"Everyone thinks their life’s going to end up like a romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks,” says Emily Blunt’s mother in The Five-Year Engagement. Instead, this voice of bitter experience warns, you will likely find yourself in Saving Private Ryan.
The best new examples of the rom-com, for so long Hollywood’s most conservative, misogynist genre, benefit from this realistic edge. Take This Waltz, out next week, is the most radical and poignant development yet, as Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen’s deeply loving marriage is unpicked by her desires, and a meeting with hunky neighbour (Luke Kirby).
It joins a trend in recent films such as Bridesmaids and Your Sister’s Sister, often written or directed by women, for protagonists to dread relationships, and stumble through loneliness, depression and bad sex in between newly truthful laughs.
“I feel like we deal a lot in fiction and films with the excitement of the beginning of a relationship,” Take This Waltz’s writer- director Sarah Polley considers of this fresh perspective, “and we never follow up and say: ‘What happens then?’ What happens to that intensity, where does it go? And can we live without it?”
The modern rom-com began with Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). This landscape was feminised by the late Nora Ephron with When Harry Met Sally… (1989), and skilfully mass-produced for TV by Friends. But Pretty Woman (1990) offered a more regressive, materialist fairy tale, and subsequent mainstream romcoms right up to Sex and the City 2 (2010) have been absurdly plotted hymns to lavish, fantasy weddings. Writer-producer Judd Apatow is one unlikely source of the rom-com’s rehumanisation.
Films such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) didn’t just offer crude slacker patter, but a warmly sympathetic sense of male longing. Their flaw, New Yorker critic David Denby noted of Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up, was that “like [Apatow’s] other heroines… she isn’t given an idea or a snappy remark or even a sharp perception.”
In a genre till then aimed at women, they remained wish-fulfilling ciphers, there to end up with schlubby Seth Rogen. The Apatow-produced Bridesmaids finally redressed this balance in the mainstream. The bridegroom is a mute irrelevance, and Wiig’s lovers pale next to her relationship with her female best friend.
Though the trad rom-com’s climax, a wedding, can’t be dodged, the sense of loss as the ceremony steals the friends’ independence lingers. “If we had a message,” said Wiig, “it was that we didn’t want people to think that you have to be married, because you don’t.”
The Five-Year Engagement, the Apatow-produced follow-up to Bridesmaids’ huge success, came closer to low-key naturalism. Co-written by star Jason Segel, the pressure of his and Emily Blunt’s serially postponed marriage, and the career compromises it demands, exhausts and poisons their love.
Her aghast awareness of the likelihood that she’ll have a child within two years of that wedding lingers more strongly than the feel-good finish. Wiig’s acting follow-up to Bridesmaids, Friends With Kids, written and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt, finds a couple so horrified at how children have rocked their friends’ marriages, that they have a child minus romance.
In her earlier film as writer, Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), Westfeldt starred as a woman so repulsed by male “freaks and morons” she dates a woman. Lars and the Real Girl (2007) movingly partnered Ryan Gosling, who “burns” with pain at human touch, with a sex doll.
“How many people do you know who can’t really operate with real human beings?” asked writer Nancy Oliver. The new romcoms welcome such social losers. Your Sister’s Sister’s writer-director Lynn Shelton favours “natural, authentic humour”, based on our “ poignant and heartbreaking” need to be loved.
In Lola Versus, Greta Gerwig also ambles through her love life with destructive haplessness.Outspokenly defending Lola Versus from its US detractors, the film’s co-creators Zoe Lister Jones and Daryl Wein noted, “older male critics don’t like messy unapologetic stories with women at the centre”.
True or not, these new female- defined rom-coms favour emotional irresolution and independence. Gerwig calls Lola Versus, which begins with a break-up, a “post-rom-com”. As Lister-Jones says, it isn’t “about a couple. It is about a woman. Trying to understand how not to be in a couple, and not to seek coupledom, as so many of us do.”
“Cinderella is what messes girls up,” Gerwig’s character realises, “because we all end up getting obsessed with shoes, and then we expect a man to put them on. I thought I was living in a fairy tale.”
The bravest of these films mine the majority of affairs which end in failure, not saying “I do” to Justin Timberlake. Lola Versus ends with Gerwig triumphantly not getting the boy. Take This Waltz is more deeply felt, and goes further.
Most of these new films offer sex as mortifying comedy, but after Michelle Williams’s “meet-cute” with Luke Kirby, their relationship drips with desire. Erotic need makes them helplessly betray her husband Seth Rogen. Roguishly crude in so many Apatow films, Rogen becomes a heartbroken adult here.
He and Williams realise, like Gerwig, that romance won’t save them, or change who they are. Williams’s, Gerwig’s and Wiig’s heroines may seem neurotic, needy, even nasty at times. Really, though, the men and women in these newly honest rom-coms are just messy, stumbling people, aching to be loved.
‘Take This Waltz’ is out on general release