Monday, July 20, 2009

RomCom Roast!

Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m not a “Chick Flick” kinda girl. Matter of fact, I kind of detest them – feeling like they set up unrealistic and unattainable expectations of romance and relationships for women. Truth be told, in real life there are no magic moments of being swept off your feet by a prince on a white horse, and riding off into the sunset. If only there were. Movies aimed at a young, female demographic play ruthlessly and unabashedly on the voids that the fall of mankind has left in the male/female dynamic. Because they play so acutely to the warped sense of worth, value, adoration and longing in young women today, they can be addictive and deceptive. And frankly, I don’t need movies to play with my emotions, and create in me a sense of longing for something that no human man can ever fulfill. I can do that pretty well on my own, thank you.

That being said – there are a few movies in this genre that I actually do like. Just a few though. In a huge fit of irony, most of them fall under the category of “Worst Chick Flicks Ever” as rated by Entertainment Weekly magazine. A few, however have also fallen under their “25 Most Romantic Films of All Time”. For the most part though, any of the movies that I do like represent a more realistic view of love and relationship, or at least have some plot twists that accurately depict the realities of life and the human spectrum of emotion and relation to another person. I may pretend to be a hard-nosed cynic, but I think that deep inside resides some glimmer of hope for my own prince to come riding up on his horse. Even if said horse does end up crapping on my lawn during his “we should just be friends” speech.

My Top Five Favorite Romantic/Chick Flicks, and my justification for their very existence, in no particular order, are as follows:

The English Patient (1996) – Life never works out the way you want it to. That’s a given. And in this story, by the time Katherine Clifton and Count de Almasy, a Hungarian mapmaker working for the Royal Geographic Society, meet and fall passionately in love, life has already thrown them the curveball of her marriage to a friend, for the sake of companionship and convenience. Add on top of that the political stresses imposed by World War II, a jealousy-enraged, suicidal husband (played by RomCom staple Colin Firth), and the inevitable death and misery (including amnesia and disfigurement) that accompany their story, and here’s a tale that truly shows that sometimes, things just don’t pan out they way they should. The sparks of chemistry and romance that exist in the interim however are beautiful and haunting. Or maybe that’s just the exotic locale of North Africa. Anyway, in the end, one man’s relentless devotion to the woman he loves is masterfully portrayed through his painstaking and ultimately life-altering trek through the dessert in a vain attempt to save her life, and eventually collect her remains. The scenes of Katherine waiting for him in the cave, writing by a dying light amongst the swimming figures painted on the walls are unforgettable and poignant. And this doesn’t even touch on the charming story of French-Canadian Hannah (played sweetly by Juliette Binoche), his eventual nurse, and the strapping Sikh land-mine diffuser she falls for, as she nurses Count de Almasy through the end days of his life in a deserted Italian villa, drawing out his memories while trying to determine his identity. Even if I wasn’t a pushover for anything epic, dramatic or set in World War II, this movie would win my attention with the bathtub scenes, the Christmas dance scene (“Swoon, I’ll catch you.”) and Naveen Andrews floating in mid-air amongst the ruins of a muraled church.

The Painted Veil (2006) - Who doesn’t love Edward Norton? Yet, even for all his acting chops, it took this movie for me to ever see him as a credible romantic lead. And though he’s a stellar actor, it wasn’t his looks, or his performance even, that flipped that switch in my mind. It was the underlying emotion and smolder he subtly portrayed as a man in love, jilted but faithful, that changed my perception. Well that and the fact that this breathtaking, sumptuous movie was a labor of love for him that took him years to produce. The Painted Veil is the story (A W. Somerset Maugham adaptation) of Walter and Kitty Fane, newlyweds who married for convenience, and without strong knowledge of the hidden character (or lack thereof) of their mates. Shortly after being married and moving to Shanghai, Walter discovers that vain and shallow Kitty is carrying on an affair with a dashing and handsome diplomat. In an act of revenge and prevention, he accepts a job studying a deadly cholera outbreak in war-torn inland China. Dragging Kitty along with him only serves to further sever their precarious marriage bonds even more. But as each of them work through the cold, loveless partnership that they’ve found themselves in, amidst the hardships of pestilence and the complexities of cultural barriers, they find that the turbulent challenges they’re facing are enough to grow their love into something deep and meaningful, something it ought to have been in the first place. The Painted Veil, to me, is a story that shows that true love must be worked on, and can develop naturally within the confines of respect, care, intentionality and virtue. It’s about the truth that sometimes we choose to love as an action, rather than focus on whether or not we feel it as an emotion. Love, in this movie, is a virtue that must be cultivated and worked on, and the hardship that accompanies marriage prove a fertile ground for it to bloom. Virtue, in fact, is a theme in this film that is addressed in one of my favorite lines “As if a woman has ever loved a man for his virtue.” This line never fails to remind me of a nugget of truth that my old pastor, Pastor Steve, once pointed out. That is, that any two people, purposefully devoted to the Lord, and willing to work at love, can get married, and have a successful, and loving relationship. It’s exactly what Kitty’s mom tells her, at the beginning of the movie. Only Kitty, in her idealistic, romantic notions, fails to see the point, and replies “Please Mother. The idea that any women should marry any Tom, Dick or Harry, regardless of her own feelings is simply prehistoric.” No, not prehistoric, just self-sacrificing, which is exactly what the Painted Veil paints, in a large, complex and romantic way.

