Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rom-Com Cliches That (Mostly) DON'T Need to Retire

IMDB's daily links list is often a rich source of interesting blog posts, but it's sometimes also a rich source of posts that make ME want to blog right back. Case in point, Entertainment Weekly Online's 24 Rom-Com Cliches We'd Retire. I agree with some of these, but others are downright ridiculous, and some only have a couple of examples - hardly a cliche. Let's have a look, shall we? (Bolded headings lead to EW's thoughts on the cliche in question.)

"Men never get this movie."

MEDIA MAVENS - She's smart, she's sassy, and her mistakes can be captured in print or on film. Her job can take her anywhere, introduce her to anyone. Occasionally, she has deadlines.

Okay, this one is a bona fide cliche, but it's used a lot for a reason. The world of media and advertising and entertainment is easy for most moviegoers to understand. And it also provides a lot of opportunity for showbiz meta, which Hollywood has loved since the dawn of cinematic time. Plus, like most cliches, a good writer can make you really not care that you're watching a so-called cliche. I mean, I had to think for a minute before I realized that Meg Ryan even was a writer in When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle.


THE LAST-MINUTE SPRINT - You don't know what you've got till it's gone. Or, rather, almost gone. If you run real fast (motorized transportation acceptable), you can still catch it.

Okay yeah, I know this one is overdone too, but I have to stick up for it. I's a great go-to for a nail-biting ending in romances. And they serve as a great reminder that, in real life, if you run fast enough and try hard enough, you might get what you want, too. It's kind of inspiring, if you think about it.


DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC? - Sometimes, finding that special someone isn't special enough, and a truly magical — and totally unexplainable — element has to be introduced to the plot.

I agree this is not something that particularly thrills me, unless it's in a fairy tale (or fairy tale spoof, such as Shrek) but I also can't help observing that I haven't seen one of these in a good while. The most recent of their examples is Kate and Leopold. I'd say it's pretty well retired.

But dude. Don't you DARE front on Big. That's not really a rom-com anyway, and the magical device was used to give Josh a life lesson, not provide him with true love. What's next? You going to knock The Princess Bride for the Miracle Pill?!


MISCHIEVOUS DOGS - Dogs are man's best friend, an extra dose of cute whenever the script needs it, and creatures that can tell us when a questionable character is A-OK.

Another genuine cliche, but HORRIBLE examples of a cliche that needs retiring. The Truth About Cats and Dogs??? Okay yeah, the roller skates were a little much. But As Good as It Gets??? I agree when it's a dog doing things that dogs just don't do and being kind of human-substitutes, but dude. Greg Kinnear's little dog is a perfect spoiled little New York dog.


EXAMPLE: We're gonna have to quote EW critic Lisa Schwarzbaum here, because we weren't paid to see New in Town: ''Renee Zellweger teeters in high heels as a brittle singleton executrix who relocates to a Fargo-adjacent burg and discovers the virtues of 'square' Christian values.''

*sigh* I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that the real point of this one was to rib the movie New in Town, a film which definitely features a couple of cliches (namely, "fish out of water" and "country life PWNS city life"), but neither of them are "working girl needing balance." And, incidentally, neither of them have been used much recently, which is probably why that film feels stale as melba toast.

I'm wondering where on earth the "working GUY needing balance" cliche fits in here. That one is WAY more overdone than the working GAL cliche, in my opinion, though perhaps not many of those examples would be found in the romantic comedy genre.


MR. AND MRS. RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU - Always the friend, never the boy- or girlfriend...until the end of the movie.

Dude. Now they've gone too far. Are we REALLY suggesting getting rid of the "girl/boy next door" trope? I would add to their several examples Harry and Sally in When Harry Met Sally, Crash and Annie in Bull Durham, Emma and Knightley in Emma, Linus and Sabrina in Sabrina (yes, that's me in the comment thread if this list looks familiar). Oh, and how about Ron and Hermione and Harry and Ginny in Harry Potter?! (And if any H/Hr shippers are reading, Harry and Hermione would fall under this umbrella too, if the books/movies had gone that way. Just sayin'.)

Like most cliches, it's not the cliche that's the problem. It's writers (and actors and directors, too) who don't know how to make the cliche fresh, or at least charming enough that you don't mind the familiarity.


LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT - The only thing as passionate as love is hate. Some people like a challenge and a chaste chase.

And now bickering lovers??? SERIOUSLY??? What would Shakespeare say?! And Shaw? And Chaucer?

