Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Revisiting Romantic Comedy

I think all my mental energy is still tied up in the current book. In rewriting a scene yesterday, I came up with a fun twist that I think adds a layer to the story while throwing in a "what's really going on?" reversal. This book is turning out to be very twisty (as opposed to twisted, which is an entirely different thing).

I was groping for blog topics, and then I remembered my grand plan to do a series of posts about romantic comedy films. That was going to be a February thing tied to Valentine's Day, but I got sidetracked. Still, I have posts that I've written ahead of time, which are perfect for those "I can't seem to write anything but the current book" days.

I will admit that I'm a total sucker for a good romantic comedy movie. I even like some of the lame, cheesy ones. I have been known to spend a Saturday evening watching a Lifetime movie when they're doing something closer to the romantic comedy vein than the usual woman in jeopardy/sick kid/horrible disease/missing kid/nasty spouse film. But it's a genre that can so very easily go horribly wrong.

I have a few requirements for what I consider to be a good romantic comedy film:

1) No Peter Pan/Wendy situation
By that I mean that I really despise the films (and this is what's popular recently, unfortunately) in which the man and woman really should be peers, but he's an arrested-development overgrown man-child and she has to act like his mother and be the adult in the relationship. She becomes the antagonist in the relationship because she expects him to grow up and be a man and is made to look like a nagging shrew for daring to expect this of him when he's perfectly happy just hanging around as a slacker, drinking beer and getting stoned and never shaving or bathing. Yeah, he usually realizes the error of his ways and grows up in order to keep her, but a lot of these movies seem to be aimed at the male audience, so the happy ending's there so men on dates will still have their significant others speaking to them (and sleeping with them) afterward, but there's a subtle undercurrent hinting that this change will only be temporary and that the man will eventually return to his happier ways (or else will end up being miserable in adulthood).

I'm equally unhappy with situations where the woman is the spoiled, bratty girl-child and the man plays father figure, but those seem to be rarer these days. Even with the standard Hollywood casting where the leading man is old enough to be the father of his leading lady, they're less likely to go with the man as adult, woman as child scenario. That was more common in the screwball comedies of the 30s, but in those it was portrayed as bad that the woman was so childish and naive and it was good that the man expected her to grow up and act her age. Clark Gable was not made to look like a harsh jerk for expecting Claudette Colbert to face reality the way most people lived it in It Happened One Night.

2) I need to believe that this couple has a reason for getting together.
This is an area where a lot of recent films fail. They seem so focused on some quirky conflict to keep the couple apart that they totally forget about why they should get together. The "falling in love" part of the story is covered in a romantic montage to a pop song, and they're only together at the end because they're the leads in a romantic comedy movie and there has to be a happy ending. I need to see more than that they've just overcome the main conflict that keeps them apart during the movie. I like to get the sense that they change each other for the better or help each other learn something, that they have some common ground other than some silly thing like whether or not they like dogs or weddings. I want to feel like they deserve each other -- in a good way -- and that they'll be better off together than they were apart. Since there usually is some conflict keeping them apart, I need to see why it's worth it to overcome the conflict. With all the other fish in the sea, why this person? Why not just walk away and find someone who agrees with you about dogs, weddings, or whatever the source of conflict is?

3) There needs to be a believable and understandable reason for them to stay apart during the movie -- until the happy ending.
Of course, if they're so obviously perfect for each other, with no conflict they'll just meet and fall in love and there would be no movie, so we have to keep them apart for a while to give them something to overcome and so they have room to grow. But that conflict needs to make sense -- something that really would keep you from being with someone who otherwise might be great for you. I don't think the conflict necessarily has to be with the romantic interest. It can be an internal thing where one person in the relationship has to figure out his/her priorities. Or it can be external to the relationship, with some outside circumstances making it difficult or impossible to be together right now. Bickering does not equal conflict unless it reflects some fundamental underlying differences. I'm not crazy about conflicts based on secrets -- especially when the other person is trying to tell the secret and gets shut up. If he tries to tell you something and you tell him you don't want to know or it's not important, you're not allowed to get angry when you hear it from someone else. It's nice if the conflict has some layering to it and it's not all just "one woman broke my heart, so I'll be a jerk to all women from now on" or "I love weddings/I hate weddings."

4) I don't like shortcuts.
If you expect me to believe a couple is falling in love, you have to show me and build in the steps. A montage to a pop song isn't enough. Neither is a steamy sex scene. They need to talk and discover things about each other by listening and observing each other. And I really hate it when they build up the hero or heroine by having an obvious Mr./Miss Wrong as the alternative who doesn't stand a chance. The obvious wrong person as a romantic rival just makes the one considering that person look like an idiot. Something that seems to be happening a lot lately in movies that I guess also counts as a shortcut is the realization of true love leading to first kiss and directly to sex, like we won't believe the couple is really in love if we don't see them Do It, so if they realize at the end of the movie that, hey, they really are in love with each other, that realization has to lead to a kiss that leads straight to them tearing each other's clothes off. Maybe I'm a prude, but if I wasn't sure how I felt about someone ten minutes ago, I'm not yet ready to jump in bed with him. I'll want to get used to feeling an entirely different way about him before I make any major leaps. If the film has built the relationship well enough, then I can believe that this couple really will make it without having to see sweaty, writhing bodies.

Beyond that, I'm pretty easy to please. I'm okay with romantic triangles. I'm fine with the movies where the couple doesn't meet until later and most of the movie is about how difficult it is to meet the right person. I'm actually even okay with the occasional film where they don't end up together during the course of the movie, but the door is left open for the future or they learn something from each other that they can apply to future relationships.

Some of my favorites, both recent and classic:
When Harry Met Sally -- I love the theme of friends becoming lovers, and it's great that we see their connection long before they start acting on it, and yet their conflict also makes sense. It's scary and difficult to transition a friendship like that to love because you've seen the way the other person is in a romantic relationship and how he handles break-ups, etc. You know where it could go, and losing the friendship for that is a risk.
The Philadelphia Story -- A triangle that could have gone either way where neither guy was the straw man "Mr. Wrong," plus witty dialogue. I guess the guy she was planning to marry was the obvious Mr. Wrong, but then when the remaining choice is between Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart there's no easy, obvious answer.
Breakfast at Tiffany's -- a wonderful example of the conflict being internal to the characters, which did create some friction between them even though they didn't bicker or fight. Plus, they both grew and changed because of each other, even before they got together.
The Holiday -- I think this one is highly underrated. It holds up to repeat viewings in a nice way. I like that it's about finding love when you're not really looking for it and in unexpected places. Again, the conflict isn't really between the members of the couples, so there's almost no bickering. It's all about them working out their own issues and making a leap of faith in spite of being romantically wounded. (I'm referring to the Kate Winslet/Jack Black/Jude Law/Cameron Diaz Christmas movie.)
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day -- probably my favorite recent romantic comedy. I like the young love/mature love relationships, where the older couple provides a contrast to the younger one. This is another "get your own issues worked out" film, and while there is some bickering, it comes out of the fact that she hasn't figured out what's really important yet, and that's hurting him. Plus, Amy Adams and Lee Pace are adorable.

On a more humorous note, the NY Daily News did their version of rules of love as seen in romantic comedies. I haven't seen all the movies they refer to, and I haven't seen the movie Valentine's Day (it's on my wait for HBO list), but most of the ones they refer to are movies that don't fit my criteria very well.

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