Rom-Com Obstacles and Mockingbird at the (Alternate) Oscars

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, critic Christopher Orr asks, “Why Are Romantic Comedies […]

David Zahl / 2.27.13

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, critic Christopher Orr asks, “Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?” He kicks off by quoting well known rom-com producer Lynda Obst, who recently claimed that this year has been “the hardest time of my 30 years in the business.” As an outspoken fan of the genre, I can’t say that I hadn’t noticed the decline in both quantity and quality these last few years. Normally February is chock-full of solid if formulaic romantic comedies, but the pickings are particularly slim this cycle. In fact, when The Onion published its fake headline earlier this month “Authorities Recommend The Film ‘You’ve Got Mail’ For Those Snowed In Today”, I laughed out loud, as I had just spent a snowed-in day watching the film in question. In between commercial breaks my wife and I lamented how few movies like it seem to get made anymore, namely cute and entertaining, light-but-still-hearted and not dumb romantic comedies that have not given up on engaging men (as human beings) as well as women, i.e. movies and moviemakers who have not cynically embraced the “chick flick” thing. Had Nora Ephron (RIP) and the now curiously MIA Meg Ryan been holding the genre up entirely by themselves? That’s a depressing thought. Surely there has to be something more to it than the unfortunate ascendency of Nicholas Sparks and/or Twilight (both of which omit the “com” aspect almost entirely). Orr brings up the commercial red herrings before suggesting his own theory:

1335532235_emily-blunt-jason-segel-lgAmong the most fundamental obligations of romantic comedy is that there must be an obstacle to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome. And, put simply, such obstacles are getting harder and harder to come by. They used to lie thick on the ground: parental disapproval, difference in social class, a promise made to another. But society has spent decades busily uprooting any impediment to the marriage of true minds. Love is increasingly presumed—perhaps in Hollywood most of all—to transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender, and (on occasion) marital status.

Serious obstacles to romantic fulfillment can still be found—illness, war, injury, imprisonment—but they have a tendency to be just that: serious. There aren’t likely to be many laughs, after all, in the story of a love that might be torn asunder by an IED. It is perhaps no coincidence that romantic melodramas (such as last year’s The Vow and the recent epidemic of Nicholas Sparks adaptations) are doing quite well at the multiplex even as their comic siblings falter.

So new complications must be invented, test-driven, and then, as often as not, themselves retired. (The idea that geography posed a substantial challenge to true love seemed a stretch all the way back in 1993, for Sleepless in Seattle. In the Internet age, it doesn’t pass the laugh test.) The premises grow more and more esoteric: She’s a hooker. He’s a stalker. She’s in a coma. He’s telepathic. She’s a mermaid. He’s a zombie. She’s pregnant. He’s the president.

Een-teresting. A good romantic comedy, just like any conventional story, needs a conflict, something for love to conquer and/or transcend if it is to be worth telling/filming. Usually some form of external condemnation or condition against which love can take its inspiring and liberating shape. If there’s something to what he’s saying–and I think there is–then perhaps Hollywood has grown lazier than its critics contend. Love, romantic or otherwise, does not lack resistance and never will. Call it sin, call it self-orientation, control, etc, while its precise expression may have shifted along cultural or political lines (a little), the fact remains that love seldom arrives unopposed, either externally or internally. Some might say that every cultural shift brings just as many new challenges to love as it addresses. Surely I’m not the only one who thought, when The Five Year Engagement came out last year, how strange it was that no one had really mined that oh-so-modern conundrum for laughs yet, namely, competing career paths and the inevitable compromises and sacrifices involved in loving another “achiever.” It’s a subplot in plenty of dramas–for instance in Mad Men this past season, or as the (only?) redeeming part of Newsroom–but no one seems to be cracking wise yet. And it’s far from the only fresh roadblock to romance. Take the Internet: long distances may no longer be much of an obstacle, but the awkwardness of transitioning from a virtual relationship to a flesh-and-bone one is a comic goldmine! All of this is neither here nor there.

moonrise+kingdomThe good news for fans of the genre is that the two best films of 2012, Silver Linings Playbook and Moonrise Kingdom, were both romantic comedies (after a fashion), both the product of directors who are creative and wise enough to see that, as the Bible not-so-coincidentally confirms, there is something fundamentally human that opposes love. Or you might say that we have a, um, love-hate relationship with love. It’s not just that love is scary (it is) or overpowering (check), it’s that love torpedoes our hardwiring for deserving and control. Which means a good and funny love story is timeless; it can emerge from pretty much any setting, as long as the people involved are recognizably human. In other words, when the struggles aren’t externalized (Moonrise), internal ones more than suffice (Silver Linings). They may even be preferable:

Happily, the cinematic landscape is still dotted with exceptions, experiments in romantic chemistry that in many cases benefit from steering wide of the usual tropes. There’s a case to be made that the two best romantic comedies of 2012 succeeded in large part because they weren’t really framed as romantic comedies at all. David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook may have had a rom-com structure, but it was darker and more idiosyncratic, with a premise at once novel and true to life: two lovers thwarted by mental illness. Better still was Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which offered as its obstacle an ironic update of the old parental-disapproval plot: young Sam and Suzy can’t run off together and get married because they’re 12 years old. (It’s an obstacle that, incidentally, is not presented as insurmountable.)

On that note, I know you’ve all been dying for our Oscar picks. To keep things interesting, the only qualification in the following list is that the film/person couldn’t have been nominated in the actual 2013 Academy Awards… We’ve also added a couple of categories so that it doubles as a compendium of our proudest film writing from this past year:


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7 responses to “Rom-Com Obstacles and Mockingbird at the (Alternate) Oscars”

  1. Ginger says:

    I’m hoping “Admission” will pull through as a great rom-com!

  2. David – I actually liked The Five-Year Engagement despite several of its flaws. I thought, on the whole, it was great. However, the best two romcoms of the past several years are Silver Linings Playbook and Larry Crown. One big difference between these two and almost every romcom of the past decade? Instead of it being about a hook up in the first act and then realizing there’s more at the end, there’s much more to the story and the big kiss doesn’t come until the finale. They also pair legitimate, charming actors instead of the best looking people they could find. But I wanted to recommend Larry Crown as a modern romcom that feels like a classic one.

  3. John Zahl says:

    Great list, Dave! Apparently the Queen of Versailles house is out of foreclosure and on its way into becoming a real-live “house”. Loved 5 Year Engagement too, and Moonrise, and Silver Linings, and Queen of Versailles, and Bernie, and Flight (and flight of the navigator, pz), and Cabin in the Woods. I still wish they’d cut the one of those two musical numbers at the end of Damsels, but I’ll re-watch it as per your request. Ruby Sparks was quite good, though I didn’t like is as much as the others you mention. What about Friends with Kids? It relates to what your saying and is far more mature and insightful (and less cynical) than Jennifer W’s earlier film attempts. Is 50/50 two years old at this point?

  4. John Zahl says:

    And thanks, Joseph, for the Larry Crowne recommendation. I’ll add it to the top of the list.

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