Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Summer of love

The romantic comedy needs an overhaul. Not unlike the horror genre, which many would consider its polar opposite, the romcom has a bad reputation, and unfortunately it's often justified. There are some good horror movies, but many of them are awful, relying as they do on gimmickry, gore, and extremely tired formulas. Similarly, romantic comedies frequently err on the side of color-by-numbers plotting and character development that hold few surprises for the viewer. And since that's precisely the opposite of what love is actually like, it's easy to get cynical. The last cardboard Hollywood romcom I saw, He's Just Not That Into You, combined a lifeless, unintelligent script with meager direction and underwhelming performances from stars who should know better. Movies like this are why people love to hate romantic comedy, dismissing it as a frothy genre stuffed with untruths, the big-screen equivalent of the Harlequin novel.

The Stranger once declared Annie Hall the best romcom ever, and it's hard to disagree. Woody Allen's masterpiece captures the awkwardness and serendipity of dating (in the famous first-kiss sequence, for example), the hope that love inspires, and the way two people can grow apart slowly but surely -- and how hard it can be to let go of the other person, even when you know, in your heart and in your head, that you should. Annie Hall is funny and insightful, yet for all its intelligence it maintains a breezy tone. It's tremendously well structured; every corner of the film, every scene, every moment, is packed with signifiers and color and throwaway jokes and sharp observations. Yet despite its density, it's always a joy to watch, never a slog. It's the kind of movie I can't see too many times, the kind I have to watch until the end if I happen to find that it's on. It doesn't pretend that love is a simple undertaking, but it also captures love's simple pleasures, which are many if you're open to them. For anyone who's been in love and hopes to be again, Annie Hall is a touchstone and a virtual bible of relationship wisdom. With that film as the gold standard, many newer ones understandably -- but still regrettably -- fall short.

Enter 500 Days of Summer, one of the movies I'm most eagerly anticipating at SIFF this year. When I taught an Experimental College class at Oberlin on contemporary (post-Annie Hall) romantic comedies, I sought to include films that didn't conform too much to genre tropes. When Harry Met Sally..., that immortal statement about male-female friendship, was one movie I chose; High Fidelity, about how relationships shape and reveal us, was another. I titled the class "Chasing Love," which I hoped would contain both a whiff of Shakespeare's "What fools these mortals be!" perspective (the Bard, after all, is the source of many romcom tropes) and an intimation of the timeless emotional slapstick to be found in our pursuit of romance.

What Summer promises is a tale of unrequited love. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt falls for Zooey Deschanel (and who wouldn't?), but she doesn't fall quite so hard for him. Hard enough, it seems, to date him for the titular 500 days, but not so hard that she won't cut him loose after that. Gordon-Leavitt is an actor who's played both jaded rebels (Mysterious Skin) and downy innocents (The Lookout), and judging from the trailer he'll be working on the latter end of the spectrum this time around. Deschanel has played jaded to another actor's innocence (Elf and Almost Famous), but this role will require more nuance, and I'm sure she's up to the challenge.

What makes me optimistic about the movie is that it seems intent on doing what one of my favorite books, Blankets, does so beautifully: reminding us that love, real love, is heartbreaking whether or not it lasts, and regardless of whether it's requited. (The movie's lovely tagline offers a clue: "This is not a love story, it's a story about love.") Whether it's easier to be the adored or the adorer is an open question, but to open yourself so wide emotionally is always a trial. Of course, it's a trial that's good for us, but how many times will we submit to it before we turn away forever?

Charlyne Yi, the heroine of Paper Heart (which also stars Michael Cera, and is also at SIFF), thinks she's done with love. The film's mock-documentary approach was hard for me to grasp at first, based only on the trailer; I thought it was a fictionalization of a real relationship between Yi and Cera. In any case, Yi might well stand in for the cynical viewer who's ready to snipe at the first false note in a romcom. Justin Long giving a last-minute speech on Ginnifer Goodwin's doorstep, confessing his true love? Yeah, whatever. Paper Heart seems to be saying that even if we give up on chasing love, there's nothing stopping love from coming after us when we least expect it.

Finally, Adam (at SIFF as well) reveals the personality quirks that populate ordinary romcoms (Sally's habit of ordering everything on the side in When Harry Met Sally..., for example) to be molehills compared to the mountainous task of loving someone with bigger challenges. The film's title character has Asperger's, and the trailer suggests that his condition gets the kind of treatment -- sympathetic, but not sugarcoated -- that 500 Days and Paper Heart try to give romance in general. I've not yet seen any of these films, but I have reason to believe that they could help revitalize one of my favorite genres. Here's hoping.

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