Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday Films: The Casablanca Effect

This week, a pair of interesting columns popped up in the New York Times and the Washington Post talking about the current cinematic landscape, particularly in terms of romantic comedies.  Over at the NYT, Maureen Dowd has a conversation with author Sam Wasson, wondering how romantic comedies went from Bringing up Baby to The Bounty Hunter.  A valid concern, I'd say.  In the past ten years, romantic comedies tend to be the same old thing, reheated and reconstituted to pretend they're not the same old thing.

In the Post, Jen Chaney argues that there have been a few romantic comedies in the past that break the mold and end up changing the genre enough to be interesting and enjoyable.  She cites (500) Days of Summer and Up in the Air, both of which I really enjoyed.  To that list I would add one of my favorite movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  I don't know if that really counts as a romantic comedy, but it's a movie about two people falling in love, told in reverse.  But what don't these movies have?

Happy endings.

Spoilers ahead, if you haven't seen these movies.

In "(500) Days of Summer," we are warned right up front: "this is not a love story."  It's about a relationship, about the course of falling in and out of love.  Sure, the ending has Joseph Gordon Levitt meeting a girl and the possibility of another story (visualized by resetting the "day count" back to "1"), but the real plot is about getting together and falling apart.  "Up in the Air" is about a closed-off man opening up and getting hurt by a woman he falls for.  And even though the two characters get together at the end of "Eternal Sunshine," we all know it could be a very turbulent path.  I believe an alternate ending had them erasing each other and meeting, over and over.

What does it mean that the better romantic comedies have a streak of cynicism, of admitting that things just don't work out like they do (for lack of a better phrase) in the movies?  Maybe they're a reflection of their time, or maybe it's just a way of going against the crop of lame and boring romantic comedies that keep on popping up, year after year.  I really don't know for sure.  But I know it's not the first time there have been a lot of romantic comedies where people don't get together: the 1960s had a ton.  Sam Wasson even talks about Annie Hall, a movie that works so well because they don't end up together. 

I'm not trying to figure out why these movies tend to be better--I guess I'll just sum it up as "The Casablanca Effect," where there's something more honest and more identifiable without that happy ending.  The idea is that the story continues offscreen, which somehow becomes more romantic.

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