KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Column: Film and TV

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

by Imogen , 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’.




West Bank

David Donaldson

Whitewashing occupation? Bill Shorten and the Israel Lobby

Racism and military occupation have no place in the modern world, and are certainly not something looked upon favourably by a majority of Australians. Yet while apartheid, for example, has become a byword for shame and racism, the Labor Opposition leader feels comfortable asserting that some Israeli West Bank settlements are legal. Read more »

Tony Abbott

David Donaldson

Abbott and Brandis’ culture war backfires

What is supposed to happen in a culture war is that conservatives use a controversial issue to drive a ‘wedge’ through the left, forcing a split between factions. In Australia, this usually means pitting Catholic unionists against their socially liberal colleagues in the Labor party. Read more »

climate change

David Donaldson

Australia is going backwards on climate policy

During the Howard years, it was usual for Australia to be awarded ‘Fossil of the Day’ by climate advocacy groups whenever it attended a climate negotiation conference. The award signifies the country that had done the most to hinder climate change negotiations, and Australia has won a pile of them. Read more »

Zoe Pilger

Carody Culver

Girls, eat your hearts out

Middle class hipsters, conceptual artists and third-wave feminists have long been easy targets for mockery, so I admit that I wasn’t expecting anything too groundbreaking when I picked up Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out, a satirical romp through contemporary London that reads like a surreal mash-up of Broad City, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Less Than Zero. Read more »

Laika, Astronaut Dog

Carody Culver

Houston, we have a fabrication

As someone who doesn’t have children, I’m no less resistant than any of my book-loving friends-with-kids to the charm of a beautiful picture book. So when I spotted Laika: Astronaut Dog by writer and illustrator Owen Davey, with its charming retro-style artwork Read more »

& Sons

Carody Culver

WASPiration: David Gilbert’s & Sons

As someone who’s always secretly aspired to being a WASP (before you mercilessly judge me for this, I should clarify that my desire has less to do with attaining elevated social and financial status than with being able to dress like a character in The Great Gatsby Read more »

American Pickers

Julia Tulloh

Eccentric junk collectors held high on American Pickers

The History Channel’s American Pickers, currently in its sixth season, is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable reality series on TV. It’s not a competition show, it doesn’t exist to objectify people and it isn’t particularly dramatic. So what’s the appeal? Read more »

Justin Timberlake

Julia Tulloh

Pleasantly forgettable: Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience

On 7 March this year, tickets went on sale for the Australian leg of Justin Timberlake’s latest tour, ‘The 20/20 Experience’. All five shows sold out in a few hours. The same day, five new shows were released, with most tickets for these rapidly selling out too. Read more »

BuzzFeed

Julia Tulloh

BuzzFeed quizzes understand me

If you use social media regularly – Facebook, in particular – you’ll have completed a BuzzFeed quiz during the past month. Don’t deny it. Even if you didn’t share your results online, deep down you’re still feeling smug because the ‘What Should You Actually Eat For Lunch?’ quiz confirmed that eating ice cream was, in fact, an appropriate meal for your personality type. Read more »

The Lego Movie

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Nostalgia and today’s family-friendly films

Hollywood has always known the adults are watching alongside the kids, and that to push a film into record profits (as Lego looks set to do with a global box office of $428 million and counting), you need to appeal to ‘kids of all ages’. Read more »

nympho-poster

Rochelle Siemiennowicz

Weirdos on screen: Noah and Nymphomaniac

There are some filmmakers you’ll follow into the dark, no matter how bad the buzz is about their latest work. For me, naughty boy Lars von Trier (The Idiots, Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Antichrist, Melancholia) and strange kid Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) are two filmmakers who can be loved or detested, but never ignored. Read more »

planes

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Notes from a plane

There’s an art to choosing the right film for every particular occasion, and as I nervously sit in a Qantas jet about to take off on a four-hour flight from Melbourne to Perth, the choice seems very important indeed. Read more »

Samsung fingers

Connor Tomas O'Brien

‘Fooled’ by technology

As I browsed the web last Tuesday, something struck me: tech companies can no longer pull off compelling April Fools’ Day hoaxes because there’s no longer even the thinnest line delineating sincerity from spoof. Read more »

wifi

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Flight 370 and gaps in the internet

On Twitter the other day, sandwiched between a slew of links to articles about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, somebody tweeted a link to the website for Tile, a Bluetooth-enabled device that can be attached to physical objects, enabling them to be located within a 150-foot range. Read more »

IMG_3267

Clipped: What would Susan Sontag say about always-on cameras?

As I write this, a tiny camera clipped to my shirt collar is silently taking a picture every thirty seconds. At the end of the day, I will plug my Narrative Clip into my MacBook, and it will upload half a gigabyte of images to the Cloud. … Read more »

Young Adulthood Books

Danielle Binks

The young adult books of my young adulthood

In March, Penguin Books Australia rereleased Melina Marchetta’s first novel as part of its Australian Children’s Classics series. Looking for Alibrandi was first published in 1992; the first print run sold out in two months, and Marchetta’s debut went on to win the Children’s Book Council of Australia Children’s Book of the Year Award. Read more »

When You Reach Me

Danielle Binks

A children’s lit prize of one’s own

Earlier this year, Readings Bookstore announced the creation of The Readings Children’s Book Prize. The eligibility criteria for the 2014 Prize was specified as ‘a work of published fiction, written for children aged 5–12’. Read more »

The Fault with a Sick-Lit Debate (1)

Danielle Binks

The fault with a sick-lit debate

American author John Green’s young adult (YA) novel The Fault in Our Stars has been a bestselling juggernaut since its release in 2012. Green’s book was somewhat inspired by his friendship with Esther Earl, whose posthumous memoir This Star Won’t Go Out was released in January this … Read more »

music theory

Chad Parkhill

Do music critics need music theory?

Canadian musician Owen Pallett – the man who arranged the strings on Arcade Fire’s albums, co-wrote the soundtrack for Spike Jonze’s Her, and has a bunch of wonderful solo albums – can now add another feather to his cap: that of an engaging music writer. Read more »

Tune Yards

Chad Parkhill

Drips, leaks, and spurts

I’ve spent the last two weeks in a state of perpetual excitement – musically speaking, that is. First came tUnE-yArDs’ new song, ‘Water Fountain’, a joyous, riotous explosion of colour and movement. Then Swans released ‘A Little God in My Hands’, a seven-minute epic of a track … Read more »

Grandma photoshop

Chad Parkhill

Singing out

My maternal grandmother, Merilai Lilburn, recently died in a nursing home in Katikati, New Zealand, of complications arising from pneumonia. She was 82 years old. At the time of her death, I and the other members of our extended family based in Australia Read more »

Community

Stephanie Van Schilt

Diary of a lurker: TV and Twitter

At the end of last month, global information provider Nielsen announced that Australia was to become the third country in the world with the ‘Nielsen TV Twitter Ratings’ service. According to a Nielsen Company press release, the Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings are ‘the first-ever measure of the total activity and reach of TV-related conversation on Twitter’. Read more »

Broad City

Stephanie Van Schilt

Funny Broads

‘All comparisons between Girls and Broad City should be hereto forth banned from the internet.’ I agree with Katherine Brooks. Yet the comparisons continue, ad nauseam, mostly following one of two lines of thought. Read more »

The Carrie Diaries

Stephanie Van Schilt

‘Alive Girl’ TV: The Carrie Diaries

Get ready to feel old: it’s been ten years since the final episode of Sex and the City aired. I’m not talking about the first episode back in 1998, but the final episode – the one before the two questionable movies were released. Read more »