Five Groan-Inducing “Romantic” Movie Staples, and What You Should Watch Instead

For some reason the air waves this last week have become choked with no end of romance movies.  Romantic comedies, romantic dramas, romantic dramas that come off more like comedies…I’m less concerned as to why they are proliferating my viewing experience and more concerned with the ones that seem to be the top go-to films when our culture goes looking for some fictional lovin’.  Now some of them I am more than willing to get on board with, but there are others, ones that, especially in my generation, are often pushed to the forefront of cinematic romance that I can’t help but roll my eyes over.  What are they, you might ask?  And what would I recommend instead?  Why, I’m so glad you asked!

  1.  What you’re watching:

 

The Notebook

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An elderly man tells his Alzheimer’s-inflicted wife the story of Noah and Allie, two crazy kids from opposite sides of the tracks who fall in love over Summer vacation in early 1940’s South Carolina.  Of course her parents don’t think he’s good enough and separate them.  A world war passes, and a lot of water goes under the bridge; when they are finally thrust together again, Noah and Allie will find out once and for all if their long-burning passion is meant for more than a rosy memory.  

No thought is spared for the happily ever after of James Marsden, mind you.  James Marsden stands forlorn and forgotten in a corner.  That poor, beautiful man.

What you should watch instead:

Ever After

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An elderly noblewoman tells the Brothers Grimm the story of Danielle de Barbarac, the daughter of a wealthy French merchant who tragically dies just after bringing home his noble-born second wife and her two daughters.  The Edict of Fontainebleu is passed, and a lot of water goes under the bridge, and years later we find Danielle reduced to servitude in her own home as her stepmother squanders the riches of the manor.  When a chance encounter puts her in the path of Henry, the heir to the throne, the unexpected attraction that sparks between them will have to withstand an obscured identity, the political maneuvers of the kingdom, and the machinations of Danielle’s wickedly ambitious stepmother if they’re going to find a happily ever after.  

Similarities?

Both films are historical fiction (pre and post World War II in the coastal American South, and Renaissance France respectively), and both are framed as a story within a story.  Both feature pairs of lovers who are nearly torn apart by misunderstanding and family interference.  

Where they Differ

Well.  Danielle and Henry’s relationship begins when she tries to bail an old family servant out of jail and ends up arguing Utopian ideals with the prince, who happened to be passing by.  Noah and Allie’s starts when he threatens to kill himself if she won’t go out with him.  When Danielle vanishes, Henry goes to a lot of effort asking around about her.  When Allie vanishes Noah writes a whole bunch of unreturned letters, because no one had a phone in 1940s South Carolina.  And there were no buses.  Or trains.  Danielle and Henry develop their romance by going on a trip to a magnificent library, debating intellectual convictions, and gently teasing each other.  Allie and Noah get into smack down, drag out screaming matches, because they’re so “passionate.”

I think The Notebook hits a lot of people’s sentimental spot because of the framing device with the elderly couple, and it certainly gets a boost from the superlative cast, but ultimately Nicholas Sparks’ saccharine-drenched piggy bank is a cliche-heavy portrait of two ill-suited personalities who spend years separated for reasons that really boil down to laziness (also a world war.  I’ll give them some leeway for the world war).   

Basically, Ever After is the story of two people who fall in love with each other’s minds, ideals, and principles, while The Notebook is the story of two people who are super attracted to each other despite not being compatible in any other significant way.  Ever After jumps off from the most famous of fairytales and gives us a lush, romantic reimagining with two main characters who find their true match in each other.   The Notebook…lets us ogle Ryan Gosling for a couple hours.  

 

  1.  What you’re watching:

Twilight

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Ah the classic tale of interspecies love.  

Shy and klutzy Bella Swan moves to the tiny town of Forks, Washington where her novelty renders her the hottest thing on two feet.  Despite her sudden popularity she is instantly, magnetically drawn to the one boy who seems to be trying with all of his might to avoid her, the mysterious and beautiful (though often chagrined) Edward Cullen.  Through some obsessive sleuthing Bella soon deduces that Edward is, in fact, a vampire; when confronted he admits that her blood is more powerfully tempting to him than any he has ever encountered.  Undeterred by predatory appetites, the concerns of Edward’s vampire family, or the threat of a rival vampire with a similar nose for Bella’s blood, the two fall into the throes of virginal teenage love and a franchise is born.    

What you should watch instead:

Stardust

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Ah the classic tale of interspecies love.  

