All too often, romantic comedies are overlooked as cheesy chick-flicks at
worst, or light-hearted and fun at best, but rarely are they looked upon
as serious portrayals of adult relationships. The movie that broke the
mold was Woody Allen's 1976 Oscar-winning "Annie Hall", which followed
the trials and tribulations of a relationship from beginning to end, all
with Woody's famous narratives punctuating the story with his off-beat,
but noteworthy insights into romantic relationships. Since then, the
dye has been cast, and romantic comedies since then have followed much
the same kind of formula: someone's emotional or social dysfunction
has held them back from attaining true love, and it's only till they
meet someone else, also with such a condition, can they learn to forgive
someone else's faults, while also improving on their own. Movies such as
"When Harry Met Sally" and "Pretty woman" are fine examples of how the
dysfunctions are funny, but also germane to the plotline and fundamental
problem that needs to be solved.
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However, as time evolved, it appeared that audience's appreciation
for the "humor" was all that was needed for the movie to have legs at
the box office, and in effect, filmmakers began paying less attention
to the merits of the serious side. The net effect has been a slow,
gradual decline of the quality of the romantic comedy, where "gagging"
undermines the movie's more insightful and profound observation of the
Two recent films that exemplify this today are "Kissing Jessica Stein"
In "Crush", Andie MacDowell plays Kate, one of three forty-something
single women who get together to smoke, drink, and reward each other with
chocolates for who has the most pitiful "man story" of the week. Kate,
who is the headmistress at a strict all-girls school in England, has
a quick fling with a 25-year old boy named Jed, who plays the organ
for the church. The movie was supposed to be about how the friendships
between the women is challenged by Kate's having fallen for not just
a man, but an immature boy. This makes it harder for Kate to fess up
to herself and her friends, causing them to have their big fallout,
which leads to self-realizations of their own dysfunctions, and then
the final acceptance of one another.
The problem is that the filmmaker got too sidetracked on the "humor"
route and, in their attempt to "entertain" the audience with humorous
interludes between Kate and Jed, their relationship never took hold in our
minds as a credible, believable or even functional justification of Kate's
behavior. So, when her friends disapprove of Kate's relationship with Jed,
we don't disagree with them, thus not seeing them as the controlling,
overbearing and jealous friends that they were probably intended to
be. The error was that the fundamental plot was compromised for the sake
of comedy. Had Jed been a more three-dimensional character with depth and
some dignified qualities that would make their relationship a believably
loving one, the fallout between the friends would have made sense.
A much better film of the same kind of plotline is "Witches of
Eastwick." There were plenty of gags in that film, but they all helped
to serve the narrative, not at the expense of it.
"Kissing Jessica Stein" is a considerably better film than "Crush"
by its own rights, mostly because the actors did a great job at their
over-top-characters and witty script. Here, Jennifer Westfeldt plays
Jessica Stein, who is in that perpetual pursuit of a man, only to
find that the entire pool of available men is either crazy-weird, gay,
or married. After a series of hilariously depicted disastrous "first
dates" with men she finds in personals ads, she ends up hearing about,
and responding to, an ad from a woman named Helen, who's seeking another
woman. The movie does a good job at bringing the two women together
and developing their relationship, but once again, it lost sight of
its original message and the very framework of what Jessica's personal
challenge is, and why she has a problem establishing and maintaining
Specifically, early in the movie, one of Jessica's coworkers, Ben,
an old flame and friend-of-the-family, who is portrayed as not much
more than a loud-mouthed New Yorker, tells her like it is: she judges
people too quickly, she's too superficial, she doesn't give anyone the
benefit of the doubt, and she thinks she's got men "all figured out"
in the first five minutes of a date. Yet, she's hurt by his remarks, and
instead of learning something about herself that she could use, she feels
(and we feel with her) that she's the one who's been unfairly judged. The
movie showed us the men she dated, and they are losers, hilarious as
they may have been. To Jessica, and to us, she doesn't have a problem:
MEN DO, which is exactly what undermines the whole point of the movie:
she really is as Ben described, and she'll never have a close, romantic
relationship with anyone, man or woman, until she has an epiphany and
goes through a profound change. In order for us, the audience, to feel
the satisfaction of this achievement, we've got to believe that she
needs to do it in the first place. The gaggy portrayals of the "dates"
she had were entertaining in themselves, but they undermined the most
important part of the movie that had to be established: she's the one
with the problem, not everyone else.
As it turns out, the semi-lesbian relationship she develops with Helen
isn't a bad portrayal, but her "change" is rather anticlimactic. When
asked why the relationship didn't work, she said of Helen, "I guess
she wanted someone more… gay." No, that's not why it didn't work, and
nothing that happens next suggests that she went through any real change
that kept her from being in relationships in the first place. Sure,
she realized that she shouldn't be ashamed of her lover, man or woman,
but she learned nothing about herself.
A much better film in the same genre with a very similar plotline (minus
the lesbian relationship) is "Crossing Delancy." Here, Amy Irving has
exactly the same problems as the Jessica character, but goes through
a more believable person change, all without having compromised the
humor. While I found "Jessica" and fun and delightful movie, it was so
ONLY because of the humor, not in spite of it.
In summary, I worry that the trend of romantic comedies today are trending
more towards the "humor" being the important part, and leaving the plot
and "message" unnecessarily behind in second place. They are not mutually
exclusive, so one doesn't have to be compromised at the expense of the
other. Laziness is the only explanation.
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