Say Anything (1989) - Maybe the reason I love this movie is that it was the film I saw on my very first date, back in 8th grade, with the rebel bad-ass pre-teen Neil. Nostalgia runs deep. I think there’s a lot more to it though, because at it’s core it’s a story of two slightly mismatched people discovering that adoration and commitment can transcend social boundaries and expectations. Let’s face it, Lloyd Dobler (played with such innocent naivete by a young John Cusack) is one of the greatest male romantic characters in all of film history. Really, if you ask me, this is one of the greatest romantic movies of all time. What’d I say about nostalgia? Lloyd is a lovestruck, yet deeply faithful, aspiring kick-boxer/high school grad, who doesn’t “want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career.” He also doesn’t “want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.”. You know, as a career, he doesn't want to do that. Which makes him a very unlikely match for Valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye). Having fallen hard for her in high school, he pursues her the summer after their graduation, while she is trying to determine a path for her future life. His future life consists solely of just being there for her. As her tells her father, at one point “What I really want to do with my life - what I want to do for a living - is I want to be with your daughter. I'm good at it.” And throughout the movie, as she struggles with decisions and revelations, he does exactly that, proving that the most romantic thing a man can do for a woman is just pursue her. Couple that dedication with the iconic image of him making a stand for their love, boombox balanced overhead, blaring Peter Gabriel's ''In Your Eyes,'' outside her window in an attempt to win her back (I cry every time), and you’ve got the makings of a truly great, mildly realistic love story. To this day, it remains one of my all time favorites, and I guess I have 8th grader Neil to thank for that.

Out Of Africa (1985) - Taken from the diaries and writing of real-life Danish baroness Karen “Isak” Dinesen Blixen (Meryl Streep), this epic movie chronicles the years of her life spent in Africa, as a plantation owner. Much more than just a love story, Out Of Africa is the story of one woman’s growth and discovery, both of herself, and of the namesake continent. At the onset of the movie, Karen agrees to marry her dead lover’s brother, the Baron Von Blixen, since he needs money and she needs a title. With the money from their marriage, her philandering husband buys a plantation for them, in Kenya, where he intends to raise cattle. World War I breaks out and conflict comes to Africa shortly thereafter, tearing him away from the farm, and from the wife who his slowly growing to love him, despite his cheating and indifferent ways, and leaving her to fend for herself and the farm. Enter adventurer Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford) with his Ralph Lauren wardrobe and his new-fangled Mozart playing gramophone. Above all, he cherishes his freedom and rugged independence while he vocally despises the cultivation of Africa’s natural beauty and wildness happening around him. A romance between the two ensues, as he slowly begins to find roots helping her on her farm, and she accompanies him on safari multiple times. The epic scenery, breathtaking shots of flying in a biplane over a flock of pink flamingos, and the enduring romance between the two lovers are part of what makes this story so memorable. But even more so, watching Blixen’s character develop strength, independence and fortitude as she negotiates and interacts with the Somali natives, learns the in’s & out’s of running a coffee plantation on her own and faces struggle after struggle (from her husband giving her Syphillis, to losing the people she loves to death) is what makes this movie stand out as something unique, and beautiful. With a haunting score and sweeping, incomparable scenery, this epic love story embodies all that’s truly great about grand romantic movies. Yet in the end, it is the romance with Africa that stays with you, just as Blixen’s words convey why: “If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?”

