The Love Story Which Dare Not Speak Its Name
Shhhhh! Two of the biggest crowd-pleasers this summer are romantic comedies. But don’t tell anyone. It’s kind of a secret, even to the movies themselves.
First there was the anti-chick-flick ad campaign for ‘Bridesmaids’ (posters which declared “Chick flicks don’t have to suck!”) blatantly throwing Bridget Jones under the bus in order to attract a coveted male audience. ‘Friends with Benefits’ goes one step further, mocking the conventions of romantic comedies while adhering to many of their biggest clichés.
Not that I didn’t like it. I enjoyed the movie, and not just because of my Justin Timberlake crush, which is ten years old now and not going anywhere. I like romantic comedies, I acknowledge and appreciate their conventions, and I’m not going to apologize for it.
Despite the inclusion of some hip techno-gadget gags (much to do with iPhone aps and touch screens) there’s nothing revolutionary about ‘Friends with Benefits’. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the plot and also probably the ending. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis play two overactive New York professionals who, despite being gorgeous and charming, are too damaged to properly date (he has commitment issues, she’s been jerked around by men) so they make the rational (drunken) decision to have a casual sexual relationship.
It all seems eerily familiar, not just like the Ashton Kutcher-Natalie Portman movie of a little while ago, but, especially as the two leads discuss whether sex was a mistake the morning after, like ‘When Harry Met Sally’ (1989), the uber-romantic comedy which set the template for the genre for at least the following decade.
Mila Kunis’s character is a guy’s girl, of course, who drinks beer from the bottle, swears, convinces herself she’s comfortable with casual sex, and lazes around on the couch with JT, mocking a fake romantic comedy with cameos by Jason Segal and Rashida Jones. (The presence of Segal makes the movie within a movie look like the cheesy romantic comedy the new Muppet movie was pretending to be in teaser trailers.) In addition to the running gag of the faux-film, the characters of ‘Friends with Benefits’ routinely contrast their lives to movies. All of their disparaging of romantic comedies apparently blinds them to the fact that they’re in one as they hit all the major plot points (meeting the parents, mid-movie fight, climatic reconciliation, in Grand Central Station, no less!).
It’s either very unaware of its self or incredibly post-modern, but either way where do we go after romantic comedies feel they must ridicule and reject all the genre’s conventions, only to rely on them in the schmaltzy final act? And even if they do succeed at getting 19-year old boys into the cinema, the largest audience for romantic comedies continues to be people who actually like romantic comedies, and why should the film-makers mock them for that?
In contrast, films like ‘Transformers 3’, a three-hour epic of CGI explosions but who’s best special effect was actress Rosie Huntington-Whitely (who’s clearly too hot to be real), don’t have to apologize for being action movies. They are unabashedly clichéd techno-porn, the geeky hero grasping the hand of the blonde chick as they jump away from a background filled with orange fire. Having seen my fair share, I can tell you guy movies are no less stupid or predictable than chick flicks.
Recent romantic comedies are like the commitment-phobic lead, treating us fans like the clingy girlfriend. They sure like having us audience around but they’re not ready to put a label on it, too afraid to admit (to themselves, let alone their fans) the type of movie we know deep down in our hearts they are.