Everyone’s had that moment—maybe a bus drove past and splashed you, or a fetching stranger picked up a receipt you dropped at Starbucks—when you say to yourself, “This feels just like a romantic comedy. If this were a movie, something incredible would come out of this.”
Unfortunately, it’s rare these days that you watch a romantic comedy and say, “Wow, this really reminds me of real life.” They don’t. More often the stories and the human behavior remind you of sitcoms, which usually remind you of what the world would be like if every conflict was as juvenile and dramatic as possible. I enjoy a good “Friends” rerun as much as anyone, but needless to say there’d be no show, especially in the mediocre later seasons, if the gang spent even half of its time acting like normal adults. With all due respect to the Holiday Armadillo.
Take last weekend’s number one movie “Think Like a Man,” a reasonably funny story in which men are largely reduced to conniving liars with an agenda and women serve as uptight planners with whom the guys constantly do battle. The film suggests that Steve Harvey, of all people, possesses an abundance of wisdom about what makes relationships work, and virtually every interaction between couples can be described as, at best, some form of immature failure to communicate or, at worst, shenanigans that wouldn’t be insightful to anyone who’s graduated junior high.
The contrived situations are even worse in the recent zero-star atrocity “L!fe Happens,” starring and co-written by Krysten Ritter of “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23.” Aside from dialogue that would have been dismissed from “Dawson’s Creek” as wildly overwritten and forced (“Douche-nozzle”? “Sleaze-weasel”? Really?), “L!fe Happens” treats the beginning of a relationship as a series of hapless, irresponsible choices and self-serving deceit, no matter what it means for the duped potential significant other, the taken-advantage-of friends or a child that could really use its parent’s attention. Certainly, the start of a relationship can come with plenty of awkwardness and false starts and, I guess, some finessing of the truth/past. But when’s the last time you saw a movie confront that hopeful struggle in a way that felt moving and real and not incredibly stupid?
Fortunately, in this week’s “The Five-Year Engagement,” we get some relief from the recent onslaught of romantic comedy catastrophe. Giving a speech to her newly engaged daughter (Emily Blunt) and son-in-law-to-be (Jason Segel), Sylvia (Jacki Weaver) notes that people think life will turn out like a Tom Hanks romantic comedy, but it’s usually closer to “Saving Private Ryan” or “Philadelphia.” That’s extreme, obviously, and whether or not the movie ends in a manner closer to “You’ve Got Mail” than “The Da Vinci Code” isn’t the point. I’m just always happy when movie characters recognize that high-concept onscreen romanticism occurs more often on the screen, and that they don’t have to act like the selfish dopes we so often see in the genre. Few movies are as self-aware as the funny, sexy"Friends with Benefits," which acknowledged the phoniness of most romantic comedies and was ironically written by the same folks as"Think Like a Man."
That many of these better, smarter characters wind up pursuing some form of big, cinematic gesture anyway speaks less to its connection to reality or lack thereof than the continued idealization of the kind of love the movies have conditioned us to want. What they don’t show nearly as often is that something small and thoughtful may have just as big an impact, if not bigger, when applied to the right person. After all, who even owns a boombox anymore to hold outside someone’s house?
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