(Movies discussed in this post: Like Crazy, Weekend, Crazy Stupid Love, Friends With Benefits, No Strings Attached.)
Or, to put it in Julia Roberts terminology — some movies are Runaway Bride, and some movies are Closer.
(The vast majority of movies are Runaway Bride.)
All real romances are sad, even if they end happily. Because pain is part of the process. My Best Friend’s Wedding is one of the best romantic comedies in the past couple decades because it acknowledges that. Ditto When Harry Met Sally and The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, which somewhat operate under the romantic comedy umbrella — the meet cutes, the uplifting endings. But there’s none of that standard manipulation, and as they unfold, they allow the audience to be genuinely unsure of how they’ll turn out. Shouldn’t all romances be like this? Because in real life, you never know. These are movies about real people, and guess what? Real people are sad sometimes. Often times, a lot of the time. Deal with it.
Some bullshit romances are sad, too — think Love & Other Drugs, which stranded winning leads Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal in a movie that went from a solid upper (naked romping and Viagra) to a flaccid downer (disease-of-the-week blahs). Think of the utterly forgettable Robert Pattinson vehicle Remember Me, which awkwardly and unconvincingly adds 9/11 to the Sparks formula. These weepy movies may think that a tragic conclusion makes them “real,” but they’re not. They’re just Valentine’s Day with a bad ending. Still bullshit.
Now, I know the conventional romantic comedies have their place in this world. Especially when they’re done reasonably well, like Pretty Woman or Love Actually. It’s just that, well — if these movies were ever even remotely realistic, they are growing less so.
Luckily, some filmmakers still get it right. 2009′s utterly fantastic anti-romcom (500) Days Of Summer (if you haven’t seen it, I hate you) deconstructed young love in the 21st century, and the recent release Like Crazy follows in that tradition — taking a hard look at the ways love has changed in this modern era. These are movies that know we aren’t playing by the same old rules anymore. By the same token, Andrew Haigh’s wonderful Weekend applies the Before Sunrise formula to a same-sex pairing — with sublime results.
Which makes me wonder: is there even room for a movie that follows in the standard romantic comedy formula, in a world that has seen Before Sunset and (500) Days Of Summer? ‘Cause honestly, Hollywood. It’s getting harder and harder to buy your Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler-starring fairy tales anymore. How long is this going to go on?
The jig is up.
I’ve avoided almost everything you might call “a romantic comedy” for years now. I realize that there’s a (diminishing) market for such shenanigans, but moreso than any other genre, the romcom operates on such a tired series of cliches, and what’s worse: they tend to make both men and women look like idiots. Perhaps their greatest crime is the obligatory Big Misunderstanding, when the guy or girl should just say how they feel and end the movie, but instead they run off and make someone chase them through an airport and train station, wasting about 20 minutes of the audience’s time in the process (even though we all know exactly what’s going to happen). Has there ever been a truly exciting “chase scene” in a romantic comedy? It doesn’t matter how many cutesy touches are added, like the Stern Woman At The Gate Who Won’t Let You Through — but oh wait she will, because you explained everything in an awkward, sappy speech and she totally feels you? Any screenwriter or director staging such a scene is fighting a losing battle against four thousand movies we’ve seen before, each of which followed the exact same pattern.This year’s Crazy Stupid Love found a happy medium between realism and romcom, thanks in large part to the characters portrayed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Their seduction scene sizzled thanks to great chemistry (and an assist from Dirty Dancing) in the movie’s strongest sequence. The storyline involving Steve Carell as a divorced dad undergoing a makeover from suave Gosling also worked well; unfortunately, the script added a few complications too many, and ended with a schmaltzy kid-makes-a-heartfelt-speech scene. Blech. Surely Crazy Stupid Love is worth checking out, and mercifully breaks some rules — but for my money, still veers a little too far into the aforementioned “BS” territory, especially in the messy finale.
What’s a filmmaker to do? Can romcoms shed the cliched shackles of the past and modernize? Maybe. Hollywood’s standard, generic romantic comedies are desperately trying to catch up to the 21st century, at least. Unfortunately, this usually means adding raunchier humor and some sort of technology, but otherwise still abiding the terrible romcom cliches that didn’t work decades ago when they were invented. (Witness Anna Faris and Chris Evans in What’s Your Number?, or better yet — don’t. I sure didn’t.) No fewer than two movies in 2011 attempted to be “hip” and “with it” by addressing a “fuck buddy” storyline — No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits. With varying success.
