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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I'm Just Sayin': On "Romantic" "Comedies"

Hollywood is making it harder and harder for me to enjoy romantic comedies.

The fact that they are, quite often, bad movies is only a minor problem for me - I like a lot of bad movies (see: my eager anticipation of the new "Clash of the Titans"), so that's hardly the issue. Romantic comedies often deal heavily in frustrating gender stereotypes, but even that hasn't been able to kill the pleasure for me. Dampen, perhaps, but not kill. Now, don't get me wrong: just like with other movies, some romantic comedies look too terrible to be enjoyable, even in a bad movie way (see: All About Steve, just about anything with Matthew McConaughey in the trailer). I'm just saying that the suspect dialogue and plots held loosely together with clichés are not, sadly enough, what threaten to drive me away from the genre altogether. My enjoyment of romantic comedies usually comes down to some intangible combination of charm and relatability: take those away, and you're left with a bunch of substandard movies full of unsympathetic characters.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Take Sally Albright and Bridget Jones. Both are caricatures, to be sure, but there is something recognizable in them. Sally is particular about how she takes her pie, but she is also caring and self-sufficient. Bridget manages to embarrass herself several times, but she's also a supportive friend and daughter. They are caricatures of real, flawed women. They are, more importantly, endearingly exaggerated, and both the films they anchor and the men they share their stories with show a real affection for them. They are lovable women, which is part of why it's so satisfying to see their respective partners come to love them.

Just as important is the fact that the men they come to love and be loved by are, in fact, lovable. Mark Darcy, like Fitzwilliam before him, may initially *seem* like a real jerk, but the whole point is that this isn't really true. Fitzwilliam is not an asshole; he just feels ill-qualified to recommend himself to strangers. Mark also has some serious social issues, but has the decency to apologize for his initial insensitivity and never treats Bridget poorly again. This is, we presume, because he loves her. And "just as she is," to boot.

Harry, for his part, may take a while to come to his senses, but he does come to them, and in recognizing how important his friendship with Sally is, he becomes the man Sally has been looking for - even when she didn't know it - in the best possible way.

Clichéd? Certainly. But also romantic, and at least partially because I can recognize parts of real women - maybe even myself - in Sally and Bridget. They're exaggerated, but never in a mean-spirited way. And just as I can see bits of the woman I actually am, and others I actually know, I see aspects of the man I want in my life in Harry and the Darcys. These men, who you know from the beginning they're going to end up with, are flawed, but they're not cruel. And when they get it wrong, they come to realize what a mistake they've made, and have the decency to feel sorry for it. They make the heroines feel truly loved, and that's why we watch.

Why, I now wonder, did filmmakers expect me to watch Leap Year? Amy Adams's Anna is the caricature that 1/2 of all romantic comedy heroines have become - demanding, materialistic, and not fond of surprises (read: control freak). That she is dating someone who seems (at least at first) perfectly nice but distant and boring comes as no surprise. He looks great on paper, which we know because he's a cardiologist. He turns out, of course, not to be such a catch. His shift at the end - both the reason behind his proposal and the obliviously callous way in which he reveals it - seems unfair, to be honest, to the character he seemed to be until that point. Not surprising, but handled poorly.

These things on their own might not be so problematic. The bigger problem, for me, is that for the majority of the movie, Anna is not presented as someone particularly loveable. She is beautiful, and we think at the start that her cardiologist cares for her. But she's also shrill, rude, oblivious, and entitled. Perhaps this is why the filmmakers thought the abuse heaped on her for the majority of the movie would be funny. I was not amused, though. I didn't feel like she'd gotten what she deserved when Declan watched as her suitcase was stolen, and I certainly didn't think it was cute when her later confrontation with the 3 male thieves turned, almost immediately, to the image of three men leering and using their physical presence to intimidate a woman whose lacy unmentionables they'd removed from her suitcase and tossed around. Declan's coming to her rescue here is one of the reasons I didn't hate the movie altogether, but even this doesn't change the fact that, while Anna does little to recommend herself, we have little reason to want her to. For much of the movie, Declan's rudeness falls short of roguishly charming because he is so very unkind. And there is never any sense that he's sorry for his early mistreatment of Anna, only that he loves her by the end. He says, at least, that he loves her; we never really see him making her feel loved.

I'm all for the guilty pleasure of the genre, but without the pleasure, why bother? For reference, here's what I said about Leap Year in my movie review roundup:

Leap Year**

Plotwise, Leap Year is one of the better romantic comedies I've seen lately (faint praise, I know). Matthew Goode is attractive and perfectly capable of charming, and Amy Adams' hair looks fabulous. All of this makes it even more unfortunate that the movie so clearly hates women. That's a strong statement, I know. And, I doubt that the filmmakers realize that they hate women. But here's what I consider the strongest example. Anna gets humiliated repeatedly, culminating in the alarm scene (a nice touch, to be honest). In the end, she goes back to Ireland, gives a speech that makes it clear that, in her eyes, the solution is to be someone totally different than she has been, and proposes to Declan in his now-crowded gastro-pub. And he, without saying a word, turns and walks away. Yes, we know he's going to get the ring, which is sweet. But, he also humiliates her in front of a room full of people. More than that, he is completely unapologetic about it. That's neither romantic nor comedic.

Leap Year is not the worst romantic comedy I've seen lately (that would be The Ugly Truth), but it may be the most insidiously misogynistic, and the fact that it passes for a romantic comedy is troubling. This is not to say that there are no sweet or funny moments in the movie. There are. But they are not, in my opinion, enough to balance out the rest of it.

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