Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Column: Film and TV

The rom-com isn’t dead – it’s just a bit unstable

by Scott Macleod , February 20, 20134 Comments

Photo credit: Nina Matthews Photography

Several years ago, the romantic comedy was pronounced dead. In an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times, Sam Wasson pointed the finger squarely at Hollywood. Big studios were allowing the genre to drown in a sea of humourless mediocrity. On the surface, Wasson had a point: every prominent rom-com seemed to feature Gerard Butler playing a repulsive womanizer who became slightly less repulsive 5 minutes before the end of the film.

Of course the reason for the rom-com’s so-called demise was hardly this clear-cut. Before Gerard Butler there was Matthew McConaughey. Over the last decade, Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson have also been repeatedly guilty of playing the stereotypical female counterpart in such films: the kind sadly lacking in substance, always spellbound by phony courtship.

The blame quickly spread beyond the characters and casting to the maddening dilemma of how to effectively present the idea of romance and comedy on the big screen in the 21st century. Film critic A.O. Scott has written about the disparity between the fluffy, inoffensive rom-com that ‘wonders into blandness’ and its abrasive sibling, which painfully mistakes ‘grossness for honesty.’

Despite wide-ranging commentary about the death of the genre (and, more recently, anxious theorising on how to resuscitate it) there hasn’t been much attention paid to the rom-coms that exist between the two broad contemporary interpretations that Scott has identified. What is perhaps most interesting about the recent films that occupy this middle-ground is the amount that explore mental illness as a major theme.

Enter the most recent example: David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. In the film, the main characters Pat and Tiffany (played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence respectively) are haunted by past traumas, volatile mood swings and self-destructive tendencies. They might not be bursting with happiness, but they are certainly interesting. The traditional rom-com dilemma of the protagonist struggling to decide between two different people is cleverly remoulded into a plot about two deeply flawed human beings that simply want to get better.

What has made Silver Linings Playbook a critical and commercial darling is less to do with a complete disregard of the rules and conventions associated with the genre and more specifically how Russell injects the characters with a wonderful dose of humanity. The ‘meet cute’ between Pat and Tiffany is there, yet instead of a vapid exchange of clichéd pleasantries, these highly-strung characters bond over all the prescription meds they’ve taken.

However, the humour generated from such interactions isn’t because the characters are mentally broken, it’s because of the unfiltered dynamic and refreshing absurdity of the situation. The complicated connection they form rings true because the characters are always genuine and identifiable – their development laced with emotional honesty.

Over the last year, many other popular, low-budget rom-coms have portrayed mental illness in more abstract and whimsical ways. For instance, Ruby Sparks centres on a lonely author believing that he has the power to write his own romantic lead, a metafictional quandary that allows the filmmakers to provide a critical examination of the ‘manic pixie dream girl.’

An unconventional approach similarly pops up in Safety Not Guaranteed, which features a romance between a quirky female magazine intern and store clerk who is convinced that he has unlocked the secrets of time travel (to the point that he places a classified ad seeking a companion for the adventure). For the majority of the film, this store clerk remains a compelling and enigmatic figure: we’re left to wonder whether he’s a lost genius embroiled in some sort of time-travel conspiracy or just a depressed man swept up in his own paranoid delusions.

Because all these kind of characters wrestle with very real mental demons, the genre’s affection for the ‘happy ending’ doesn’t feel artificial: the probability of romance is well deserved. Even Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, which is paradoxically one of the angriest and sweetest rom-coms of all time, fades out on a note of glorious sincerity. More bizarrely, Adam Sandler (who has recently developed a reputation for killing comedy in general) is the shining star of the film.

The role that the medical profession plays in many of these rom-coms is also fascinatingly elusive and ambiguous. There is a tendency for the doctor to hover just beyond the screen, allowing the characters to confront and overcome their issues without a reliance on prescription medication.

While depictions of mental illness in the genre can be strikingly accurate, the more effective films typically strive to eliminate the stigma associated with such issues through humour, never acting as a compulsory ‘self-help’ guide.

Ultimately, the diagnosis boils down to this: the romantic comedy isn’t dead – it’s just a bit unstable. Given the quality of recent films, hopefully it will remain that way for some time yet.

 

Scott Macleod is a Killings columnist, academic, freelance writer and ardent cinephile. He currently lives in the lovely town of Adelaide, the so-called ‘home of serial killers’.




  • http://mistakenforarealpoet.wordpress.com Mike H

    Funny. In the case of both “Silver Linings..” and “Ruby Sparks”, I turned off after 20 minutes, because to me, they were both cliched, hackneyed, rom-coms. I didn’t think, based admittedly on only 20 mins of each, that they cast any new light on mental illness at all, except to sugar coat it as some funny, amusing, whimsical characteristic of their photogenic lead characters.

  • 腕時計 カシオ

    腕時計 ブランド ランキング

22454066

Jacinta Halloran

Medicine as Art: An interview with Terrence Holt

Internal Medicine turns on its head the commonly-held wisdom of power and control in the doctor-patient relationship. Holt’s doctor-narrator is conflicted and questioning, often exhausted and confused. His writing aims for something less slick than the sanitised television offerings of medical melodramas, where ‘what entertains usually falsifies.’ Read more »

2303400407_d25f8d8b8a_o

James Tierney

What Australian Literary Conversation?

