It’s hard not to enjoy a good romantic comedy. There’s a sort of whimsical guarantee about it, a promise of fulfillment: no matter what the obstacle, the good guy gets the good girl, and, if the universe is just, they’ll have two or three good children and live out a good life. A few attractive stars and a catchy title later, we have the perfect foundation for first dates, third breakups, and the biweekly girls’ night in. The very best will even have some flair of absurdity to them – just enough to make the story spectacular, but never so much as to make it unbelievable or the characters unattainable. To do so would break the mystique, the allure which makes us come back time and again.
And when it comes to the romantic comedy, Americans certainly have it right. We’ve always loved happy endings, and the mass-production of “happily ever after” has rarely, if ever, been better. In When Harry Met Sally (1989), the humorous pessimism of Bill Crystal’s character, Harry – a front which inspires commentary on the impossibility of male and female friendship – was matched by the sometimes naïve optimism of Sally, played by Meg Ryan. The two come in and out of one another’s lives at different points, but fate seems to work in their favor and, in an unlikely fashion, the two form a “friendship” which, unsurprisingly, cannot resist going further. The pair put on a performance which culminates (as these movies now all tend to do) in a single moment of impassioned speech in which Crystal praises a “crinkle above the nose” and a tendency to take “an hour and a half ” to order a sandwich.
This formula worked out again for Ryan almost a decade later when she and Tom Hanks put on another solid showing in You’ve Got Mail. Helped in no small part by a classy soundtrack, the film follows a similar sort of path: an unlikely couple finding themselves in an extraordinary circumstance. Hanks plays Joe Fox, the owner of Fox Books, a large chain bookstore which moves into the area next to a small, family-run bookstore owned by Ryan’s character. While the latter is run out of the business, the two were unknowingly venting to one another (and falling in love) over an online chat service. In a heartfelt speech given near the end of the movie, “Fox” tells her what it might have been like if they had met under different circumstances – how he would have asked for her phone number, taken her out coffee, drinks, or dinner, and tells her how “the only thing they’d fight about would be which video to rent on a Saturday night.”
But maybe we consider another film –2010’s Blue Valentine. The lovers, played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, follow a familiar route – average people, accidental run-ins, adorable ukulele-infused date scenes – but the movie actually follows them several years into their marriage. This is something comedies usually avoid; we simply assume a “happily ever after,” despite often not being shown one. Far from a happy ending, however, we see their marriage slowly crumble amidst jealousy, frustration, and the very real effect of two young people simply realizing that they don’t love each other anymore. Some of the scenes hurt to watch – one reviewer even called it “the most honest depiction of a relationship gone sour that has ever been committed to celluloid.” There is more to the hurt, however, than realism: we actually have a sense of why the relationship is failing. Their love was borne out of accident – Gosling was there when she needed him to be, and the two came together over that fact. This wasn’t an attempt at some great and noble “love,” it was just the first opportunity which presented itself.
This makes one wonder if comedy is really enough. Even from the greatest examples of the genre, we have to ask: when was the last time we were awed by love? Not in the sense of feeling our eyes well up a bit during the final embrace of You’ve Got Mail, but in the sense of a man like Shakespeare’s Antony telling us that he and Cleopatra “stood peerless” as lovers atop the world. Instead of characters who were simply attractive or humorous, these were characters that couldn’t help themselves from towering over us. “Joe Fox” wasn’t better than anyone watching the movie, and he didn’t hope for something more than anyone in the audience ought to hope for. Antony was the great Roman general who loved like no other, and Cleopatra was the Egyptian queen whose beauty stole air from the very Earth. Yet, characters such as these steal away the “hopefulness” that lies behind these comedies – the greater “guarantee.” Most of us will never be Antony, and so we settle for a Joe Fox. We still want our “one,” and thus we dream of delighting in things as mundane as coffee, Chinese food, and the occasional fight over which movie to rent. This is what we aspire to, and we are convinced that these things which are entirely average become, with “him” or with “her,” a magical sort of function. It satisfies that democratic sensibility for equality – it sets a goal for us that, in the case of many films, can be achieved almost accidentally. For the sake of this noble goal, we even consider doing ourselves the favor of “falling” in love.
None of this is meant as a statement completely against the romantic comedy: it is a genre which tells us something very true about ourselves and, certainly, about love itself. It accentuates the very real quirks and accidents of love – and this doesn’t seem to be an entirely bad thing. At the same time, however, it becomes a problem if the genre begins to define us entirely. We become lovers who expect love simply to “happen” to us. The results of this expectation are pervasive: the prevalence of easy and occasionally flippant love songs, the choice between “Mr. Right” and “Mr. Right Now,” and a general uncertainty about love’s role in a young person’s life. Indeed, if we were to truly consider the media of the times, it seems reasonable to ask our aspiring lovers: what exactly is it you want to aspire to?