Thursday, March 28, 2013

Romantic Obstacles

I survived the kindergarteners again, and they survived me. Wow, were they crazy, and we had a smaller group with the craziest kid out. But they did request Beethoven again, so I'm accomplishing something.

I've been thinking more about that essay about romantic comedy by Christopher Orr in The Atlantic, and I'm not sure that one of his arguments holds up. One of his theories about the decline in romantic comedy films is that there aren't as many obstacles today to people being together -- class matters less, parental approval matters less and even marital status matters less.

The classic screwball comedy of the 1930s was built around class, to some extent, since in most cases the dynamic was flighty heiress "princess" and down-to-earth (and often down-on-his-luck) working man -- it was basically an updating of the woodsman's son winning the princess through wit, skill and kindness fairy tales. But the class difference just created differing perspectives that gave them something to argue about and new things to learn from each other. It wasn't a real obstacle to them getting together once they fell in love, and if it was, then the result was usually some plot contrivance that undid it all (he's really a millionaire in disguise!).

Take It Happened One Night -- the relationship obstacles there aren't about class. The problems are that she's on the way to be with the man she loves and had to run away from her father to do so (that's the part that doesn't work in current times -- parents wouldn't be able to stop an adult woman from marrying) while he's the reporter whose career hinges on him getting the story about her. The fact that she's engaged to another is looming over any attraction he has for her, while things are likely over if she finds out about him reporting on her. But, really, the central theme of the movie is that the increasingly difficult road trip forces two unlikely people to learn about each other enough to fall in love, and that's timeless. The movie was updated in the 80s as The Sure Thing, where it was college students sharing a coast-to-coast ride for the holidays, and it still worked. I think the trick with this story is to not paint it in broad strokes and go overboard with the opposites angle -- you need just enough of a reason why these two people might not have met or might not have extended their acquaintance long enough to get to know each other well enough to realize they're made for each other without them being stuck traveling together.

And now I think I kind of want to write a road trip story.

Class may not be the obstacle to marriage for people who really love each other that it once was, but I think it's still a valid obstacle for discovering another person. You may get reverse snobbery -- the young lawyer who's had to work hard to make it through law school and then had to go through rounds of interviews to get a job is probably going to resent the senior partner's daughter who had her tuition paid for by daddy and who's had a job open for her since birth, and he may not realize there's a lot to like about her as a person until he's forced to spend time with her. That was even kind of the love story plot in the stage musical version of Legally Blonde -- she was the pampered princess who went to Harvard Law to follow her boyfriend, while he was the poor kid with the chip on his shoulder fighting his way up, and they bonded over the fact that she was dismissed by the Harvard legacy types for being fluffy and he was dismissed because of his background, but first he had to see past all the pink and learn to take her seriously.

As for the marital status being less of an obstacle now, just look at the plots of some of the classic comedies:
It Happened One Night -- she's running away to marry someone else
Bringing Up Baby -- she waylays him to keep him around when he's supposed to be on his way to his own wedding
The Philadelphia Story -- takes place among the festivities for her wedding to someone else
My Favorite Wife -- when she was lost at sea, he had her declared legally dead so he could marry someone else, just before she returned to civilization
Christmas in Connecticut -- she's pretending to be married, so he thinks she's a wife and mother, and the judge is standing by ready to make the fake marriage a real thing

Actually, there are very few classic comedies in which someone isn't on the verge of marrying someone else. That seems to be the main reason keeping the couple from being together until someone takes the leap of faith to break up the existing relationship and take a chance on the new person. I suspect the difference today is that back then, that was also a reason why the couple couldn't have sex and I'm not sure in today's Hollywood morality that would be an issue. In the old movies, taking sex off the table meant they had to substitute subtext, witty dialogue and sexual tension. Now, nothing's off the table, which robs the story of a lot of its energy. In the old movies, they also weren't sleeping/living with Mr./Miss Wrong, and that's one of the ick factors for me in today's movies, where someone is living with one person while falling in love with another.

I think the real problem in today's lackluster romantic comedies is the lack of subtlety -- they spend more time building up the reasons they can't be together than the reasons they can, and they forget about finding middle ground. If there's a class difference, it has to be a drastic one, where they're from totally different worlds and have nothing in common. If it's a free spirit vs. stick-in-the mud, then if the woman is the free spirit she's the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but if it's the other way around she's the shrieking, humorless harpy and he's the overgrown fratboy manchild.

Look at any of the recent "frat pack" style movies (like Knocked Up) and compare that to The Philadelphia Story -- there she's still uptight, the goddess on a pedestal who can't accept human frailty in others, but Cary Grant is no overgrown frat boy. He's an adult man who had a few problems in the past that he seems to have dealt with but that she can't accept until she realizes that she's not perfect, either.

But that kind of writing is difficult, and I guess it's not high enough concept for today's studio executives to understand, so even if a great script gets written, it might not get produced.

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