I am concerned about the absence of a performative aspect of criticism in the public domain, which doesn’t necessarily assume specialised knowledge or recognised allegiances, but is prepared to discuss what criticism is. Read more »

9781847086273

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their picks

Is your to-read pile looking particularly uninspiring at the moment? Or maybe you’ve just finished a novel and aren’t quite sure what to read next. Never fear! The staff from Readings bookshop have your back. Here they share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

gbbo

Rebecca Shaw

Crumbling the Great Wall of Heteronormative Assumption

You are just there to see a doctor, or have a haircut, when all of a sudden you are reminded that you are different. You are forced to come out to strangers over and over again. You are required to either refute their assumptions and risk having an awkward or unpleasant discussion with a stranger about your personal life, or you are forced to lie. Read more »

6314976-3x2-940x627

Rebecca Shaw

Out of Alignment: Religion, politics and priorities

Throughout your (hopefully long) life, you will often be forced to prioritise one thing over another thing.
Because we make these decisions based on what we personally think is important or morally right, the things other people choose to prioritise can be confusing or upsetting to us. I find this happens regularly when bearing witness to what some religious people or religious groups choose to place importance on. Read more »

Rebecca Shaw

TERF War: Transphobia in the LGBTQI community

I started to realise that I was ‘not like other girls’ about the time I hit puberty. From that point on I underwent an extensive and daunting process to emerge from my closeted cocoon into the beautiful lesbian butterfly I am today. An important part of that development was realising – mostly via the Internet (or very occasionally through people I met in real life) – that there were people like me all over the world. Read more »

anne-dorval-and-antoine-olivier-pilon-in-xavier-dolans-mommy

Joanna Di Mattia

All About His Mother: Xavier Dolan’s fierce women

Xavier Dolan has created an exuberant body of cinema that privileges women (and others on the margins) as complex, chaotic beings. Dolan’s fierce mothers are cleaved from the pedestal that so much of cinema places them on, so that they may dig around in the dirt that is life. Read more »

every-day-2012-005_cmyk

Anwen Crawford

Being Boring: Passing time with the films of Michael Winterbottom

What does it mean to film the same performers over the course of years, to have them age in front of the camera? Everyday pays careful attention to boredom, and at moments it manages to capture a sense of time that is both elusive and profound. Read more »

flock_roof

Anwen Crawford

Don’t be Sheepish: Why Ewe Should See Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie is the latest feature-length production from Aardman Animations (the folk who brought us Chicken Run), and it is a delight. Borrow a young relative for cover if you must, but believe me, you are not too cool for a kid’s movie when it’s this much fun. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. Read more »

video-undefined-22D54AFA00000578-784_636x358

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Insufferable assholes and grown up Girls

Yes, our girls are growing, learning, discovering. But all they’re really discovering is how toxic and unheroic they are, and how to use that to their advantage. They’re not going to grow out of their asshole tendencies, because they are actually assholes. Read more »

DUKMRUTRHLU31425064919799

Katie Williams

The Currency of Games: The real world cost of in-game purchases

A new item introduced in World of Warcraft lets players purchase a month of playing time for the real-life price of $20, which they can then sell to other players in-game in exchange for virtual currency. It’s an exchange of real money for a virtual currency that has in-game value but none in the physical, ‘real’ world – and it makes me incredibly uneasy. Read more »

2011 Jesse Knish Photography

Katie Williams

Pilgrimage to San Francisco: Power and Privilege at the Game Developers Conference

Attendees talk about the annual pilgrimage to the Game Developer’s Conference with the same reverence as a child’s first trip to Disney World. It’s the Magic Kingdom for adult nerds. The weeks leading up to the conference are full of discussion about which parties to attend, and how best to make an impression on people who could be useful in furthering your game development career. Read more »

jakobson0052

Katie Williams

Storytelling vs. interactivity: What makes a highbrow game?

What makes a game ‘highbrow’? We don’t have solid criteria for deciding conclusively which games are masterpieces, and which are just dumb, explosive fun. Read more »

ForceM6609

Jane Howard

Witness and Connection at Melbourne’s Dance Massive

In a city where it feels not a day goes by without an arts festival, or three, happening, Melbourne’s Dance Massive is resolutely unique. Australia’s largest dance festival is by necessity heavily reliant on Melbourne-based companies and shows that will go on to tour independently of the festival. The festival is undeniably of, and for, the dance sector in Melbourne. Read more »

16475519129_bb489cf4ce_o

Jane Howard

Creative Space: The secret power of community theatres

Theatre is inextricably tied to space, and the best theatre spaces become more than buildings. They become communities of like-minded people: of artists and of audience members, intermingling their ideas and their lives. Read more »

Tessa Waters stars in Womanz

Jane Howard

Fringe Feminism: Women, comedy and performance art

Taken together, the work of these female comics and performers loudly proclaims that their ideas about gender, femininity, performance and comedy are not diametrically opposed. It is because of their performance backgrounds that their shows are hilarious, not in spite of them. Read more »