Snobbery, Actually: In Defence of Romantic Comedies

I’ve been preparing my end of year stuff and maybe one further review, but I felt compelled to write after my various social feeds blew up with mocking guffaws and gleefully typed smuggery. So, this article has been doing the rounds lately. I’m not here to tear down a writer far more talented and successful than I am or anything. It’s a well-written, funny piece that raises some decent points. I read it as satirical, but judging from the reactions, people are taking it dead seriously. In any case, I can’t shake the feeling the big picture is being missed, either by the writer or the people sharing it as a long-awaited kick to the ribs of a film they don’t like.

I don’t mind rom-coms at all. In general, they have a simple tale to tell and unspool a familiar yarn to a satisfactory conclusion. I have a problem with bad rom-coms that don’t even try to tell a proper story, but Love Actually isn’t one of them. It’s not the greatest, but it’s decent enough. The article keeps banging on about a lack of female personalities and points the finger at Richard Curtis, who fucking dares to have a penis:

“None of the women in this movie fucking talk. All of the men in this movie “win” a woman at the end. This goddamn movie.”

“This is a movie made for women by a man.”

Thing is, this is pretty much all rom-coms, regardless of main character focus or gender. Y’see the main narrative thrust of a romantic comedy is that character A and character B will get together, but not before they deserve that relationship. Character A must undergo a personal transformation to be worthy of Character B’s love. Or vice versa. The relationship is the prize, not the person as such. Yeah, it’s stupid and childishly simplistic, but that’s what people want. Sometimes, Character A will realise two-thirds of the way through that they just had to be themselves and ride a self-esteem engine to Relationship Town. This is barely one step above the “believe in yourself” bullshit a lot of kids’ films trot out. These aren’t soul-searching thinky pieces and as such, don’t do well when coldly dissected. Plus, that whole “made for women by a man” thing- why can’t Curtis to be taken to task on his own merit (or lack thereof) rather than his gender? A lot of female-focused rom-coms are written by women and are completely fucking terrible. Having the corresponding genitals to your audience does not make you able to write good characters of either sex.

Love Actually does have a problem with its female characters, for sure. It also has a problem with its barely-there male characters too. Romantic comedy characters are sketched in the broadest terms. They are very rarely complex, realistic or grounded. Y’know why? Because rom-coms exist for the purposes of projection. You are meant to identify with the lead and project yourself onto them so that when they finally hook up with their dream fella/ladyfella you are satisfied by proxy. It’s cathartic. What you’re basically watching is a live-action cartoon, filled with exaggerated people with amplified emotions. You are happy that your avatar has got their dreamboat and you walk away with hope the same will happen to you. Most rom-coms go for the low-hanging fruit. “Here’s our heroine!”, they simper, “She’s clumsy and quirky and awkward in social situations!”. Pfft. Name me one person who doesn’t think they’re any of those things. There’s normally some artistic flair thrown in for good measure, because every bastard who has ever lived would like to think that they’re creative in some capacity. On the flipside, if our lead is a guy, he’s usually too much of a manchild who totally doesn’t want to get tied down, bro. These characters are the equivalent of a daily horoscope i.e. detailed and complimentary enough so you think it relates to you, but vague enough so there’s some wiggle room and can apply to as many people as possible. It’s safe escapism. It’s like fast food- empty calories, but good to indulge in once in a while.

Rom-coms are comforting. If the endless sequels, remakes and adaptations that made up the list of this year’s highest grossing films didn’t tip you off, people like knowing what they’re getting. I was chatting to my grandmother about some short story she’d read in one of her magazines. It consisted of a woman who moves to a new area, gets to know the handsome town vet (after saving a kitten in the snow). There were various misunderstandings (and maybe something to do with him getting over a dead wife, I can’t remember) but eventually they fell in love and got married. Of course they did. I was rolling my eyes until she concluded the story by saying “It was lovely.” in such a warm and genuine way, I felt like a real rat bastard. I realised that’s what it should be like. It’s the same reason I actually quite like the Fast & Furious series (quick shameless plug), I’m not there for the fucking turgid dialogue or threadbare story, I’m there for the goddamn vroom-vroom. The audience knows what it wants. As I said before, that’s no excuse to not tell a good story or to half-arse it, but it’s a handy framework to build your project on.

So, that’s what I have to say about that. Bringing it back to Love Actually, you can’t not award at least some points for a film that features this track. You just can’t.

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