Romantic Comedies, Still Making Us Stupid After All These Years

The Ugly Truth

This is an important week for all you Catholics and romantics out there. For some, this marks the first week of a Lent, a time of fasting and repentance building up towards Easter Sunday. For others, it marks the week of Valentine’s Day, a time to stock up on Duane Reade chocolates and off-brand greeting cards. This is also the week every year that I find myself thinking about an old high school friend named Emily. One year, being both the aforementioned Catholic and a closet romantic, Emily decided to give up romantic comedies for Lent. Romantic comedies, Emily claimed, gave her unrealistic expectations about love and helped her buy into the clichés concerning grand gestures and unrequited love. And I, being just about the worst sort of cinephile at that point in my life, openly mocked Emily for her decision. They’re just movies, I said. Do you also need to get rid of every horror movie on your shelf for fear of becoming a serial killer?

At the time I thought I was being funny; in hindsight, I was probably just being an asshole. But it was Emily who, even unknowingly, would have the last laugh. In the years that followed, I found myself thinking back on Emily’s decision and the kernel of truth that seemed to lie at the center of it all. I even started paying closer attention to academic studies that linked movies and relationships in any meaningful way. In 2008, a Scottish university published a study suggesting a correlation between relationship counseling and romantic comedies. “Relationship counselors often face common misconceptions in their clients,” wrote Dr. Bjarne Holmes, “that if your partner truly loves you they’d know what you need without you communicating it, that your soul mate is predestined.” A few years later, Veronica Hefner of the National Communication Association would publish a less conclusive study, though this, too, would find a link between romantic comedies and idealism. “In general,” Holmes wrote, “repeated viewing was positively related to only one of the four beliefs that comprise the romantic ideal: idealization of one’s partner.”

I don’t think anyone would deny – certainly not those in long-term relationships – that most movies stop before the onscreen relationships truly get started. It is one thing to overcome external obstacles or romantic rivals in the final reel, quite another indeed to find the right balance between love and friendship that can sustain a relationship for years upon end. Perhaps that’s why we find ourselves a little obsessed with romantic failures. Earlier this week, our own Chris Campbell wrote a piece about why his faith in movie romances died out in 1989, while Jason Bailey of Flavorwire named the ten movie couples whose relationships would surely have collapsed around the time that the end credits were listing every member of the orchestra. Our rejection for the conventions of the typical romantic comedy draw us towards movies like The War of the Roses or Revolutionary Road, where we can watch a relationship fail rather than succeed and enjoy our own meager successes in contract.

And even when I’m not rooting for the couple to fall out of favor, I have still noticed that my preferences have changed. Many of the movies whose central couples I admire – old standbys such as Secretary or Punch-Drunk Love – do so less as romantic comedies and more as movies that blend humor and tragedy in equal amounts. These are also films that shy away from universal truths in favor of personal specificity, where damaged people find relief in their shared personality quirks. Even movies that used to represent a second chance to get a relationship right – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, say, or the delightful Cary Grant/Irene Dunne vehicle The Awful Truth — have shifted slightly in tone as I get older. The redemptive tone I loved when I was in my twenties has been replaced by the sadness of two people locked in a repeating cycle of jealousy and bitterness. The ambiguity of each film’s final scenes has matured alongside me.

But then again, the biggest difference is probably that I no longer seek out movies exclusively about romance. Love stories are all-consuming when you’re 18-years-old and convinced that every person you find even moderately attractive is “The One.” However, as romance falls back into the crowd – as the pursuit of love and sex fades a bit and new concerns and struggles rise to take their place – our need for movies that focus exclusively on the romantic arc of two strangers wanes. I may still love a good movie romance, but typically as part of some larger story, where characters’ needs and desires extend on both sides of the film’s runtime. People are not incomplete before they meet their significant other, nor do their individual hopes and dreams fade the moment they pledge themselves to another human being. One plus one only equals two, not some imaginary number only visible to those who are still waiting to fall in love.

Was Emily right? Do romantic comedies warp our expectations when it comes to love? To this day, I still can’t say for sure one way or the other. What I do know, though, is that Emily is now happily married, in a relationship she works at day-in and day-out to keep both the friendship and the romance alive. I’d like to think that Emily knew enough to hold out for a movie that told a love story she really and truly could relate to. If I find myself with a hankering for a love story on Sunday? I’ll take the right lesson from Emily and choose a movie that tells the kind of story I want my relationship to be: honest, hard-working, and lasting a very, very long time.

The Awful Truth

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