Their examples are a nice spectrum of good uses and bad uses of the cliche. Again, I'd say the cliche is not the problem with the bad examples. It's the writing. And, I suppose, the fact that the filmmakers are relying too much on the cliche to do all their work for them.


CLUMSY HEROINES - Apparently, the best/easiest way to make a woman seem vulnerable/single is to have her fall on her butt or walk face-first into something. The pratfall epidemic is truly painful.

This one I'll have to agree on. One of the problems I had with the Bridget Jones movies is that they took the wonderful (and only occasionally obvious) physical awkwardness of the Bridget from the books and made it rather ludicrously broad and one-note. Now, the fireman's pole incident was in the book, but of course they added her falling ass-to-lens on the camera man.

There's a distinction to be made here between awkward and clumsy. They are not one and the same. And having a woman tripping over her own feet is not awkward and endearing. It's cheap and lazy as a form of characterization. Yes, Bella Swan, I'm looking at you.


BLOOMING WALLFLOWERS - It's amazing what discovering makeup can do for a woman in 90 minutes.

YES! THANK YOU! However...

I have a love-hate relationship with their example, The Mirror Has Two Faces (which strikes me as two hours of eavesdropping on Barbra Stresand's therapy sessions), but I think it's not that great an example of what they're talking about, as are half their other examples. The thing about this cliche is that it usually asks you accept that, even though the man doesn't know the wallflower exists until she "hots up," that he actually loves her for her and not her newfound hotness. The She's All That, Miss Congeniality, Never Been Kissed, and America's Sweethearts examples are definitely founded on this flawed notion.

But The Mirror Has Two Faces actually goes to a bit of trouble to tell us that Jeff Bridges was hot for Babs BEFORE she was a sex kitten. That's the whole reason things go wonky for them when she tries to seduce him - because it WORKS, without the blonde highlights and low cholesterol diet. Same with The Princess Diaries - Michael liked Mia before her transformation, and was kind of annoyed with her after it, actually. And for the life of me I can't remember Janeane Garofolo's major physical transformation in The Truth About Cats and Dogs. I thought the whole point of that was that the physical Abby that the guy thought he was in love with was a totally different person.

THE LONELY MONTAGE - This either occurs at the start of the movie to show us how sad someone's life is, quickly, or two-thirds through the movie, when said person has loved and (momentarily) lost.

Um, this one is not exactly limited to romantic comedies, you know. And again, I'd say a good filmmaker makes all the difference here. I mean, how else are you going to show the passage of time, without the even more cliche "three months later" tag?

I agree on the Notting Hill montage. That just wasn't very creative. Same for Bridget Jones (in my opinion). But the Clueless montage is instrumental in Cher realizing her feelings for Josh. And I'm rather weary of When Harry Met Sally popping up on all of these cliches. That movie is one of the best examples of a fresh take on the formula, especially as it came at the end of a decade rife with trite and formulaic rom-coms.


BAD INFLUENCE BUDDIES - They are the guys who give the leading man bad advice or want to keep him a man-boy for whatever reason: They don't want him to leave the fold, they're jealous, they just don't know any better.

They are also probably the only reason you're going to be able to drag your husband or boyfriend to see a romantic comedy. I strongly disagree with the Knocked Up example, and this writer is clearly one of the many people who don't get this movie (I am SICK and TIRED of people calling it misogynist). Ben's buddies are not "content" to keep him working on Flesh of the Stars and smoking weed; he's content to do so himself, and the whole point of the movie is him growing up and thinking for himself, instead of just doing what his friends are doing. And they do a *little* growing up themselves; there are few things sweeter than them being his "family" in the waiting room at the hospital.

And I'm sorry EW wants to retire the "bad influence buddies" cliche, because audiences still seem to like it, given the enthusiastic outpouring of dollars the last two weekends in a row for The Hangover.


RIDICULOUS PROOFS OF LOVE - Think of these acts as fill-in-the-blank responses to the sentence: ''If we're meant to be together...''

Okay, I totally agree on the Serendipity example. That movie frustrates me to no end. If you want to be with someone, you know, BE WITH THEM.

But the other two examples are just plain canon amnesia...