Shopboy Tristan wants nothing more than to win the heart of Victoria, the village beauty.  When a falling star lands on the other side of the town’s mysterious, never-to-be-crossed Wall, he embarks on an adventure in a hidden fantasy world, determined to bring the star back as a gift for the young lady.  However, remarkably, the star is less star-like and more cute-girl-like than our hero had imagined, and, with the addition of several other interested parties seeking the star, Yvaine, getting her back across the Wall proves to be far more challenging than initially anticipated.  Undeterred by cannibalistic witches, bloodthirsty princes, or snooty English gentry (and with a boost from some awesome sky pirates), Tristan and Yvaine fall into the throes of (not so virginal) post-teenage love and a great adventure is had.  

Similarities?

Both are supernatural/fantasy love stories wherein only one party is human.  Both feature quirky small towns, and at least one villain whose greatest desire is to eat one of the main characters.  

Where they Differ

Bella is a self-absorbed sad sack with no personality and no interests- except for classic literature, and her vampire crush.  Edward is a controlling stalker (he hides in her bedroom to watch her sleep.  Hides.  In her bedroom.  To watch her sleep) who, though rightfully disturbed by his primal urge to drain his new girlfriend of her blood, is not at all concerned by the fact that he is about 86 years older than the delectable morsel.  Half the movie is spent on the irritating will-they-won’t-they-I-want-you-but-I-can’t dance, one quarter goes to some truly humorous attempts at romance (hard to tell what’s more comic, the actions themselves, or the god-awful special effects around them), and one quarter goes to the outsider vampire threat.  Throw in two leads who seems to be actively trying to sabotage the movie with their eminently mockable acting choices and what we have is one hilarious spoof.  Too bad this was earnestly meant as an epic romance.  

By contrast Stardust is a delightful fairytale very much in the vein of The Princess Bride.  It is clever, deliberately funny, and quite sweet in its depiction of the growing regard between the two leads.  Both Tristan and Yvaine begin as intelligent, strong-willed individuals, and both make substantial personal strides as they journey across the land of Stormhold together.  When they finally face the villains it is as a team, fortified by their own individual strengths and bonded by the love that has organically developed between them.  Vibrant with adventure, excellent characters, a taste of danger, and the sparkle of fantasy magic, Stardust is a marvelous (sadly underrated) story that delivers a good deal of genuine warm-fuzzies, even as it always keeps a bit of tongue in cheek.  

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This is a thing that happens in this movie.  If Stardust were a bad movie, this element alone would save it.

  1.  What you’re watching:

Annie Hall

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A neurotic New York nebbish falls in love with a quirky free-spirit.  Things end badly.  He tries to figure out what love even is, and why his couldn’t last.  

What you should watch instead:

(500) Days of Summer

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An idealistic Los Angeles greeting card writer falls in love with a quirky free-spirit.  Things end badly.  He tries to figure out what love even is, and why his dream girl didn’t feel it for him.  

Similarities?

The brief synopsis above should give you insight into how similar in theme and concept both movies really are.  Both story lines jump between present and past.  Both feature meditations on the nature of love, what it is, why it happens.  Both feature a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl as the love interest (though in the case of (500) Days of Summer this characterization seems to come more from Tom’s inability, or refusal, to truly acknowledge the reality of Summer).  

Where they Differ

I KNOW that Annie Hall is considered a great classic.  I KNOW that it shows up on all these “Best of” lists.  I KNOW that a lot of people really love this movie, and that this entry is probably the most divisive one on this list.  

But come on.  I can’t be the only one that finds Woody Allen completely insufferable, can I?  Except for Midnight in Paris (which I do really love) I have yet to see a Woody Allen movie that didn’t irritate me with Allen’s fetishistic enshrinement of his own neurosis.  

(500) Days of Summer features a main character, Tom, with more than his fair share of issues, especially in his idealistic approach to romance, and to the girl who is the object of his desire.  However where Annie Hall’s Alvy is unable, or unwilling, to confront his shortcomings (preferring, instead, to wallow in them), Tom makes an active effort, after a lot of mourning, moping, and raging, to get his life together and try to make some positive personal changes.  It is really refreshing to see a male lead get his heart smashed into pieces and eventually come to the place where he’s able to say, “Hey, maybe I am partly to blame for what happened.  Maybe I can try to be better…”  And then go out and BECOME better.  You know, grow as a human being.  What a concept.  

Also, (500) Days of Summer’s expectations vs. reality sequence is one of the most strikingly true depictions of unrequited feelings I’ve seen played out on screen.  The whole movie is creatively and evocatively shot, the story is intelligently portrayed, and Joseph Gordon Levitt is infinitely more pleasant to spend two hours with than Woody Allen.  

 

  1.  What you’re watching:

Titanic

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Poor-little-rich-girl Rose Dewitt-Bukater and Bohemian expatriate artist Jack Dawson meet on the stern of the most hubristic advertising scheme in history as she contemplates throwing herself into the ocean.  In their brief time together he teaches her how to live life to the fullest, she teaches him that gorgeous naked women wearing massive diamonds are the best portrait subjects, and then the ship sinks.  Jack dies.  Rose ditches her mother and cartoonishly terrible fiance to embark on a life of artistic self-fulfillment.  None of this should have been a spoiler to you.  

