Live by the screen, love by the screen

Every now and then I get the feeling that romantic comedies might be, well, a little unrealistic.

No fucking way, you’re thinking, movies would never lie to us! Excellent point, and normally I would agree with you. There’s just one little problem … couples in movies don’t have issues, they have obstacles. Most movie romances start the same way — our main characters’ eyes meet across a crowded dinner party/courtroom/subway, and the sexual tension takes off. The only thing keeping them apart is … uh … well, actually, there really isn’t anything keeping them apart, so in swoops Screenwriting 101 and ridiculous external factors. She’s a cop and he’s a bank robber! They might be brother and sister! THEY’RE ACTUALLY THE SAME PERSON!

Well, I say bah humbug. Finding someone to like your quirks, or maybe even love them, is hard enough without a plot twist. The best movies play off this fact by internalizing the drama — all the problems exist either within the relationship or inside the characters’ heads. After all, real life has taught us that no far-fetched situation is a match for our own paralyzing fears and insecurities. Why make dating more complicated than it has to be?

Take the flirtation between Christine and Richard in Me and You and Everyone We Know. There’s obviously some chemistry between them, but Christine tries too hard to be cute and comes on a little strong. The funny thing is, you enjoy her spontaneous approach until Richard calls her on it, and then you realize, shit, that was a little creepy. It comes together later when she tries to will her phone to ring by saying, “We have a whole life to live together you fucker, but it can’t start until you call.”

I had a friend who gave up romantic comedies because she thought they gave her an unrealistic view of love. Would watching a romantic comedy about someone with an unrealistic view of love have blown her mind? She’s married now, so I guess we’ll never find out.

Christine’s quirks seem mild compared to Barry’s peccadillos in Punch-Drunk Love.
Barry is a living, breathing guide to female turn-offs. Spontaneous crying? Fits of violent rage? Obsessive-compulsive disorder? Ladies, time for a cold shower. And yet, despite being a textbook example of “damaged goods,” Barry finds his true love in the form of Lena Leonard. Only in a movie, right?

Ah, but wait! Isn’t that Lena following Barry up and down the aisles of the Dollar Store in the first few scenes? And doesn’t she dictate the terms of the relationship to him every step of the way? The movie is full of hints that Lena might be as messed up as Barry. This isn’t a case of “meet cute,” it’s a case of “stalk cute.” Apparently, Lena read He’s Just Not That Into You and decided “The hell he isn’t!” It seems to work for Barry.

Still not neurotic enough for you? Give Secretary a shot. Into self-mutilation, sadomasochism, alcoholism, divorce, and submission-domination, the characters in this film have enough issues to qualify for the baseball cap and the free tote bag (a joke I’ve always wanted to use, so thanks for indulging me). But the rough stuff is just a cover; Lee and Mr. Grey are very fragile characters who have been hurt quite a bit, and the movie handles them with surprising delicacy.

Delicacy may not describe the approach to personal neuroses in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it’s arguably the best movie of the millennium (which is exactly 8 years old, so save your quibbles). Part of the movie’s appeal is that it works at any point in a relationship: It’s just as much fun on a first date as it is crying on the couch by yourself after a break-up. Well, all right, maybe “fun” isn’t the right word, but it works. The constant throughout the film is Joel’s over-thinking. He’s trapped inside his own head (wink, wink) and manages to sabotage every good thing that comes along. Sometimes you need to get over yourself to get what you want — but it’s one thing to read that message on an inspirational calendar, quite another to scream it at Jim Carrey for an hour-and-a-half.

So there you have it, four movies that would comprise the oddest Valentine’s Day film festival ever. Fair warning: The temptation with movies like these is to use the characters as a barometer for your own dating life. “Heck, I’m much less fucked-up than those two, and they still managed to find someone. I’ll be just fine!” I suggest considering them from another angle: First, that you are who are you, and second, someone who really gets that is someone to hold onto. These movies might delve a little too deep into the social dysfunction of our day and age, but the message isn’t all that dissimilar from the Sleepless in Seattles of the world.

For God’s sake, somebody hug James

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