Thursday, August 13, 2009

Excusing the Flaws for the Butterflies

There’s a key moment near the end of “Runaway Bride” in the middle of a montage of the all important "self-discovery." Julia Robert’s Maggie Carpenter finally makes an important life decision: she has picked her favorite kind of eggs. This is how we know she is learning about herself and becoming “her own person.” In the midst of a heartfelt montage set to “Blue Eyes Blue,” Maggie settles down to kind out what HER favorite kind of eggs are. Because all her life, her favorite kinds of eggs have been dictated by a man. Aw, snap.

Here we see Maggie with her many varieties of eggs. (Do you know the best way to eat eggs, Maggie? When they’re still warm and they haven’t been sitting on your counter for the past 20 minutes while you were cooking all the OTHER kinds of eggs!)

Okay, but seriously. She couldn’t be independent or learn about herself without realizing that eggs benedict are her favorite? This whole concept is pretty much ridiculous. I mean really. Come. On.

But, it must be said: I still love this movie. How could I not? It takes place in a small town, Ike owns a cat named “Italics,” he pushes her in a tire swing, Joan Cusack plays a quirky character named Peggy Flemming (not the ice skater)…what's not to love? As much as I’d like to just dismiss this movie… I can’t.

Isn’t that always the way with romantic comedies like this? You somehow excuse the nonsensical and the cheese for the overarching story. That’s the struggle I have with "rom-coms." As a movie fan, I really wish I could say I didn’t enjoy them. That I could scoff and turn my attention back to some serious Oscar contender or prestigious independent film.

But we watch movies as a form of escapism, right? Well, what are romantic comedies but just another form of escapism? They take us to a world where famous movies stars bump into average working class Englishmen on the street and fall in love. Where a newspaper reporter would actually be doing a story on a woman because she had been in a large amount of weddings and then they’d fall in love. Where a newspaper reporter would actually be doing a story that required them to go undercover as a high school student. Where of course they would meet a dreamy teacher that looks an awful lot like Michael Vartan. And then they’d fall in love.

I think you get the idea.

But still, even amidst the endless clichés and rom-com standards, we’re apparently still reeled in, aren’t we? Somewhere along the way, all the unrealistic moments and ridiculous plot points somehow dissolve into a cinematic form of magic that draws you into the story and envelopes you in frothy and sparkly escapism. We excuse the flaws for the butterflies, and in so doing, allow these movies to get away with much more than they rightfully should.

Take “The Holiday,” for instance. Now I know I’ve written about this movie before, and mentioned my negative feelings about Cameron Diaz’s storyline. Her acting is laughable, the situations her character finds herself in are seventeen kinds of ridiculous, and the romantic chemistry between her and Jude Law utterly lacking. But I couldn’t love this movie without finding some redeeming factors in those scenes (other than Jude Law, of course).

Enter the sublime Sophie and Olivia, Graham’s (Law) adorable English daughters who are devastatingly charming as they laugh at Dad’s “Mr. Napkin Head” and ooh and ah over the lovely Amanda (Diaz). One of my favorite parts finds Amanda, Graham, and the girls sprawled on a sea of pillows underneath a homemade blanket tent staring up at a collection of lazily drifting paper stars. It’s saccharine sweet and almost too over the top, but I can’t resist the delicate soundtrack, the soft orange-yellow glow of the tent, and those darling little girls- did I mention they’re English??

As they lie in quiet comfort, their conversation meanders through the name of Amanda’s lip gloss and the idea of a sleepover to the sweet revelation of the dad and daughters’ nickname for their little family: the Three Musketeers. This one scene elevates this entire storyline far above where it deserves to be, and truthfully nearly saved the movie for me. (Although all credit cannot go to the homemade tent scene, because I am far more enraptured with Kate Winslet’s next door neighbor Arthur telling her she has “gumption.” And of Jack Black writing her movie theme for her. I mean, seriously—he used only the good notes! GAH!)

It’s this balance of flaws and irresistible moments that I am fascinated by. Consider another favorite of mine, “Sweet Home Alabama.” It’s chock full of every cliché in the book, and yet I love it. The plot concerns New York fashion designer Melanie (Reese Witherspoon) returning to her Alabama roots to settle unfinished business with her family and friends before she can get married. It’s not the most high concept romantic comedy out there (it’s no simultaneous bet to get a girl to fall in love with you/get a guy to break up with you in a certain allotted time farce), but there are enough southern hijinx here to definitely make me wonder why I love this movie. Look, I definitely understand that there are people out there that live and talk like these characters, but they’ve pulled out every colloquialism and caricature in the book! Melanie’s dad throws out “bought air” and “ice box” in his first five minutes, while Mom talks about “Oh-pree” and the teller at the bank refers to ATMs as “them thangs.” Her parents names are EARL and PEARL. Et cetera, et cetera.

For all its flaws, and even though some of the dialogue makes me cringe, (like "Why didn't you tell me you came to New York?" "I needed to make something of myself!”), I can truly sit down and watch “Sweet Home Alabama” any time at all. Despite the ridiculous and over-the-top accents and archetypes, I adore these characters- Patrick Dempsey as Melanie’s New York fiancé is “just the ticket!” And Reese Witherspoon and Josh Lucas light up the screen every time they share a scene together. The story is fun and cute, and characters like Candice Bergen’s Mayor Hennings are a complete hoot. Truly though, I am just in love with the ending. Oh, that ending! It’s the textbook reunion/apology/happily ever after kiss, yes, but here we are also trated to soaring violins, slow motion camera work, glittering rain, and Melanie’s gorgeous wedding dress- all on a beach. Swoon! Seriously, wow. I am such a girl.

You can find it in almost any romantic comedy: redemption for all the crazy coincidences and unrealistic, manufactured scenes. Enough sweet moments to balance out the eye-rolling and head-scratching quotes and clichés that pile up and threaten to overwhelm the delicate and romantic scenes to which so many of us unrealistically aspire. That’s why I can excuse the eggs. I can see through my own eye-rolling (harder than you’d think) to the heart of the movie, and let myself escape to a world where guys might actually do Jimmy Stewart impressions in the park.


Ginger said...

Unfortunately, this argument still does not excuse "Confessions of a Shop-a-holic" - or me for paying to see that movie.

I'm a sucker for little British girls. That scene in "Love Actually" with the girls wanting carol singing.... yeesh!

Well played.

Katie said...

Great post, Val. I loooove rom-coms, as you know, and these are great thoughts on why we love them. I actually like the eggs, though - to me they're a quirky detail that helps show the audience that Maggie's trying to figure herself out.

And the tent scene in The Holiday? Makes me cry. Every. Time.

dc said...

Runaway Bride is STILL my favorite romantic movie. Great post... stick up for the helpless romantic in all of us.

"Where's she goin'?"
"Wherever it is, she'll be there by 10 a.m. tommorra."

christina said...

Stumbled across your blog and totally loved this post! I can sympathize with your heart in this matter- haha!