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’.




loitering-cover-cmyk-570

Sam van Zweden

The Writer at the Centre of the Essay: Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering

Loitering is Charles D’Ambrosio’s quietly brave collection of experimental essays. It doesn’t announce itself noisily, but associations slide sideways through the essays in unexpected ways. This collection is lyric in both senses – freely associative and loose, it borrows from the world, trying meaning on for size, producing metaphors and connections wherever it sees fit. Read more »

discworld

Elizabeth Flux

Footnote to a life: How Terry Pratchett kept me from going postal

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, then teenage me would have been the steamroller to Terry Pratchett’s somewhat plagiarised tarmac. In the ten years since I first picked up The Fifth Elephant, my work has been littered with Pratchettisms to varying degrees. Read more »

Patricia-Highsmith2

James Tierney

The Necessary Paradoxes of Patricia Highsmith

A highly regarded author of complex psychological thrillers, including The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith’s fiction comes freighted with a heady mix of cross-purposes and intimate alienations. 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 »

9807778273_afe6ec792d_z

Rebecca Shaw

Breaking the Celluloid Ceiling

We are still at a point where far less than half the movies we see have a clear female protagonist, even though women are half of the population. If women as an ENTITY are not properly represented, their stories not told, what chance then do women of colour have? Read more »

article-2301242-18FA52E4000005DC-314_470x763

Rebecca Shaw

An Inconvenient Truth: Social stigma and menstruation

If you have heard of menstruation, you would know that it is an essential process in a little tiny thing called the EXISTENCE AND CONTINUATION OF HUMAN LIFE, and it is something that most (not all) women experience for about five days every month for a large part of their lives. It is a topic (besides shopping, lol) that women think about frequently. 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 »

9331818982_322b389ff2_z

Annabel Brady-Brown

The blue pill or the red pill? In defence of highbrow film

Cinema is a powerful medium. Going to the movies, be it a Lav Diaz epic or a Michael Bay blockbuster, is an act of submission. You hand over $15 and the whole mash of your brain/senses/heart/dreams for ninety minutes. Read more »

girlwalkshomealoneatnight

Anwen Crawford

Bad Cities

A Most Violent Year has an atmosphere of all-pervading dread, like a film noir, as if the polluted air of New York itself was causing people to act against their better intentions. Even more haunting and more noir is A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, a memorably audacious debut feature from American-Iranian director Ana Lily Amirpour. 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 »

agent-carter-7683

Danielle Binks

Agent Carter and the future of the female superhero

Agent Carter has been described ‘a Triumph for Women, Marvel and TV,’ and heralded as an important new chapter in comics culture. If this supposedly groundbreaking new show fails, does it spell doom for the future of female-led superhero franchises? 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 »

ss_f6a450fbf737eb04c58b973f72e8817bb2b50285.600x338

Katie Williams

Brain Candy: Are game jams diluting the potential of video games?

In a world where YouTube gameplay videos narrated by hollering amateurs hold as much clout – if not more – than professional game critics, I worry that developers may be swayed to choose an easier, unimaginative, and more vacuous path to success. Read more »

cher_horowitz_closet-010_2

Katie Williams

Fashion Forward: How hidden algorithms are dressing up technology

Though we increasingly rely on technology to simplify our lives, we still want to believe that behind the scenes is a happy, human face, rather than an impassive machine that does the dirty work for us. 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 »

Before Us_3

Jane Howard

Stuart Bowden’s Unfamiliar, Universal Worlds

It’s hard to classify the work of Stuart Bowden. His one-person storytelling theatre works are at once hilarious and melancholy. They exist in a particular space of fringe theatre: intricately crafted stories built for small rooms & small audiences, they lift and rise that audience, gathering us all up in the magic of stories & the closeness they can breed. Read more »