The romantic comedy – a genre that once enjoyed blockbuster success and made entire acting careers – is not fairing well these days. If it isn’t outright dead, it’s certainly on its death bed. The reasons are numerous – lack of box office success, lack of star interest, lack of quality – but a big part of it is that as a genre it’s become creatively stagnant. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, and they aren’t trying very hard to change that.
There may be hope, however. There have been a few films of late with bursts of new energy and reinvention that not only capture the romantic comedy’s spirit, but point to ways the genre can resuscitate itself. None more so than Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said (on Blu-ray/DVD on January 14).
Enough Said has a typical rom-com setup: Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) begins dating Albert (James Gandolfini), then discovers that he’s the ex-husband of her new friend Marianne (Catherine Kenner). However, the film is anything but a typical rom-com. Holofcener proves that you can operate within the confines of the genre to deliver something that offers more in quality, theme and character. There are valuable lessons here on how cinematic romance can push itself into different territory and ensure its survival. Here are a few of those lessons:
Actually Show the Couple Falling in Love
Romantic comedies are now like Harlequin romances. They know what audiences want: two people in love. So, they cut quickly to the chase.Two characters meet cute, share a pop song-accompanied montage of them talking all night, and presto! Insta-love. No real time is spent on courtship anymore. It’s all about getting characters to be in love, not fall in love. Enough Said is all about its characters falling in love. We see a spark ignite, then kindle, then roar.
In showing us that, the movie builds our emotional investment not just because it’s good character development, but because it triggers our own experiences. It reminds us that this is the best part of dating, and we get to share that with Albert and Eva. We become invested because we’re given enough room in the courtship to recognize ourselves, and the result is that we truly root for the couple because we find ourselves wishing for them what we’d wish for ourselves. That’s not a feeling something like The Ugly Truth inspires.
Don’t Just Tell Twentysomething Love Stories
A way to help romantic comedies grow is to tell different stories. Hollywood can be afraid to tell ones about middle-age romance. Mostly because it's afraid only middle-aged audiences would go see them. As an unmarried, childless 31-year-old, you’d think I wouldn’t be able to relate to Enough Said – a film about divorced parents. But the ages of the characters allow Holofcener to make a film that’s more generally about the scars, pain and baggage we carry with us when we date – no matter how old we are. It’s a lesson rom-coms would do well to heed: there are plenty of romantic stories you can tell that don’t involve affluent white twentysomething, and would ultimately prove to be more relatable to all of us.
How to Handle That Third Act Fallout
Every romantic comedy with any sort of high-concept premise has that moment in the third act where everything falls apart. It’s become such an overused formula that it can be frustrating to sit through and pretend it matters at all. Enough Said has that “everything falls apart” moment, but elevates it past cliché so that it works. It doesn’t treat the moment as an obligatory plot point. It gives it meaning and realism. There’s no yelling, no crying, no storming off. It’s all stumbling for words, heavy silences and voices strained with disappointment. It’s heartbreaking and awkward. In the process it gives us a third act we can really care about because Holofcener creates a moment of authentic meaning and emotion. Not a moment a screenwriter throws in simply because you’re supposed to.
Characters Need Real Lives Beyond Who They’re Dating
None of us are should be defined by our love lives. Dating doesn’t mean we don’t have other things going on. The same should be true for the main characters in romantic comedies. Eva is given not just a full life in Enough Said (if not a trouble-free one), but one that doesn’t become completely wrapped up in her dating life. She has a job, she has a daughter, she has friends – all with their respective ups and downs. Because Holofcener lets Eva have more, she succeeds in making the film one where you’re as curious to see how the nonromantic plot lines play out as much as the romantic ones. Which makes for a far more rewarding audience experience.
It Shouldn’t Be Just About Characters Getting Together
Enough Said understands that the result of dating isn’t just winding up up with someone or not. You also tend to learn a thing or two about yourself in the process. Yes, often romantic comedies will end with some kind of personal growth. Lately though, that’s amounted to little more than a workaholic woman learning to let her hair down (often literally), or a commitment-phobic guy accepting settling down. They’re clichés without any resonance.
The ending of Enough Said is far richer because it makes sure to be about more than just Eva and Albert getting together. It represents a big character moment for Eva who has not only accepted her fear of dating but overcome it. In other words, the happy ending is possible because of a deeply resonant character-centric revelation. It is in that sense twice as rewarding as your average romantic comedy ending.
The Genre Should Be a Launching Point, Not a Crutch
If there is one common and major lesson here it’s this: more than anything, what Enough Said does best is use the rom-com genre as a leaping-off point. The reason the genre has stalled is because it’s stuck in formula. Enough Said wiggles out of it. It anchors itself to the spirit of the rom-com and seeks to do more with it. Romantic comedies these days can feel too much like they’re paint by numbers. Enough Said is a valuable lesson – if not outright challenge – that shows what can still be done with rom-coms if you’re willing to take a little risk and step outside the comfort zone of worn out formula.
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