Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Romantic Comedy Cold Cure

In spite of still coughing and being tired, I managed to write 20 pages yesterday, and I think I even like them. I "met" a character who's been lurking around the corners, and I already think she'll be a lot of fun.

Since romantic comedies are sort of my "comfort food" viewing, I figured that the best way to complete the cure of my cold would be to spend the rest of the weekend after I got home watching romantic comedies. Leap Year was on HBO Saturday night. I discussed that when I saw it at the theater, and I rather liked it then. I found it mostly annoying this time around, at least until they passed the constant bickering point. There was the aforementioned awful guilty pleasure Lifetime holiday romantic comedy on Sunday afternoon.

Then Sunday night I watched It's Complicated on HBO OnDemand, and my response to it would be complicated. The story is about a divorced woman (Meryl Streep) with three grown children (the youngest graduates from college near the beginning of the movie) and a shaky but at least superficially cordial relationship with her ex (Alec Baldwin), who left her for a younger woman, to whom he's now married. When his wife doesn't come with him to their son's graduation, a friendly drink and dinner ends up in the bedroom, and soon this woman is having an affair with her ex, who suddenly seems to appreciate her in a way he never did when they were married. Meanwhile, she's met a nice architect (Steve Martin) who really seems to get her. She's enjoying herself, but isn't sure where it's going or what she wants.

I loved Meryl Streep, and her scenes with her family were lovely. I thought she also had a nice chemistry with Steve Martin. Alec Baldwin, on the other hand, was highly annoying. I liked him in Hunt for Red October, but other than that, he irks me. In this movie, he's supposed to be a jerk. I don't know if he's like that in real life (oh wait, there's taped evidence that he is), but he really pulls it off here. I think he's also supposed to be charming, but he mostly comes across as self-centered and immature. To some extent, that seems to be the point, but it takes Meryl a long time to realize that. I'm not sure I can imagine her ever marrying him in the first place (though I guess if he looked like Hunt for Red October Alec Baldwin, I could maybe understand).

There was an angle I found interesting that was never addressed outright, so I'm not sure if they meant it. John Krasinski plays the oldest daughter's fiance, and he seems to have fallen into the role of "dad" for the family, even though he's not much older than the younger kids. Their real dad is a lot less mature than the oldest daughter's fiance, and the fiance is the one they turn to for the kinds of things a dad does, like helping them move, hosting a graduation party and being the emotional rock when things are going crazy. For me, the funniest scene in the movie is when he accidentally learns of the affair from what he sees while he and his fiancee are meeting with a wedding coordinator at a hotel and he tries to keep what he's seen quiet so it won't freak out his fiancee, even while he's freaking out. They never talk about his role as "dad" or the fact that he's more of a man than the real father who's old enough to be his father is. I guess that means this angle is still wide open for exploration in another story. Hmmm .....

But this film does resort twice to one of my pet peeves in movies (and books, too, I guess), especially in romantic comedy type films: the use of alcohol and drugs to create turning points. It's not just that I'm a puritan (though I kind of am) and not crazy about the idea of glamorizing drug use or alcohol abuse. I mostly think, though, that it's lazy writing and a bit of a cop-out. Instead of coming up with a reason for the characters to open up to each other and lower their guard so they can bond, just have them get drunk or high so that they'll say or do things they otherwise wouldn't. I'm well aware that in the real world there are a lot of relationships that begin (and end) and births that come about because of the influence of mind-altering substances, but fiction is all about character choices, usually made under some kind of pressure. That's what develops the characters and drives the plot. When you remove the choice by putting the characters into a situation where things just happen and they've lost control over what's happening and even their own reactions, you've made the characters passive instead of active. I suppose you could consider the drinking or the using drugs to be a choice, but it's seldom actually treated that way in these movies. They almost never address the choice to get drunk or high and the consequences of that choice, focusing instead on the fallout from the things that "just happened" while the characters were drunk or high. It's just a shortcut to get that "opposites attract" couple to stop bickering, loosen up, bond and possibly fall into bed so the story can progress. And I think it's the least interesting way to break down the barriers between people because not only are they not making choices, they're not consciously dealing with their circumstances. I figure that if you can't come up with a way other than drugs or alcohol to get your characters to talk to each other and start to see something they like in each other, then you haven't developed a good reason why these people should be together at all.

I suppose I have to give this movie the first incident because something had to kick things off and the movie was all about the aftermath, but I think it's like the use of coincidence in stories (which is also about removing the element of conscious choice) -- you get one use per story, and while you can use it to get things rolling, you can't use it to set up a turning point or advance the plot.

In other movie romance news, I ran across a funny article at Cracked about the things people do in romantic movies that would get you prison time in real life. They do address the mad airport dash past security in order to catch the true love. Though aside from Love, Actually, for the most part, the post-9/11 romantic comedies have taken the "pay an outrageous amount of money for a plane ticket that will get you past security" approach to the mad dash to catch the true love before the plane leaves.

And now I'm off to see Tangled, which I sincerely hope won't rely on the characters getting high on pixie dust or getting drunk in order for them to get together.

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