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’.