MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Frenzy on the Wall: A Sad State of Affairs

Let me start by saying that I didn’t see Life as We Know It because I’ve already seen it. Chances are you’ve seen it too. Based on the premise and the trailer, I’m fairly confident that I could predict every beat in that film. Not only do I know everything that will happen in it, I’m pretty sure I can predict how the actors will say their lines, when the music will reach a crescendo, when a montage will occur, and how it will be shot and edited. This is the nature of romantic comedies today; no innovation, just re-purposing old tricks that have worked well in the past. It is the one genre where it seems like nobody has any interest in creating art.

Look at Katherine Heigl’s filmography over the past four or five years and you’ll see that it is littered with nothing but romantic comedies. And, other than Knocked Up, there isn’t a single decent one. It’s not just that she’s in films that are unoriginal and uninspiring, but that the characters she generally plays is the same: uptight, hard-working, no sense of humor, shrill, etc.

Frankly, she’s playing a very specific female stereotype and it’s difficult for me to see her movies as particularly empowering to women when all of them involve her not finding happiness until she finds love with a man who is usually irresponsible or loutish or a murderer (as in Killers). So, the message of these movies – like The Ugly Truth, 27 Dresses and yes, even Knocked Up – is that if you’re a hard-working and mature woman in your late 20s or early 30s, then just loosen the fuck up and lower your standards already!

How many films have we seen that follow this pattern in the last few years? Hollywood continues to churn out romantic comedies with the same theme. I just find it fascinating that in all of these films it’s the woman who has to be the one to lower her standards in some way. Look at She’s Out of My League; hell, it’s in the title! She’s a wonderful, beautiful woman and she falls for an unattractive, fumbling man because he makes her laugh with his awkwardness? Yeah, sorry, I don’t think that relationship’s going to last a long time.

There’s a strange kind of propaganda with these films about marriage. Every film like this ends with a proposal, a wedding, a flash-forward to a point where they are already married, etc. It’s bizarre to think that there can’t be a romantic comedy that doesn’t end with the leads either getting married or having children. It’s even more bizarre to think that in this day and age we can’t have a romantic comedy that ends with our leads single. Sometimes in life, avoiding a relationship is the smartest move one can make, so why can’t we have a film that shows us that?

Know what would have been a perfect film to show us that? Sex and the City 1 or 2. I will always be disappointed in the way that show unfolded to the point where four self-reliant single women all became dependent on rich men for their happiness. When the show ended with each woman involved in committed relationships, I was aghast that an HBO show didn’t have the balls to follow through on its initial premise and have at least one of the women remaining single and fabulous.

They compounded that mistake in the first film by having Carrie actually get married, then realized that they had to find a way to extricate Samantha from her relationship so that future films wouldn’t be about four married women. Still, in the sequel, we have four happy women and so the filmmakers have to create things for the characters to do that we might find interesting; they painted themselves into a corner. So instead of giving us a narrative we find compelling, instead we get two and a half hours of Sarah Jessica Parker wearing different outfits! I understand fashion is a big part of the show and the films, but I’m willing to bet most people aren’t going to the movies to see women in their 40s try on different outfits.

But women love shopping, right? That’s what Hollywood has taught us, which is why we get a scene of women going to boutiques and trying on clothes in every other romantic comedy. I can think of one time when it worked well: Pretty Woman. It was an empowering moment for Julia Roberts in that film because she had been denied the opportunity by those snobby women earlier in the movie. In most “shopping” scenes since then, it just feels contrived.

The reason people went nuts for 500 Days of Summer last year was the fact that for once there were real people doing semi-realistic things that couples actually do. But even that film couldn’t help itself and had the happy ending and the scene where he quits his job with a big speech in front of a board room full of co-workers. Still, at least that film was attempting something different. Same goes for Adventureland. But these are films about a younger generation, so there is no marriage on the horizon and we can assume that they are young enough that these relationships might not last a lifetime.

Know what my favorite romantic comedy of the last year or so has been? Drew Barrymore’s Whip It. I’m not quite sure that I would call it a romantic comedy, although there are definitely scenes of romance and it is definitely a comedy. I don’t think that film got enough credit for what it accomplished: it gave us an empowered young female who realizes she might be getting played by her boyfriend and instead of forgiving him or believing his (possibly legitimate) excuse, she just kisses him and walks away. She’s a strong, independent woman who has bigger dreams (and nightmares) in her life than some dude who may or may not be in love with her. I was surprised because it went in a direction I did not expect, which is so rare for movies in general these days and especially for movies like that one.

Films like The Proposal, He’s Just Not That into You, It’s Complicated, Bride Wars, etc. I just don’t understand why anyone is seeing them. I keep hearing over and over that it’s because they are “fantasies.” But fantasies are supposed to be empowering or exciting; they are supposed to show us that we can lead lives that are different from our own. A true “fantasy” is something that most mere mortals cannot attain, so I don’t understand how getting engaged or married or having a child is a fantasy when it’s completely within the realm of possibility for most people.

