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Saibal Chatterjee: Bitter truths — The darker side of comedy
October 18, 2013
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Romantic comedies have been a surefire box office bet ever since the movie moguls stumbled upon the ‘love conquers all’ formula and figured out that it could be milked forever for handsome dividends. But some Hollywood screenwriters and directors seem to be tiring of the tried-and-tested conventions of the genre.

They are increasingly pushing in directions that the makers of the good old rom-com could never have imagined even existed. As a result, this much-loved narrative form is taking on darker shades and probing human impulses that border on the unpredictable – and the unsavory.

The shift isn’t all that surprising. We live in a world that is far more complex and demanding than not just the one that Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis inhabited in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot but also the universe that we saw in more recent Hollywood romantic comedies such as Pretty Woman and Sleepless in Seattle.

The contemporary rom-com is a new beast altogether because both the romance and the comedy are being palpably tempered with a touch of cynicism, if not an outright air of dismissal.

Hollywood rom-com plots are not only turning zanier, but also hitting unusually twisted trajectories. Many of them are no longer the feel-good cinematic confections of the Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan era. Today, sweet nothings either do not mean a thing or come firmly in tandem with bitter truths.

In the upcoming British film, About Time, a 21-year-old man (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers that he can travel in time. He uses his special power to get himself a girlfriend (Rachel McAdams), but winning her heart proves to be far more difficult than someone like him would expect.

It is significant that About Time has been helmed by Richard Curtis, the man who gave the world such memorable conventional romantic comedies as Love Actually and Notting Hill. He has clearly decided to move on. And it’s about time.

In Admission, which has brought Tina Fey and Paul Rudd together for the first time, the romantic track is marked by the presence of a love child that was given up for adoption by the now-prim and proper female protagonist.

I Give It A Year goes all the way and reverses the basic rom-com premise by beginning where most movies of the genre end. The film poses that inevitable question: what happens after the whirlwind romance and a fairy-tale wedding? The film turns the spotlight on the realities of marriage in a manner that no romantic comedy has ever done.

A decade ago, who would have ever imagined a rom-com with the word ‘death’ in the title? There has been one this year – The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman. The film has Shia LeBeouf as an impulsive young man who, fulfilling his deceased mother’s last wish, travels to Eastern Europe with no plan in mind.

He meets a mysterious Romanian woman Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood) and thinks he has found the girl of his dream. But he soon realises that she has a dark and disturbing past. And before he knows it, the man finds himself running for cover from the Romanian underworld.

Zombies infiltrated the rom-com space in Warm Bodies, a film starring Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer. The former is a zombie and the latter a human survivor – the two form a bond that, despite all the pitfalls on the way, could save the world.

But can the world really be saved when the male protagonist of a romantic comedy is addicted to pornography of all things? That is exactly the story in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, in which the actor-director plays Jon Martello who, in the character’s own words, cares for only “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my girls, my boys, and my porn”.

Don Jon, co-starring Scarlett Johansson, is positioned as one the fall season’s big-ticket romantic comedy. As is pretty obvious, the film does not take the established conventions of the genre too seriously.

It plays off a guy who consumes R-rated flicks against a girl who has been weaned on a diet of Hollywood rom-coms and asks a question about the different kinds of entertainment that America – and the world – is addicted to and how they impact lives.

From obsession with vicarious titillation to the actual scourge of sex addiction, it is only step away. Stuart Blumberg’s Thanks for Sharing, starring Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow, hinges on recovering sex addicts as they struggle to keep their failings at bay. Thanks for Sharing, which was released last year, was sold as a rom-com, but clearly not of the traditional kind.

Tom Gormican’s That Awkward Moment, scheduled for release next year, stars Zac Efron as a commitment-phobic man who will go to any length to evade putting the ‘official’ tag on a relationship. Falling in love and losing oneself in the joy of pure romance have lost their sheen. Negotiating self doubts, psychological frailties and emotional complications is now the name of the game.  

Not all these films are successful in making the transition from genre norms to the thornier facets of life, but the very fact that more and more such films seem to be getting into the marketplace is proof that the rom-com as we know it has grown up.
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