all…or some crap like that.
The Graduate ignored this rule, instead leaving us with a slightly uneasy feeling in our stomachs as Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson drove away at the back of the bus, smiles and euphoria fading from their faces, and gave us an honest ending to a romantic story and fortunately many other filmmakers followed suit.
Does the name Woody Allen ring any bells? Now almost synonymous with romantic comedies, Woody Allen’s 1977 hit Annie Hall (his first foray into the genre and remains one of his most successful, popular and enduring works) can lay claim to a rather wonderful, bittersweet finale.
Skipping past the happily-ever-after, Annie Hall tells the story of Alvy Singer (Allen) who is trying to understand why his relationship with the film’s eponymous character (Diane Keaton) continues to fail, despite their numerous attempts to make it work.
A single review could never encompass everything that makes Annie Hall one of the best film’s in its genre, from the extensively long takes, the personal monologues, breaking the fourth wall, the dual therapy scenes and the earnest texture of reality that seems so elusive in these types of films.
What makes Allen’s film so clever, so brilliant, is the misdirection it creates, making us believe the film is about Alvy and Annie’s romance, when really we are spending 90 or so minutes exploring retrospection, human interaction and psychoanalysis.
In any list of “top 50 or top 10 romantic comedies of all-time” there is one title that is sure to crop up, the widely adored When Harry Met Sally. So, at risk of creating great distress and anger amongst all who read this, I must make my opening gambit: When Harry Met Sally represents a big part of what is wrong with a large percentage of romantic comedies. I’m not saying it is a bad film, in fact, it is a very good film.
Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal have sizzling chemistry in the title roles, the documentary style interviews intercut with the narrative are a great touch and the premise is genuinely intriguing: can men and women ever just be friends? And yet for some reason writer Nora Ephron feels compelled to give us the climactic kiss and happily-ever-after and leave everyone with a warm glow and sense of great optimism in their future romantic endeavors. This, I have a very big problem with.
After almost two decades throughout the 1990s and early 2000s of Disney-inspired Prince Charmings winning the hearts of fair maidens, of bickering men and women realising that they actually loved each other all along, of Hugh Grant and Colin Firth charming audiences with their humble origins, winning smiles and cute British accents… of basically a lot of endless crap (10 Things I Hate About You and Judd Apatow’s films aside), 2009 brought the injection of life “rom-coms” had been desperately needing.
Making his feature film debut, based on a script by first timers Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, Marc Webb gave the world his indie sleeper hit (500) Days of Summer. Led by Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, it tells the story of Tom Hansen, a wannabe architect who works at a greeting card company, and his 500 days long romance with Summer Finn.
Like Annie Hall before it, (500) Days of Summer mixes up the conventions of a traditional romantic comedy: told in a non-linear narrative, it chronicles the romance from day 1 (using title-cards to mark each day) to 500, with many brilliant directorial flourishes along the way, and all the sex, arguments, and IKEA shopping trips in-between.
But its greatest comparison with Annie Hall can be drawn from the ulterior messages of the film. In reality, hidden behind the façade of romance and heartbreak, is a coming of age tale, a journey to discover “happiness, and learning that you’ll find it within yourself, rather than in the big blue eyes of the girl in the cubicle down the hall.”
In any film it is essential to have characters the audience can invest in, with this genre even more so as we, the viewer, want characters we can relate to and believe in who go through the situations and problems we encounter almost every day. (500) Days of Summer‘s greatest success is giving us characters that most people will find a small (or big) part of themselves in, and a story that we are all familiar with, but told in a clever, unique and funny way. And, of course, it has the ending. The bittersweet, slightly heartbreaking, but genuinely satisfying ending.
I’m sure reading through this you may have begun to spot a pattern and have fallen under the impression that I a) hate happy endings and b) only like down endings. The latter may be true, but I certainly do not hate happy endings. My big problem with them in romantic comedies stems from the message and ideals that they present to their audience, the suggestion that, for women, love can only be found in the arms of a man, and once you have that nothing else matters and everything in your life will 100% be great and you’ll never have any problems ever, ever again.
Some people might ask “what’s the problem with that? People watch films to live a life vicariously that they can never lead in reality. It’s escapism.” In some respects this response is very true, and it is certainly not my place to say people shouldn’t enjoy a film that makes them feel good for a little while after they’ve turned it off. But at the same time, it presents a false ideology to the people (particularly women) that watch them.
Films like Runaway Bride, Maid In Manhattan, Two Weeks Notice and a seemingly endless list of all identical, have one-dimensional stock characters, storylines and structures that rarely differ and present humans and relationships in a way that is perfect and magical but suggests nothing of our flaws. It’s almost like watching cardboard cutouts fall in love and live happily ever after.
This, finally, brings me around to the “revival”. Since 2009 there has been what could be considered an upswing in the quality and diversity of romantic comedies. (500) Days of Summer has helped spawn more indie hits like Ruby Sparks, Easy A and Don John. Major studios have joined in with films like the excellent Crazy, Stupid, Love. (an example of how to do the ensemble, multi-narrative rom-com.) Oscar success has returned to the genre: Silver Linings Playbook saw Jennifer Lawrence get the gong for Best Actress amongst other nominations.
The blend of elements from other genres has breathed new life into the tired, old romantic comedy formula, like the coming of age story (Perks of Being a Wallflower), Woody Allen’s 2011 fantasy, time-travel return to the genre Midnight In Paris (which won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay) and this year’s human and zombie romance flick Life After Beth, starring Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza which is a mixed but interesting twist on the “rom-com”.
Strong lead turns from DeHaan and Plaza keep it afloat, but it is more what the film represents, keeping alive the new-found confidence and daring that studios have when approaching romantic comedies. I can’t help but sense a certain degree of irony in there somewhere given how it’s a movie about the undead.
Life After Beth is out in UK cinemas.