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Alyssa Rosenberg nails it on why today’s romantic movies suck so bad: They’re only about romance. The great romantic films of yore, Rosenberg notes, forced romantic love to duke it out with some other big force in the characters’ lives—-like Nazis:
[T]he reason older romantic movies were good is because they tended to be about something other than simply the romance. In It Happened One Night, Clark Gable’s scoop is at risk. In His Girl Friday, it’s Rosalind Russell’s professional integrity. In the Thin Man, there’s crime, in Casablanca, Nazis.
. . . In American romances, and particularly romantic comedies, today, there is no problem that’s not directly related to the main characters’ ability, or lack thereof, to love. It doesn’t matter if it’s jobs, parents, a precocious niece, or the end of the world. It’s all about the love affair. Finding love will help all those characters find fulfilling employment, forgive their mothers, embrace their siblings, overcome low self-esteem, whatever. It’s an incredibly limiting plot-assumption, not to mention a guarantee that characters will be hopelessly self-centered. And that self-centeredness is just exhausting and diminishing and requires completely predictable endings. Characters must find love if they’re to find redemption or success in any other area. It’s too bad. Sometimes in the past, people walked away for the greater good. There was heartbreak that was real, and not intended to be fixed by the opening credits.
As Rosenberg notes, this syndrome particularly affects romantic comedies. These plotless wonders have reached crisis level. I’m convinced that resolving this particular plot point would alleviate most of my complaints with the romantic comedy’s persistent representation of women as uptight bitches who are just in need a good fuck, and men as flavorless cyphers who have volunteered to do the fucking.
Let’s review the major conflicts in a small (but representative!) sample of romantic comedies from the past 20 years:
Bridget Jones’ Diary:
Conflict: Woman who is traditionally unlucky in love unexpectedly acquires two romantic suitors. One is a jerk; the other has a possible girlfriend.
Resolution: Suitors duke it out. Jerk is revealed to be even larger jerk; other guy unexpectedly leaves possible girlfriend. Romance is preserved.
The Wedding Planner:
Conflict: Wedding planner falls in love with charming doctor. The romance is interrupted when the planner discovers that she is planning the man’s wedding—-to another woman! Wedding planner decides to marry some other dude instead.
Resolution: The doctor calls off his wedding with the other lady. Wedding planner calls of her wedding with the other dude. Romance is preserved.
Conflict: A woman cannot propose to the man she wants to marry, for it is uncouth for women to propose to men. She travels to Dublin, where it is acceptable on one day every four years for a woman to propose to a man. There, her boyfriend proposes to her, preserving romance momentarily. However, it is later revealed that her boyfriend is a jerk, and she calls the wedding off.
Resolution: After that, some random dude she met in Dublin proposes to her. Romance is preserved (BONUS: no woman was forced to propose to a man).
Sleepless In Seattle:
Conflict: Woman from Baltimore is engaged to a nice but unimpressive fiancee. Man in Seattle’s wife is dead.
Resolution: Man’s son convinces him to declare his widowhood over the radio. Woman writes him a letter. Man’s son, impersonating his father, tells woman to meet him on the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. Woman travels to Seattle to secretly stalk man. Later, she returns to New York to be with her real boyfriend. Man’s son sneaks away and flies to New York by himself in an attempt to meet woman. Boy’s father chases him. Woman breaks up with her fiancee for some reason.
Resolution: The man, his son, and the woman meet on top of the Empire State Building. Romance is preserved.
The central plot resolution device in any of these stories is to push any potential romantic rivals out of the picture long enough for our two main characters, whom the filmmaker has randomly assigned to be destined to be together, to manage to slip a ring on each others’ fingers before the credits roll.
Rosenberg is right: Filmmakers need to wise up and realize that competing romances are not the only sources for conflict in a film about romance. I’m not saying that The Wedding Planner would have been better if there were Nazis in it, but wouldn’t the Wedding Planner have been better if there were something like Nazis in it? Surely, romantic comedy writers can come up with some external force to engage with our heroes’ romantic pursuits that is more compelling than a stand-in fiancee or a roguish Irishman.