By Josh Oakley
The romantic comedy never fully died. Like all things, it came in waves, positioning itself in the right frame for the right time. But if we take the modern era of the genre as beginning with When Harry Met Sally… (seems as good of a place as any), the current decade does begin to throw some red flags up. In the twenty years after that film’s release, only 1991, 1994 and 2001 failed to allow a romantic comedy to break the top twenty in the box office. Since The Proposal landed at #16 in 2009, only Bridesmaids has managed to crack into a top position (#14). That’s three years out of four hitting as many strikes as the previous two decades combined. There are still plenty lingering in the margins, but if 2013 is any indication on its own (and it likely is not, as these sorts of things go), the financial collapse of Harry and Sally’s New York may finally be upon us. Taking out animated films that may loosely earn the title of rom-com, the highest grossing entry is The Best Man Holiday at… #50. From a monetary standpoint, 2014 doesn’t seem much better in its offerings at this point. But there may be a different answer, one that speaks to an artistic rebirth rather than an economic one.
First, the deconstruction. For a rebirth to occur, something truly must die, beaten into the ground so the next cycle may begin. Enter: David Wain’s They Came Together, an absurdist rom-com parody in the vein of Wet Hot American Summer. The delirious film plunges into generic story-threads, from Sally… to You’ve Got Mail. About half of the humor is derived from brilliant jokes that have little to do with the genre at hand, but much of this movie is indebted to the world that it skewers. A circular bit with a bartender plays on the “down and out” pivot point most characters encounter, and the visual gag accompanying the cry of “but I look terrible!” may be Together’s highlight.
The film is quintessentially the work of director Wain and producer Michael Showalter, who split the writing credit. There’s a warmth, not in the story itself, but in the world around it; a respect, or at least appreciation of the thing they’re tearing apart. This makes sense, with the amount of time devoted to any given project and with the attention to detail many scenes find. A lot of the jokes are obvious (though still well executed), but the exact pacing, knowing when to conform and when to distort, is a nimble skill. The explicitness of this work as adaptation (of a genre, not any singular piece) finds its apex with a scene of sublimely obvious foreshadowing that pays off beautifully at the end. There’s chaos here, but it’s reigned in at times, sometimes to the film’s detriment, but often to enhance as both tribute and prank.
This is hardly the first parody of the romantic comedy, but it may be the most gleefully anarchic. Wain and Showalter’s thrill at being let loose in yet another sandbox can be felt throughout. So the schematic has been revealed, and this feels like a nail in the coffin of not the genre as a whole, but the version that’s existed for much of the modern era. What is there to do after something like this; to make more romantic comedies in the house-style of the post Sally… world would seem akin to making a sequel to 22 Jump Street after that film’s calculating (and hilarious) end credits. The path forward may have already been transcribed, both last year with Enough Said and, more precisely, earlier this month with Obvious Child.
The former of the two seems a purposeful experiment; how else to explain the sitcom-esque narrative twist that hurts (but far from maims) what is otherwise a vivid, thoughtful look at two people rediscovering what love feels like. The plotting is hammy, which does keep in line with the rom-com of yore, but it also lessens the ultimate impact (this all filed under the disclaimer that I quite adore much of Enough Said). Instead, a film released in the same general vicinity as They Came Together, where New York is a character and two mismatched souls find true love. Obvious Child aligns, in many ways, with the tropes that led to its reputation as the “abortion rom-com”. Yet both halves of that definition are lacking: the film is not about abortion (at least not in a consuming, didactic way), nor is it what immediately comes to mind as a romantic comedy. It’s using that language to invent something new, both an acceptance and a rebuttal of the decades before it.
Obvious Child, as every person in America would know if the world were any fair, is about a comedian in her late-20’s, and the events that spiral outward from a one-night stand. There is indeed the meet-cute, the sex montage utilized in place of nudity, and the awkward second date. Analyzing any one of these elements, however, proves that something else is going on here, something more authentic. That’s not to dismiss years of a genre whole cloth, but most of those were hardly looking to be “real” in any sense. Even when they spoke to a deeper pain, or grounded the story, there was a heightened style. See Jerry Maguire, one of my absolute favorites of all time. It has elements of truth, many of them in fact. But it also has that “You had me hello” speech, one that is lovely but not in any way true; no one speaks like that, except maybe Cameron Crowe.
Take that second date in Obvious Child. Max (a charming Jake Lacy) warms a pat of butter in his hand for Donna (Jenny Slate who, full-stop, deserves an Oscar or similar award for her work here). It’s a beautiful moment, preceded by a wonderful moment and followed by a poignant one. This is something one might do, but it’s also a unique touch, a way to define Max, and in her reaction, define Donna as well. There is so much going on, in the ways of authenticating this experience, in the section of the story where many romantic comedies coast. The sex scene, only briefly glimpsed, is perfectly built to with a dance montage set to Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child”. There’s more chemistry in the smiles, that communal act of drunkenly appreciating a joyous song, than in most generically steamy sex scenes.
What happens around the relationship is vital to a romantic comedy as well, as Linda Holmes pointed out in her essay last year on the subject. “[W]e may have to get a little more flexible about how romantic comedies are delivered. The best ones often have other elements” she wrote. What she’s getting at here is abundant in Obvious Child, mainly in the film’s use of an unwanted pregnancy as the main obstacle for the couple (or, as a stand-in for the real problem, Donna’s opening-up issue, as these things in these movies often are). The way Child handles the topic of abortion has already been (rightfully) applauded, because writer/director Gillian Robespierre gets at something elemental about this and all roadblocks that may arise: as my friend pointed out after seeing the film, she always makes it about the people. This isn’t some abstract debate, or a swept-under-the-carpet punch-line. Some of the best sequences in Child, from a late-night conversation between mother and daughter to a more casual discussion between Donna and her best friends, are derived from the impending abortion meaning something. It’s never a question, but it is an event, a big one that won’t define her life but will at least define that day, whenever she recalls it. Robespierre cares that the feelings and people and events are real; that they’re also clever and funny and wise is what elevates the film from good to great.
Obvious Child doesn’t offer a prescription for Hollywood; it’s made about a million and a quarter dollars as of this writing. No, neither this nor They Came Together will make waves financially (even more baffling for the latter; no matter how unique Wain’s sensibilities, this is a spoof movie starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd. Oh, right, the extended white supremacist joke). Creatively, though, Together seems to open the door for even more efforts with the authentic sensibility of Child. A wall has been torn down, the Emperor’s clothes are gone, and a new voice must emerge. Perhaps, at least for the dedicated followers that seek out delightful and moving prizes, this will become a trend. Just look at Obvious Child’s final scene: a quiet moment that stands in the face of grand romantic gestures and speaks to the simple miracle of two people finding each other in a world built of ways to be on one’s own. Isn’t that all, besides some humor, we’ve ever wanted out of the genre, more ways to be less alone? It could be happenstance that these two films were released in quick succession. But that's how all romantic comedies begin: with a coincidence that, through fate or a writer’s pen, blossoms into something eternal.