What you should watch instead:

Atonement

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Content little rich girl Briony Tallis harbors a secret crush on her family housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner, oblivious to the Cambridge student’s own secret passion for her older sister, Celia.  When Briony witnesses a series of encounters between the pair her jealousy and confusion lead her to falsely accuse Robbie of a terrible crime, resulting in his incarceration and Celia’s estrangement from the family.  Years later, in the midst of World War II, the young lovers struggle to find a way back to each other as Biony, riddled with guilt, is forced to finally confront the full weight of her childish actions.  

Similarities

Both are tragic love stories of passion found only to be ripped away by unfair forces beyond the control of the lovers involved.  Both are well-costumed historical dramas set against the backdrop of vast human tragedies.  Both will deliver you a tear-jerking finale that isn’t so much emotionally satisfying as brutally bittersweet.  

Where they Differ

Mostly in terms of the quality of the writing and the stories.  Titanic was a landmark film, unparalleled at the time of its release in terms of its scale, its visual richness, and its technological achievement.  The story though…well, story has never been James Cameron’s strong point.  Between hackneyed dialogue (that ONLY plays without being COMPLETELY ridiculous because Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are damn fine actors), cliched story beats, and characters reduced to ham-fisted caricatures Titanic is very heavily style over substance.  

Not to mention the fact that no matter where you land on the “Door Debate,” Jack totally could have survived if Rose hadn’t gone leaping out of a perfectly good life boat like a moron.

In contrast, Atonement is an exquisitely written AND exquisitely shot masterpiece of a film that relies, to some extent, on the viewer’s ability to connect some dots on their own.  With a creative approach to the structure of the story, a fascinating central character in Briony Tallis, and a truly devastating final reveal, Atonement is the gut-wrenching romantic tragedy that your soul really needs.  In fact, far beyond just being a story of a tragic romance, it becomes a wider meditation on guilt, on the nature of love, and on the importance that stories hold on a personal as well as public level.  

 

  1.  What you’re watching:

Fifty Shades of Grey

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Narcissistic billionaire stalker Christian Grey meets narcissistic clueless klutz Anastasia Steele, and their mutual fascination quickly evolves into the early stages of a text-book abusive relationship (the nature of which has exactly NOTHING to do with Christian’s BDSM fetish) in a blatant plagiarism of another terrible “romance” series.

What you should watch instead:

10 Things I Hate About You

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High school bad boy Patrick Verona is paid to woo the school shrew, Kat Stratford as part of a wacky scheme to help the sweet-hearted Cameron get a date with Kat’s popular younger sister Bianca in a modern (far less problematic) retelling of Williams Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Similarities?

They both…take place…in Seattle?

Where they Differ

Seriously?  Well one is about a terrible human being who takes his need for control to psychotic levels, and the terrible human being who allows him to strip her of her agency, her independence, and any vestiges of self-esteem that she might have had because he’s hot and rich.  It is a stunningly accurate depiction of a deeply unhealthy abusive relationship with a narcissistic sociopath, while also being (from what I understand) a stunningly INaccurate depiction of responsible BDSM behavior.  Despite the much-touted kink, somehow the sex scenes are not even sort of hot.  This might have something to do with the fact that the two lead actors don’t actually seem to like each other.  At all.  But it’s probably also due to the fact that this is a movie based on a book by an idiot Twilight fan girl who has no concept of good writing, American vernacular, or why so many women are so viscerally repelled by the psycho that she’s been selling as God’s gift to orgasms.  The fact that there is ALSO a large contingent of women who consider Christian Grey to be their ideal man is very, VERY troubling.  

Then there’s 10 Things I Hate About You.  The anti-Fifty Shades of Grey, if you will.  If Kat Stratford ever met Christian Grey, Bobby Ridgeway’s testicle retrieval operation would look like a day at Disneyland.  Smart, tough, and fiercely independent, Kat Stratford would have NO tolerance for Christian Grey’s bullshit.  Kat Stratford needs no one’s approval, let alone their permission, she just needs them to get out of her way while she blazes her path as the brilliant badass that she is.  The man who pursues her heart, Patrick Verona, is able to make inroads precisely because he meets her on her own level and appreciates her exactly as she is, sharp edges and all.  Kat and Patrick, in their matching Doc Martens, and having brought out the best in each other, would kick Ana and Christian’s ridiculous asses all the way to Vancouver.  

10 Things is sharp and funny and feminist (despite the classic ’90’s setup device for all the romantic action).  10 Things is all ABOUT a strong female lead.  10 Things will make you glad that you are alive.

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