The more engaging of the two is Friends With Benefits, largely because it has two likable leads in Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis (whereas No Strings Attached has the winning Natalie Portman… and the less-winning Ashton Kutcher). Directed by Easy A‘s Will Gluck, it dealt with such 21st century topics as blogging, flash mobs, and premarital sex with a fizzy flair. For awhile, anyway. Unfortunately, the latter half gets bogged down by subplots involving Alzheimer’s and the typical “instead of sharing how I’m feeling, I’m going to pretend I’m fine and make you hunt me down later” miscommunication. Yawn! And yes, the grand finale involves a flash mob, a misbegotten attempt at being current that really just dates the movie. Luckily, Mila and Justin save it with their sexy banter. By an inch.No Strings Attached, on the other hand, has some good zingers from writer Elizabeth Meriwether, tossed by decent comic relief sidekicks Mindy Kahling, Kevin Kline, and others. But as I mentioned, it also has Ashton Kutcher — and I just can’t get behind any movie that has Natalie Portman falling head-over-heels for Ashton Kutcher. (Unless, maybe, she was Black Swan batshit crazy. Unfortunately, there are no swans attached.) Both of these “fuck buddies in love” comedies end up being too traditionally romcom-esque for their own good, and each falls apart under the weight of the expectations dictated by the genre. Alas, they can’t all be Before Sunrise.
Which brings us to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, perhaps the only true crossover gay romance there is to date. (The audience I saw it with was, to my surprise, mostly heterosexual pairings — in Chelsea, no less!) It concerns Brits Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), strangers who meet in a gay bar, go home together, and proceed to spend the rest of the weekend in each other’s company. I won’t elaborate on the plot, because there isn’t one. Like Before Sunset, it’s basically a series of conversations that reveal intimate details about both characters, and also slowly hint that they are falling for each other. It’s ultra-realistic in every moment — even the climactic rushing-to-the-train-station-before-it’s-too-late scene smacks of truth. That’s quite a feat.
And best of all, perhaps, is the film’s meta-commentary — Glen is an artist who complains that straight audiences have no interest in gay art. Given the positive critical reception of Weekend, Haight may have proven Glen wrong with this one; though this story certainly doesn’t ignore or make irrelevant its characters’ sexuality, there is plenty for both gay and straight audiences to appreciate in this universal romance. It’s the kind of love story the 21st century really needs, bittersweet, ambiguous ending and all.
Ditto Like Crazy, which straddles the line between romance and heartbreak almost the whole way through. It’s painful to watch — perfect for cinematic masochists like me — because the emotions at play are complex and there are no easy answers. This isn’t your standard romantic comedy, where all a character has to do is say “I love you” and you can cue the flash mob-assisted happy ending. “I love you” comes early and often — but this one is as much about falling apart as it is falling love, and how those things happen despite the best of intentions and the strongest of feelings. It’s like Blue Valentine Junior.
The story follows Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin). She’s British, he’s American. They’re both in school in LA — but she’s due back in the UK all-too-soon. During a romantic getaway to Catalina, Anna decides, to hell with rules! She’ll just stay in the States on an expired visa.
Not a great idea.
Like Crazy does not follow a traditional structure. Anna and Jacob come together and are torn apart several times, sometimes by their own doing, and sometimes by outside forces. Each of them has dalliances with distractingly hot “others” played by Charlie Bewley and Oscar nominee (and upcoming Hunger Games star) Jennifer Lawrence. But it doesn’t matter, because the shadow of “the one that got away” is always looming.
What co-writer/director Drake Doremus knows is that love isn’t all you need; not in the 21st century, anyway. There’s a constant struggle within Jacob and Anna — what’s best for them as individuals doesn’t always gel with what’s best for them as a couple. The customs obstacle is only one of many they face on the road to “happily ever after,” which movies as smart as Like Crazy and Weekend know doesn’t exist in such certain terms.
A novel approach: both films allow the audience to feel conflicted about whether we even want these two to stay together — and whether the magic of their early love can ever be recaptured. To be with the one they love (or at least like a whole lot), Weekend‘s Glen and Like Crazy‘s Anna each need to sacrifice their personal career goals. Is it worth it? Can modern love even work, or are we just chasing something of the past? Is romance ever anything more than fleeting? Might these people be happier in safer, more geographically convenient relationships? Or is true love worth sacrificing everything for?
It’s that emotional messiness that gives the best romances of this modern age their truth. They’re few and far between, but as the romantic comedies of Hollywood drift further and further from actual experience, indie gems like Weekend and Like Crazy are the antidote. Weekend is all-natural and talky like Before Sunset, while Like Crazy is stylish and even a little precious with its music and cinematography a la (500) Days Of Summer. All four are essential viewing for those of us who’ve grown tired of Hollywood bullshitting us about modern love.
Like Crazy: You’d be, like, crazy to miss it!
Crazy Stupid Love: You wouldn’t be crazy to miss it, but at least it’s not stupid.
Friends With Benefits: See it with a friend. Or a date. You might get lucky.
No Strings Attached: If only Ashton Kutcher were not attached. What a mood-killer!
And if you haven’t seen Before Sunset and (500) Days Of Summer by now, I don’t even want to talk about it. You are dead to me.
(For the record, I liked both of these movies more than I thought I would based on their trailers.)