February 14, 2013

Breaking the Rom-Com Mold

Print More

Recently, some friends and I caught Silver Linings Playbook. For the proverbial person-under-a-rock who does not know, this David Russell film, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, is one of this year’s most talked-about Oscar contenders, having received nominations in all four acting categories — the first film to do so in three decades. Putatively, it’s a romantic comedy centered around the budding romance of Pat (Cooper) and Tiffany (Lawrence), but it distinguishes itself from the dross of its genre mates with its sensitive and down-to-earth depiction of mental illness. In short, critics loved it.

To our surprise, however, we did not. The credits rolling, we all filed out of the theater wondering what the fuss was all about. We did not question the technical accomplishment of the film or the deftness of its dialogue and the performances of the characters. For us, the film’s central conceit — establishing the romance between the two main characters as being sympathetic and relatable — had not worked. A friend of mine lamented the alienation she experienced from Pat’s frequent neuroses — and the flinty-eyed, acerbic miasma emanating from Tiffany at any given point in the movie. We could tell that they were real people suffering from very real problems, and Cooper and Lawrence comported themselves admirably. But the spark between them, well, it just didn’t shine through. For a film billed as a romantic comedy, the paucity of romantic chemistry seemed a failure.

Romantic comedies are often considered the insipid detritus of the Hollywood movie industry. By and large, they consist of an amalgamation of mass-manufactured, audience-pandering guilty pleasures, devalued by serious critics for a lack of originality, sensitivity and nuance. they are largely formulaic and predicated on a wholly unrealistic view of human relationships, and are derided as empty vessels for moviegoers to vicariously project their romantic fantasies onto a pair of attractive shells. Yet, for all the critical disdain they receive, they are nevertheless reliable crowd-pleasing money spinners. And in a way, despite our derision, they have come to influence the cultural zeitgeist of romantic norms. The ideal romance, through this contemporary lens, is a neo-traditionalist pairing between an attractive guy and a pretty girl who overcome a gimmicky plot device that threatens to keep them separate and voila, happy ending. This ideal romance is just that, ideal. But it’s not even a Platonic kind of ideal insofar as it is not a reflection of how things really work in the real world. These archetypal romances repeat themselves ad infinitum in ongoing iterations of the genre, becoming almost self-referential in the process. They begin to rely on visual and narrative cues that frequent rom-com watchers pick up on, an internal language that lubricates the narrative and makes it easier to swallow, like over-processed baby food. In the process of self-referentialism, they begin to fetishize the actors, rather than the characters; after Matthew McConaughey’s third or fourth film, for example, he begins to establish an archetype within the canon of romantic comedies. Roles become written to fill the personalities of actors, rather than vice versa, and this robs any semblance of authenticity they may futilely try to maintain.

That is not to say that all romantic comedies are bad movies. Many are good, technically accomplished, and feature good performances by dedicated actors. But our compass of judgment for rom-coms perhaps does not approach the reigning zeitgeist in a critical enough way. We rate rom-coms based on our romantic leads’ chemistry, likeability and relatability — both with relation to the audience and to one another — and upon how viable we think this relationship really is. Perhaps this is why we didn’t like the romance depicted in Silver Linings Playbook. It defies the genre conventions for romantic comedies. Neither of the two characters are likeable in the traditional sense; they’re deeply flawed and neurotic. They’re relatable, which is a different concept altogether, but the chemistry between Pat and Tiffany seems, if anything, muted at best. But really, do we expect most relationships to have that easily observable special spark, that love-at-first-sight, Cupid arrow-ridden moment of truth in which two people know they’re destined for each other? How many times have you looked at a couple and wondered what the hell keeps them together? What mutual shared interest? Is it just physical attraction? Indeed, the film hints at the possibility that the relationship between Pat and Tiffany is in large part a mutual carnal longing. Tiffany, on her second meeting with Pat, brazenly tells him to have sex with her in her secluded shack on her parent’s lawn, and the audience is often shown shots of Lawrence’s bosom from Pat’s wide-eyed point of view. Whatever the source of their mutual attraction is, it is not very apparent in the film per se, and we (my friends and I) took that as a failing. But what if it is really our preconceived idea of how romances should work out in film that’s coming into play? Why is it necessary that the spark of affection be outwardly manifested? Why shouldn’t it be possible that perhaps some intransmissible part of a character’s inner mind is responsible for constructing the internal mental architecture of attraction?

Perhaps that is the film’s response to the rom-com zeitgeist. It does not pretend to paint a relationship that’s relatable, quirky, charming, or even worthy of voyeurism. Its narrative and character-building strengths lie elsewhere. Instead, Silver Linings may have intended to suggest that not only is love blind; it cannot always be seen.

Original Author: Colin Chan