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In recent years, my casual distaste for the generic Hollywood rom-com manifested into a severe and refined hatred for the genre (to quote Pump Up the Volume). It’s a little hard to reminisce about classic romances like Annie Hall when the screens are cluttered with every manner of inept women, whining about life and love until a condescending rogue or Prince Charming sweeps them off their feet and teaches them how to be better, happier, and more successful members of society (Valentine’s Day, The Proposal, The Ugly Truth, Sex and the City, etc.). This distaste, or hatred, is not born out of the romance, laughs, or women that fuel the genre, but rather the form’s unending insistence on demeaning its target audience. Each piece insists on a manic pixie mess that isn’t desperate for love as much as she’s desperate for a savior; Prince Charming can no longer merely ride in on a white steed and promise a future of passionate romance. He must become a god of sorts, guiding her and teaching her to be a disciple of his image. And if he doesn’t have to go to those extreme lengths for his paramour, he must at least be the calm, masculine presence to temper her frenzied female emotions.
It’s romance and womanhood through a funhouse mirror, so extreme that it seems more like Hollywood wants to shame women for wanting laughs and romance rather than helping them lavish in that desire. You don’t quite realize just how ridiculous most of these films are until you see rom-coms that begin to slice through the monotony and offer up more varied forms of humor and romantic life. Bridesmaids, for example, exploded with a flourish, balancing a rather stereotypical manic pixie mess (Kristen Wiig) with a nice, calming cop (Chris O’Dowd), and then balanced that oh-so-common mix with a myriad of twists from more bawdy and lewd humor to well-rounded female friendships that pass the Bechdel Test. It mixed our two senses of the familiar – the typical shlock we’re familiar with on-screen and the real world we’re familiar with as people.
Though it’s a mixture Hollywood is just beginning to learn the benefits of, this is a technique Jennifer Westfeldt has used for the last decade, creating romantic comedies that take the cinematic habit and transform it into a larger, more progressive and relatable work. Rom-com familiarity is applied to alternative paths in a way that both invigorates the form and normalizes the topic at hand – first with two women who test out a lesbian relationship (Kissing Jessica Stein), then a married couple who question the usefulness of marriage (Ira & Abby), and come next week: Friends with Kids, the tale of best friends who decide to have children without becoming romantic partners (featuring many of the leads from Bridesmaids – Wiig, Hamm, O’Dowd, and Rudolph).
Westfeldt’s film career was born from the progressive ‘90s sensibility – that post-grunge era when being different was kind of cool. It was the world of Singles, the decade when HBO wanted to explore single women in Manhattan with Sex and the City. In fact, both Westfeldt and Kissing Jessica Stein co-writer and co-star Heather Juergensen were reportedly headhunted for Sarah Jessica Parker’s show before Stein became a hit. These were women willing to talk frankly about sex and life in the big city, creators who were enamored with Woody Allen’s New York, and a sensibility that thrust smart, successful women into romantic turmoil.
As much as one could find similarities between Jessica Stein and modern emotional messes played by Sandra Bullock or Kathryn Heigl, Westfeldt rejigged the starring mess into a woman too intelligent for her own good. She’s picky, yes, but it’s rather understandable: she doesn’t want the cute dude talking about “dorfmans,” who doesn’t want to be a “self-defecating” guy. She’s looking for a deeper connection, so she entertains the possibility of a relationship with her intellectual equal, Helen (Juergensen). For the time, it was risqué material, told through the ever-relatable rom-com filter. They meet, they encounter ridiculous situations, they delight in sappy montages and painful turmoil before figuring out who they are and what they want -- in ways the beautifully ring true for their characters.
It’s precisely the same thing, in an entirely different world, for Westfeldt’s next film, Ira & Abby. Instead of two women navigating lesbian love for the first time, Westfeldt plays Abby to Chris Messina’s Ira. She’s the ridiculous, straight-forward woman who acts on whim rather than a rational plan, and she’s balanced by the exacerbatingly neurotic Woody Allen wannabe who overthinks everything and doesn’t really do anything. Like Stein, Westfeldt explores people who reach out beyond their comfort zones to find out what really fits rather than what life dictates should fit. And again, it’s all told in the usual formula, the format being the sugar that allows non-traditional worlds to be accepted.
What’s really interesting is how non-political these films are, though every brief synopsis seems to scream some political agenda. These are organic stories birthed from Westfeldt’s own experiences – talking to friends, observing patterns of weddings and divorces, watching her friends’ disappear from view when they had children. It’s really the difference between trying to write "for women” and writing from experience and observation. There is no political outline that dictates the notes Westfeldt must hit on her characters’ journey; she merely muses on her own life and experiences she’s witnessed. By being open to her environment, her work is more accepting and relatable. (Should you search for discussions of feminism in her interviews, you’ll only find it in tandem with long-time partner Jon Hamm, who much more openly discusses politics and action, like his speech for the Rape Treatment Center in Beverly Hills.)
It’s less political and more interpersonal practice for Westfeldt. As she said during an old interview for Stein: “there's so few great women's roles that if women don't write them, where are they going to come from, honestly? There's five or six women who are on that star list, and they get all the juicy parts kind of handed to them, and everyone else… there's not that much left. You have to create those things if they don't exist, and I think more people should because there's an audience for it, I hope.”
She sees, experiences, and creates. Westfeldt is basically a poster-child for the potential that rests in having women involved in multiple stages of the filmmaking process (like Wiig now, since the success of Bridesmaids). There’s a greater sense of reality, a greater depth to her female characters that is free of the male Hollywood habit that ponders weak cinematic habits rather than real life. How many other films show a woman at work like Westfeldt does in her first two endeavors? Her heroines have real, multifaceted lives with work, love, friends, and family. She reflects on modern society rather than condemns or marginalizes it, and it makes all the difference in her rom-coms.
When faced with Hollywood pressure during the early days of Stein, she once asked: “can’t you have both, can’t you have some mainstream comedy and attract a wide audience but also have it be quirkier and more off beat than most Hollywood comedies?” From the highest to lowest points in her films, there is always this intriguing mixture of mainstream and indie sensibilities. For all the recognizability and typical romance in her films, underlying truths fuel the affairs. Each romance includes elements of societal pressure and how a person having out-of-step feelings navigates an entirely oppressive world: Jessica struggled with the outer reaction to her dating a woman, Abby left Ira to obsess over how society would react to a couple engaged after hours of knowing each other, and Julie and Jason contend with their friends’ judgment over their non-traditional plans. There are intelligent discussions, diverse familial situations, and any number of scenarios that are unheard of in mainstream rom-coms. Each couple learns to live life on their own grounds and celebrate much richer and more dynamic lives because of it.
What’s most important, strangely, is that Westfeldt isn’t perfect. These are flawed labors of love that challenge Hollywood not on some practically untouchable or unrecognizable ideal, but on a very real, very accessible, very easy to re-create mindset. Quite plainly, Westfeldt reveals just how lazy Hollywood rom-coms have become, because Westfeldt proves that the formula works beyond this ever-infuriating dichotomy of male chauvinist savior and inept female victim of life.
A film can be ridiculous; it can have stereotypes; but a rom-com must also have heart. Hopefully a cast of Bridesmaids can help Hollywood straighten up and take notice of Westfeldt and finally discover that rom-com success doesn’t cater to the lowest, most ridiculous denominator, but to a large, diverse public who wants a little heart and smarts with their comedic romance.
My review from TIFF.