Melissa Kent, in Reel Love, a Sydney Morning Herald article this last week, warns us that romantic comedies might be ruining our love lives. Exploring the Notting Hill effect, she draws on the findings of social psychologists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, to say that romantic comedies “give us unrealistic expectations about our own relationships, filling our heads with silly notions of soulmates, predestined love, great sex and Richard Curtis happy-ever-after endings”.
The problem comes when people buy into the concepts of predestined love, perfect sex, effortless communication, speedy development of trust and attachment, so much so that they’re not able to commit themselves to the everyday skills of living with the not-quite-perfect partner.
Richard Curtis Over Time
Let’s take a look at Richard Curtis Rom Coms for a minute.
- 1989 The Tall Guy, directed by Mel Smith, features the fumbling attempts of Dexter King to discover and recover a loving relationship with Kate.
- 1994 Four Weddings and a Funeral, directed by Mike Newell, features the fumbling attempts of Charles (Hugh Grant), to come to terms with commitment, all the time in love with American Carrie (Andie McDowell).
- 1999 Notting Hill, directed by Roger Michell, features the fumbling attempts of William Thacker (Hugh Grant) to establish a relationship with an American actress (Julia Roberts).
- 2001 Bridget Jones’ Diary, directed by Sharon Maguire, features the fumbling attempts of Bridget Jones to discern and choose between the hearts of Daniel Cleaver and Mark D’Arcy.
- 2003 Love Actually, directed by Richard Curtis, features at least ten relationships with varying levels of intimacy and trust.
- 2005 The Girl in the CafÃ©, directed by David Yates, features the impact of a relationship on a civil servant (Bill Nighy) as he and his partner (Kelly Macdonald) confront third world debt and poverty in Africa. Romance but not quite a comedy.
- And of course Vicar of Dibley, 1994 – 2007, features the The Revd Geraldine Granger, who takes 13 years to find the man whom she chooses to marry.
As Melissa points out, romantic comedies tend to draw from stock plot devices to carry the viewer into a world of entertainment and escape. She names these as “Opposites attract”, “Pick me”, “Class warfare”, “Secret Identities”. What each of these works with is Shakespeare’s claim, “The course of true love never did run smooth”, spoken by Lysander in Midsummer Night’s Dream, a classic romantic comedy. Richard’s comedies, although they do have an element of lightning strike infatuation, are anything but perfect sex, effortless communication, speedy development of trust and attachment! They’re about fumbling, stumbling, misunderstanding, bad timing and, only in some cases, redemption and restoration.
Marriage and Romance
If Richard Curtis’ comedies focus largely on the attempts of single people to find and relate to their true partners, where do we see the ongoing lighthearted drama associated with long term relationships? Home Improvement, 1991 – 1999, always impressed me with its exploration of gender roles and relational capacity, through the characters of Tim (Tim Allen) and Jill Taylor (Patricia Richardson). Everybody Loves Raymond, running from 1996 to 2005, provided three couples, to explore exploration of love in courtship, early, middle and later years of marriage.
So why do we keep rolling up to watch romantic comedies? Perhaps it’s something to do with the realities that we face each day. We have enough reality to deal with as we work on the daily grind of home maintenance and relationship maintenance, not to mention earning an income. However our lives don’t have the luxury of script writers providing us with one liners to make each conversation entertaining and enriching. We can play our own music to provide a soundtrack to our lives. But that doesn’t make it easier to deal with tedium, anxiety, depression, conflicting expectations or distractions. Watching bickering and divorcing couples on the screen can be soul destroying. Comic relief provides us with the opportunity to laugh at our own fumbling efforts at connecting with one another. The romance angle reminds us that we have the potential to nurture that feeling of being special and wanted in one another. The difficulty comes when we start to wish we were living in a romantic comedy!
Thanks to Mark Sayers for the tip.