Return To Me – Yes, the premise is highly implausible. After losing his philanthropic wife in a car accident, Bob Rueland (David Duchovny) coincidentally falls in love with the anonymous recipient of her donated heart, only neither of them know it. Yet. And yes, Minnie Driver can be sometimes only mildly tolerable, whining and moping around with a distorted sense of her own looks (no one can see that scar anyways!). But what I really like about this movie is that it’s strongly intergenerational, and accurately depicts the nuances of the support system of varied friend/familial relationships in a person’s life. Very few romantic comedies ever do this. Grace Briggs (Driver) is a young woman who lives with her grandfather, and associates mainly with his slew of geriatric, yet oddly hormonally driven friends. Her best friend is a married with kids older woman, tied to the realistically brutish James Belushi. The dynamics of their own marital bliss (?) serve to reflect a true enough portrait of married life, including Bonnie Hunt’s believable human emotions (i.e., frustration and bitter loneliness) while still maintaining some sentimental romantic qualities of their own. All of these character’s manage to depict, with accuracy and depth, yet entertaining sentiment, the multitude of ways that people’s outside relationships bear weight on their romantic decisions and eventual consequences of those around them. Add to that the fact that this movie isn’t overly stylized or sexual, but gentle and gradual in developing the bonds between the two main characters, and it’s as wholesome and family friendly a RomCom as you can get.

And now, because all this foo-fooness has caused me to throw up in my mouth, here is my list of the all-time worst, misleading, incredibly fluffy, blonde and dumb romantic comedies of all time. I realize there might not be five on the list, I actually haven’t seen that many RomCom’s to begin with, so if my lists are short, maybe it’s a good thing. Oh, and be warned – some of these may be on your list of favorites, and I’m about to skewer them alive. So sue me.

P.S. I Love You – Really? After weeks of bitter mourning for your dead (albeit totally hot) husband, just a few letters are enough to snap you back to reality, hard enough to justify drunken karaoke and trips to Ireland?? This movie is completely inplausable. Hillary Swank is unsympathetic, which is tough for a young widow to pull off. And there’s not quite enough of Gerard Butler or Jeffery Dean Morgan to justify this piece of overly emoting fluff. One critic said it best when he wrote “PS I Love You is a teary, unabashedly sappy, romantic comedy with every element as purely calculated to appeal to a heterosexual woman's romantic fantasies as an episode of "All My Children."

Must Love Dogs – More of a bad sitcom, than a bad movie (though it was that enough as well) this overly wrought turn at depicting the search for love past your twenties seems contrived, underutilizes it’s talented cast, and has hardly a sympathetic moment.

That one with Jennifer Aniston where she plays tennis and is from Pasadena. AND I’m FROM PASADENA!! This one is so bad that I can’t even remember the name of it – I must have blocked it from my mind.

The Break-Up (2006) - It’s tough for me to knock this one, due to Vince Vaughn’s ever towering presence. Yet, instead of a emotionally detailed story of marital complications, this movie left me feeling sick to the stomach at the trite and catty ways that the characters use to make each other miserable. Specifically Jennifer Aniston. Call me old fashioned, but shouldn’t her character have worked just as hard at making their relationship work, as she did on ruining it or exacting payback on a vacant and non-present Vaughn? All this movie managed to do was show two people demonstrating the glaringly obvious ways that time and sin have driven men and women from their natural and God-given purposes in relation to one another. He was unconcerned and distant. She was naggy, catty and bitter. Watching their heartless bickering and incessant mind games for two hours was far from funny. It was downright depressing and cynical.

BTW - Do we see a Jennifer Aniston trend starting here?

Ok, for the sake of brevity, and because I desperately need a nap, here are my two last runners up:

Maid In Manhattan (2002) - Jennifer Lopez had more chemistry with a can of Pledge than with Ralph Fiennes in this flop. His take on a senator was like watching paint dry, and are we really supposed to believe that she would not get found out in vetting, for the poseur that she was.

How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days (2003) - Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson piddle their way through this RomCom that wasn’t particularly romantic or funny. Watching the movie made me cringe as I felt trapped in their farce of an irritating, cliché ridden relationship. And all the lies, in the end, made for a morally bankrupt show rather than a sympathetic plot twist.

So there you have it folks – my opinions loud & clear. Enjoy! And don’t forget to go see 500 Days of Summer, the anti RomCom romantic comedy starring Zoey Deschanel (who I want to be when I grow up) this weekend. J Shameless Plug!

1 comment:

Heather said...

Good post, Trin. For the most part, I am right there with you. In theory I am FULLY with you - though I may be a little more open to the average romcom than you. I did enjoy HTLAGin10Days. But that was back when Matthew McConaughey playing Matthew McConaughey was somewhat charming and interesting. Now that he has played the EXACT same character - himself - in ten more movies, I'd rather not see him ever again.
P.S. PSILoveYou was one of the WORST movies ever. And not just because it has Hillary Swank in it. I almost barfed with the whole kiss scene at the end. Because you really can tell if you are meant to be with someone forever simply by kissing them. :) Lame.