I could see how Eat, Pray, Love could be considered a fantasy since most people don’t have the means or courage to do what Julia Roberts’ character does in that film. Although, again, her journey is not complete until she finds a man of course!

Look, I’ve written a lot about romantic comedies in this column and it’s because it’s one of my favorite genres. I complain only because I love. I mean, the films of Eric Rohmer are mostly romantic comedies, but they have almost no resemblance to what America has produced in the last twenty years. There is no risk-taking with romantic comedies these days. Look at Annie Hall, a film that is hailed as one of the greatest films in the genre; spoiler alert, Alvy Singer doesn’t get the girl in the end. How about Billy Wilder’s The Apartment? That film deals with suicide and adultery. Doubtful we’d find those two topics in romantic comedies made fifty years later.

One of my favorite romantic comedies of all-time (and indeed one of my personal favorite films of all-time), something I watched with my mother when I was growing up countless times, is a film called Seems Like Old Times. Neil Simon wrote it and it stars Goldie Hawn. She’s a lawyer who represents small-time crooks who are mostly illegal aliens. She’s married to the District Attorney (played by Charles Grodin) and her ex-husband (Chevy Chase) is a writer who is on the run for as crime he didn’t commit. It’s a complicated film that deals with complex emotional issues, but does so in a hilarious screwball way. Hawn also gets to play a woman who is never shrill, always accommodating and yet she’s tough, but sweet. She’s, you know, an actual person.

The craziest part is that Goldie Hawn is actually stuck trying to choose between two men she loves very deeply. As an audience, our allegiance shifts constantly and we don’t know how it will end or who she will end up with. Then, in a stroke of brilliance, the film ends on a moment of ambiguity. Can you imagine? Ambiguity at the end of a romantic comedy? I just need to say something I almost never say: when it comes to romantic comedies, they really don’t make them like they used to.

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5 Responses to “Frenzy on the Wall: A Sad State of Affairs”

  1. Randy Byrd says:

    I don’t understand why people keep going to these films. When I saw the trailer i just figured they were were remaking “Rasing Helen”. My wife and eight year old daughter rented “The Backup Plan” from Redbox and I watched two minutes of it, and I know I’ve seen that film dozens of times, too. As a general rule I’m leery of any film with Katheriine Heigel, Kate Hudson, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Anniston or Jennifer Lopez in it. Unless the film is rated R, where it might be outside the predictable, hate at first sight, then love.
    I don’t agree with you about the happy ending of 500 Days of Summer. I think 500 Days had a happy ending in the same vein as The Apartment. (It’s also intersting that both lead charactors fall in love with someone in their work place and both quit their jobs near the end of the film). Both films end with the possiblity a romantic relationship but whether the couplings happen and are successful is left up to the imagination of the viewer.

  2. me says:

    Could it be because the majority of the successful writers, directors, producers, studio execs are male? And that these ‘fantasies’ (perhaps not even consciously) reinforce a patriarchal ideology wherein women remain dependent on men in order that they continue to be ‘available’? I think there’s something deeply rooted in men as a group (not necessarily as individuals, but as evidenced in the masculine behaviour visible in patriarchal societies) that panics at the thought of female independence; if women totally have the power to live their lives as they choose, that massively disrupts the power that the patriarchy currently enjoys. The movies that get greenlit subconsciously reinforce this.
    And everybody just wants what they’ve been trained to think of as the reward, don’t they? I know this seems a bit much when we’re talking about J-Lo movies, but cinema really expresses the ideas and [sexual] politics of our culture, not always in the way it ‘thinks’ it does.
    We’ve all got lots of conditioning to overcome in any case …

  3. me says:

    I always liked Say Anything … the romance that happens there is something that improves both the participants’ lives, and they go out into the world more interestingly together than as individuals, which makes the coupling seem worthwhile. In terms of female fantasies; well, the heroine gets the lovely Lloyd Dobler with his sweetness, commitment and excellent social skills, to support and accompany her as she goes out into the world to make an interesting life overseas. Lloyd’s love doesn’t limit her to domesticity or motherhood; what better wish-fulfilment could a girl want than an actual life partner who is supportive and a good friend.

  4. evelyn garver says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful and timely article. The dearth of good romantic comedies is a disgrace. What we have are farces that are resolved as romantic comedies. WEDDING CRASHERS, KNOCKED UP, 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN. The cause may be a male dominated industry, but I think it’s also formulaic writing and thinking. You mentioned THE APARTMENT, one of my all time favorites. You can bet that Wilder and IAL Diamond, his writing partner, didn’t have a blueprint for romantic comedy. They just wrote a great story with interesting characters. I know it’s easier said than done, but if Fincher and Nolan can make drama and sci-fi fresh, someone out there can do the same with romantic comedy.

  5. It does seem that everybody is into this kind of stuff lately. Don

Frenzy On Column

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon