39: Romantic Comedies
Gareth Higgins on ROMANTIC COMEDIES
At first glance Ticket to Paradise, which stars Julia Roberts and George Clooney as estranged spouses forced to spend a few days together in Bali, seems to be an old-fashioned romantic comedy. Beautiful people in beautiful locations, thrust together by unexpected circumstances, working through the arc of their power struggle and ending up happily ever after. We expect that being - and they are - forced to focus on a vulnerability beyond themselves - in this case, the daughter for whose wellbeing they fear - will lead them to remember all the things that worked about their relationship and why they were together in the first place. They’ll face risk (being stuck overnight in an island jungle without shelter), they’ll share blame (being found out for trying to thwart the daughter’s own romantic aspirations), they’ll have a tender moment or two, they’ll recoil from it, they’ll be called upon to do something selfless for another, and then something will happen to convince them that no matter what, they were always better together than apart.
And indeed that is what we get - but there’s something unexpected, too, in Ticket to Paradise. Very little about the movie is believable, but you could say the same about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the prototypical romantic comedy. The genre doesn’t lend itself to realism, although the best romantic comedies do actually say something truthful about how humans relate to each other, and how, in the end real love does conquer all. But what stands out for me about Ticket to Paradise is that what is realistic are the sidebars and grace notes - a storyline about a piece of unsold land, a speech at a wedding; and especially when the moment of reconciliatory decision that I’d been expecting all along turns out to occur in a manner that I didn’t expect at all. What it does differently, and what feels most real about Ticket to Paradise is what made it enjoyable. That’s no easy task - I’ve long felt that the hardest kind of film to make well is a believable comedy; one that makes us laugh while also feeling like we can see ourselves in it, no matter how slapstick or over the top the story. Fantastical romantic comedies that do the trick include Raising Arizona, Amélie, Roxanne, Groundhog Day, There’s Something About Mary, and The Princess Bride - each of which can reduce me to happy tears of recognition that the only thing crazier than letting yourself fall in love with another is not to.
The original meaning of the word “comedy” is not far from simply “to amuse”, so a romantic comedy needs laughter (of course), connection between characters who endear themselves to us (often through self-deprecation), and a notion of love transcending obstacles (or at least confronting them). When I look at my favorite romantic comedies, a happy ending usually seems necessary - with one exception. Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is what some would call a tragicomedy, in that it’s full of humor and fantasy, but by the end of that amazing movie that has a character jump off the screen to requite the love of an oppressed fan (Mia Farrow), only to have her be rejected by his real-world counterpart, the love that conquers for its protagonist will only exist in her mind. Steve Martin’s L.A. Story is a kind of inversion of The Purple Rose of Cairo - a man on the other side of the screen discovers his deeper humanity - and a soulmate - by listening to supernatural instructions hidden in an electronic billboard. Both of them feel transcendent to me: they take me beyond myself, touch me with the bittersweet ache for what cannot be, and overwhelming gratitude for what can.
After Purple Rose… and L.A. Story, the romantic comedies which seem to me the fullest expression of the medium can induce a feeling of wellbeing just thinking about them.
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