To commemorate Valentine’s Day, here’s a lamentation on the state of the romance genre in movies today…
I’m not your typical guy filmgoer. I can appreciate romance movies and chick flicks every bit as much as (and sometimes even more so than) women do. To me, a good film is a good film, regardless of genre.
And therein lies the problem.
In recent years, there’s been a serious dearth of genuinely good romantic films. At least by mainstream Hollywood. Please note that “romance movies” are a totally different concern from “love stories”. A romance is a genre in itself, which has all the conventions and trappings that make it what it is, whereas a love story can exist in any genre. For example, “The Terminator” is a gritty, violent science-fiction film featuring killer cyborgs. But at its heart it is a love story between a soldier from the future and the woman he’s been sent to protect.
So before I get into my lamentation, let’s establish the ground rules first. To qualify as a romance flick, the entire thrust of the story must be about an attraction between a man and a woman. I’m keeping it heterosexual, not because I’m anti-gay, but because the topic is strictly mainstream romance. So, as poignant and heartfelt as the cowboy love affair was in “Brokeback Mountain”, stuff like that doesn’t exactly scream date movie for Joe & Jane Public.
Another rule is that the film has to be marketed as a romance film. They’re easy to spot. Trailers for romantic-comedies always come with a breezy pop song du jour, and always have a cutesy tagline (eg: “Would you give first love a second chance?”). The posters for them almost always have the impossibly attractive couple in such close proximity that PAS Youth would immediately want to “ban this filth”.
Right. Now that we’ve got things clarified: do you know of any recent Hollywood films that fit this category… AND are solid films in their own right? I don’t. The ones that I’ve seen are anything but good. Guilty pleasures, perhaps. But certainly not intelligent, original, well-written works by any reasonable standard. The sad truth is that romance movies, especially rom-coms, stick to formula like glue. Why? Filmmaking by committee.
Hollywood showbiz is a business, first and foremost. And like all businesses, risk management is crucial. Before a film is premiered it goes through stringent focus group research. Opinions are sought. Requests are met. Boxes are ticked. Cliches are fulfilled. And so, at the thrilling climax, the ruggedly handsome Name Actor, realising he screwed up royally/still loves her, chases the quirky but gorgeous Name Actress to the airport/train station/church wedding, only to find out he’s too late… But wait! He’s not! She decides to give him a second chance, and they live happily ever after the end credits.
There’s a reason why this formula exists. It’s for the same reason why fast food is so popular. It’s light, it’s familiar, it gives the consumers exactly what they expect in a shiny, happy package. And just like fast food, too much of it is bad for you; yet no one really cares. At least not those with an undemanding palate. Forgive me for sounding elitist, but women (and men) viewers deserve better. Actually, the same malaise afflicts other genres as well, like action-adventure. It’s all formula nowadays, with the same belaboured emphasis on explosions and CGI over well-written characters and fresh ideas.
‘But I LIKE fast food movies’, you might say. ‘They make me happy, and I don’t have to think so much. They’re just easily consumable, forgettable fun.’ Absolutely. Romance movies nowadays are forgettable. But why should they be? We used to have UNforgettable romantic films. Have our standards dropped so low as to accept any templated, mass-produced nonentities from the Hollywood machine?
Quick, give me a memorable line of dialogue or a powerful emotional scene from any one of the following flicks: “She’s Out Of My League”, “The Bounty Hunter”, “Leap Year”, “The Back Up Plan”, “When In Rome”, “Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past”, “Did You Hear About The Morgans” or “Letters To Juliet”. I could go on (and on) but I think you get the drift.
Contrast that with something like “Ghost”. The film is filled with memorable dialogue and powerful emotional scenes. My favourite is the moment where the lovers, separated by the death of the hero, have one last slow dance together. It’s achingly beautiful. Besides featuring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze’s finest screen performances, the film is considered a genre classic. Speaking of the late, great Swayze, who can forget his role in the film many girls of the 90s consider their rite of passage into womanhood: “Dirty Dancing”. It wasn’t just the dance moves that were electric, there was a palpable erotic charge in every look and gesture between the leads. Now that’s the kind of stuff that gets you in the mood for love.
“Pretty Woman” is another great example. Richard Gere was so goddamn charming, even straight men were won over. And Julia Roberts has never been more lovable than she was here, playing the hooker with a heart of gold. What’s also essential to the film’s magic is that the writers were savvy enough to play with the conventions of the Fairy Tale. In the end, it is the damsel who “saves” the white knight by liberating his cold heart, and it’s a very empowering notion for women. Of course, nowadays every single chick flick is about female empowerment. But the irony is that these characters are not fulfilled until they get the man of their dreams. So it all rings hollow.
Ah. Then there’s the big daddy of romance movies, “Titanic”. Say what you will about James Cameron’s shaky grasp of sensitive, nuanced dialogue. The entire film was meant to be larger than life, as was the love story between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Everything was painted in broad, grand strokes. The important thing is, the romance worked. It recalled the kind of schmaltzy, old-fashioned love stories from the Golden Age of Hollywood that they don’t make any more. Literally.
A point to observe is that the classics I cited are all big Hollywood studio pictures. And most of them were still subjected to focus group testing. The crucial difference is, at their source, they were conceived as stories first and products second. Today, it’s the other way round.
Outside of today’s big studio system however, you will find quite a number of gems. “Once” is a delightful indie musical from 2006, about two struggling musicians who find each other through their songs. “Falling Slowly” is one of the most affecting ballads ever sung on screen. Its power lies in its simplicity and its honesty. No wonder it won an Oscar for Best Song.
Another favourite of mine is “(500) Days Of Summer”. Although released under the Fox Searchlight banner, this is very much an independent film in budget and in identity. Interestingly, the gender roles are reversed, making Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character the hopeless romantic and Zooey Deschanel the pragmatic, emotionally-detached one. I wasn’t terribly impressed by Deschanel’s performance, but Levitt is phenomenal. And director Marc Webb brought a whimsical visual style that really elevated the simple story of love found then lost. By the way, the somewhat downbeat ending would never have survived in the studio system. That’s exactly what makes it a great romance film. Love stories don’t always have to be about happy endings to be satisfying.
The depressing fact is that the more audiences support the big-budget studio-manufactured fluff, the less we’ll see of the indies that really engage both the intellect and the emotions. Personally, I believe there’s a place for the fast-food flicks, but even fast food companies are now moving towards healthier alternatives on their menu. Why shouldn’t it be the same with our choices for films? This decade sorely needs some classics of its own.
Or at the very least, romance films that are made with love.
Storyteller by trade and dreamer by nature, Wai has been deeply nuts about the celluloid world since the first time he discovered he could watch a story instead of reading it. But he likes writing about it. Wai goes by a single name because he likes to avoid any “Imperial entanglements” (a.k.a. “conflict of interest with the powers that be” for those of you who don’t speak Star Wars) in his employment. Plus, cool people use one-word names. He has just set up a movie website, the first of its kind in Malaysia, in an effort to foster greater filmic knowledge for the rakyat. Check out Electroshadow.