It's time to talk about romcoms again. I'm sorry; I spent the weekend trying to fight it. See, I'm so used to disliking romantic comedies that it seems wrong to write about them with any regularity. Writing about them only a few times this summer feels like I’ve written about nothing else.
There is nothing inherently wrong with either word, or of the genre … in theory. One delves into the universal desire for connection while the other strives to make us laugh. In recent years, however, merging the two innocent genres is like lighting the wick on a stick of dynamite. What was once relatable becomes an unrecognizable whirlwind of ill-conceived stigmas wearing a mask of “cuteness” or "real life." They explode in your face over and over and over again, preying on your desire to balance some action, horror, and drama with love and laughter, exploding until you cannot help but loathe the form ... until maybe you even find your real world tainted by the genre's ridiculous suppositions. You hope that the next will be different, but it isn’t.
Then again, it was this habitual hope for romcom reality that leads me to this column. Crazy, Stupid, Love hit theaters over the weekend, and it didn’t offer up Sandra Bullock, Ashton Kutcher, or Katherine Heigl being ridiculous. Instead, we got Steve Carell and Emma Stone facing off against Julianne Moore and Ryan Gosling. Perhaps the intermingling of serious and quirky talent shouldn't mean much these days, in a world where Jane Fonda will come out of retirement for Monster-in-Law and Liam Neeson could trade in drama for action. Nevertheless, the cast teased at that lingering hope that Hollywood would shake off the stigma plaguing romcoms and offer up something real. Shock of all shocks – for once the hope came true: Crazy, Stupid, Love was Crazy, Stupid, Recognizable, Fun, Love.
First, let me explain why I am so fed up with the romcom genre. Though a romantic comedy only requires two things by essence of its name, romance and comedy, Hollywood has been determined to also infuse the form with a stigma of incapability and antiquated morality. One or two frazzled or old-school feminine heroines in a sea of films are realistic, but now the aspect has become the rule. Each and every modern heroine must be an incapable mess, and/or exist as the ultimate girly girl lusting for new possessions and romantic perfection. They are almost universally unable to become well-rounded people, and as the genre that features the most female stars, romcoms have become a repetitive mantra beating us with the message that women are incapable fools.
Once upon a time, the heroine waited for her white knight to save her from some dark, external force. When feminism blew away the push for a literal Prince Charming, however, cinema found a new way to share the same message. Now, the hero must save the heroine from her inadequate self – her inability to balance her life, manage her personal world, and foster her professional development. The modern romcom heroine must be guided by the male hand, saved from herself by his rationale and common sense. “God’s gift to women” takes on a whole new meaning.
Hollywood might not be battering us with a sea of heroines who give it all up to become the affable Mrs. Cleaver tending house and tending to men, but the message is equally sinister. The man must still be the hero, but now he does so not by outwardly ruling his wife's life, but by being the forming influence to her whole psyche. He is tasked with teaching femininity and romance. The modern hero is the figure of knowledge who keeps alive notions of femininity and identity.
She is taught to be refined (Pretty Woman); she is taught how to be sexy (The Ugly Truth); she is taught how to love (The Proposal); she is taught how to balance her personal and professional life (No Strings Attached, The Devil Wears Prada); she is taught how to loosen up and become a caregiver (Knocked Up); she is taught to reign in extravagance (Sex and the City); and of course, she is taught how to keep secrets in friendship (My Best Friend’s Wedding, Something Borrowed).
Compounded by any number of far-from-real-life scenarios, watching a romcom is akin to watching insects mate – there are some far-off reflections of human life, but for the most part, it’s a bizarro world that’s nothing like our own. We might as well be the male mate, decapitated by the female mantis, for all the good romcoms are.
Enter Crazy, Stupid, Love. Steve Carell plays a man who separates from his wife (Julianne Moore) after she has an extramarital affair. A geeky mess of a man who married young and has absolutely no idea of how to attract the opposite sex, he is taken under the wing of a Lothario (Ryan Gosling) who easily seduces every woman he meets except an up-and-coming lawyer (Emma Stone).
There are many recognizable tropes in the romcom, and even a cliche or three thrown in to the mix. There is a frazzled, prone to embarrassing spectacle date played by Marisa Tomei. There is the snarky-smart best friend of Stone's character, played by Liza Lapira. There's a kid too smart for his own good, slapstick hi-jinx, assumptions that lead to mayhem, heaps of romantic dysfunction, and the obligatory grand gesture. But the film also offers something that almost every recent romcom ignores – context.
These people embody specific clichés – The Clueless Husband, The Ladies’ Man, The Unsatisfied Wife, and The Young Professional – but their characters exist beyond what the plot demands. Husband Carell is the clueless old dude, but he is also a person who can be a role model and a jerk, a smooth operator and a clueless goof. Ladies’ Man Gosling has specific reasons for acting as he does, and with the right influences, begins to break through to the man he shut away. Wife Moore might have made some massive personal mistakes, but she’s still a good mom and successful working woman. Finally, Stone’s Young Professional does some stupid things, but snaps out of it, both listening to her friend and her own personal desires.
The film strives to give the audience what it’s supposed to give – real people messing up their romantic lives and finding their way to the other side with laughter. Rather than throwing up a character who reflects a minute portion of the population, or even none of the population, the comedy makes each player relatably real. It gives us an alternative to the vapid morons Hollywood loves to create for us, and best of all, it understands the heart of the human experience and uses that to fuel ever overt declaration of love, every tender moment, and every plot turn. In turn, we groan and recoil a lot less and laugh a lot more.
The lesson Crazy, Stupid, Love teaches is not to have faith in love and soul mates, though it stresses both, but rather that any cliché is only as strong as its service to the plot and characters – a lesson Hollywood desperately needs to learn. We can find any cliché in the real world, but these days, it's the rare film that contextualizes it in real life, with recognizable human emotion. When it is truly understood to be an aspect of a greater whole, only then does it become something we can compare to real life.
When a film offers rich context and deep characterization, everything immediately becomes better. The love is more romantic and inspiring. The laughs morph from chuckles into tears of laughter. And ultimately, the romcom loses its problematic stigma and is once again boiled down to its essence – romance and comedy.