Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Love, Actually Turns Ten as Critics Declare Death of the Romantic Comedy

For five or six years now, our Christmas Eve tradition has been to wrap presents and drink eggnog while watching what has quickly become a holiday classic, Love, Actually. The British ensemble rom-com has reached the decade mark in 2013, and that milestone seemed to touch off debate about the health of the genre Love, Actually so perfectly encapsulates. Is Love, Actually a really great movie? Or is it the worst romantic comedy every?  Is it destined to become a Christmas holiday classic on par with It's a Wonderful Life or Christmas Story? Or is the movie overrated and deserving of all the controversy?  As Love, Actually turns ten, have we seen the apex, decline, and death of the romantic comedy?

The romantic-comedy is a truly classic American film genre which actually has its roots at least as far back as Shakespeare and his classic "Much Ado about Nothing." The romantic-tension fueled bickering of Beatrice and Benedict is the foundation of practically every version of how "Harry Met Sally."  While the genre has often been derided as fluff filmmaking and nothing more than "chick flicks," the rom-com can be an incredibly rich character study that frames the battle of the sexes as representative of the human condition and the struggle for identity. And contemporary filmmakers can provide entertaining satire and social criticism as well as any Jane Austen novel. In fact, when I begin teaching her classic Pride and Prejudice, I open the discussion with several clips from the non-fiction-book-turned-romantic-comedy He's Just Not that Into You. And despite contempt from some critics and the claims by many men that they would never watch such films if their girlfriends didn't make them, nearly everyone has a favorite scene or example of the genre.

Movies like Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, Crazy Sexy Love, or 500 Days of Summer are tough to criticize as nothing but cheesy romance. They are often deeply philosophical and psychological studies that ask tough question and do more than tug at our heartstrings - they can rattle our existential existence. And some would argue that in the contemporary age, the romantic-comedy is getting even better.  With the philosophical beauty of movies like Enough Said - the full film from gone-too-soon actor James Gandolfini - Kevin Craft argues at that "The Romantic Comedy Is Not Dead." I would argue the same about a nice little small-release gem starring Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly called Stuck in Love. More than a Rom-Com, it is a story of complicated relationships in a family led by a writer and his dysfunctional family who seemed to have "lost their plot." The story which contains some great writing about the metaphor of writing and storytelling is more than just a romance.

Of course, like any genre, there are plenty of really poor examples which tend to taint the field. And contemporary studios have begun to dilute the genre as much as they blur it when the rom-com becomes the rom-com action flick.  And any genre is ripe for cliche when Hollywood finds something that works.  Often the films are just cheesy escapism.  And, maybe that's OK.  As far as Love, Actually is concerned, the "carol singers" scene may be ripe for criticism as cheesy and overdone , but for me it is a classic rom-com romantic moment on par with John Cusack blasting Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes outside Ione Skye's window.

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