I shouldn't have to explain to this EW writer that Miranda and Steve (Sex and the City) arrange the Brooklyn Bridge meetup as simply *part* of the real proof of their love in the movie - the marriage counseling. Also, Annie isn't the one in Sleepless who sends the letter asking Sam to meet her at the top of the Empire State Building. Her friend Becky does that behind her back. And it's much more of a "let's see" kind of thing than the "if we're meant to be, this ridiculous coincidence will happen" of the Serendipity example, because for one thing, Annie and Sam have never met.

And let me just throw in another example of this, though it's not a comedy. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine agree to come back to Vienna in six months, in a deal much like the one in An Affair to Remember (and actually closer to it than Sleepless, if you think about it). And that movie is about as un-trite as it's possible to be. Of course, we had to wait nine years to find out if they fulfilled that promise, but still ... ridiculous proof of love? I don't think so.


EASY SEX - The guy has been drooling over the girl since the opening credits, and now she's drunk/angry/insane and throwing herself at him. But he just...can' it. Because he loves her. Because he cares about her too much. Because... Oh, give us a break. He'd totally do it.

Okay, NONE of your examples is actually an example of this, EW. Peter can't get it up with Sarah in Forgetting Sarah Marshall because he doesn't want her anymore (because he's fallen in love with whatsername), not because he lurves her too much. Doug has not been drooling over Kate in The Cutting Edge - they've bickered, sure, but it's very much an attraction against both of their wills. Superbad ... my memory is hazy, but I'm reasonably sure it's not a matter of loving the girl too much. It's more an "I drunk too much and I'm a virgin who doesn't know what he's doing (or I tripped and broke my crush's nose)" thing.

And, may I remind you, dear EW, of a movie that I consider the greatest romantic comedy ever (it came out before 1980, though, so maybe you haven't seen it) - The Philadelphia Story. Mike has been drawn to Tracy since about halfway through the movie, and when she's drunk and in a robe and he's got her in her bedroom ... he doesn't do it. Because she's a little the worse - or the better - for wine, and there are rules about that. Sometimes men really are wonderful.


SCHLUBBY GUY, PRETTY GIRL - A close cousin to the ''Fat Guy, Skinny Wife'' rule of sitcoms, this applies to movies where a superhot girl falls for a guy totally below her league because she learns what a nice guy he is. When was the last time a schlubby girl got a hot guy?

Got to agree that this is annoying and overdone, but there's something they're forgetting. Schlubby guys often do snag pretty girlfriends in real life, and it rarely works the other way around. It ain't fair, but that's the way it seems to be, at least in my observation.

Oh, but in answer to your question, EW ... "Tracy, I'm in love with you, no matter what you weigh!" And the frequently aforementioned The Truth About Cats and Dogs.


BAD DRIVERS - Rom-coms don't feature a lot of car chases, but there are still plenty of hair-raising highway scenes thanks to daffy heroines who can't stay in their lane to save their lives.

Only two examples given and they're twenty years apart. Not exactly ringing the cliche bells. I have seen comedic driving scenes more times than I care to, but that's kind of a cliche (much like clumsiness) of comedies in general.


FAKE IDs - Nobody's ever quite who they seem in rom-coms: That bum on the street? He might be a prince. And that guy who seems like your soul mate? He might be your worst enemy in disguise.

Again, just as much a cliche in comedies in general, not just romantic comedies. And how dare you use Roman Holiday as an example! Oh, and Beauty and the Beast - not really a rom-com. At all. In fact, mistaken/hidden identities are kind of a staple of fairy tales. Like that whole magic thing.

However, the Maid in Manhattan example is a good one and I feel that devices like this are quite a different matter. Movies where the stakes are fairly low and there is no good reason for the lie are their own cliche, conceived (I can only suppose) by lazy writers who are trying to churn out attention-getting "concept" scripts. (As I write this, I'm looking at the Wikipedia page and shuddering that my once hero John Hughes had something to do with this film.)


PDA - In a romantic comedy, love isn't true unless it's professed in front of a group of people...the bigger the better.

Again, only two examples given, both with Drew Barrymore and both happening on a baseball field. I guess baseball stadium PDAs are their own cliche (and we can probably lump the basketball arena smooch from Forget Paris in there as well), but there are WAY more examples of this than EW's two meager offerings. For example, airplanes seem to be popular places for PDAs - as in the end of (another Barrymore film) The Wedding Singer and Only You.

But all of these fall under the MUCH larger cliche that I call "sealed with a kiss," which is when the movie simply ends with a big sweeping kiss and the camera zooms out to admire the Paris cityscape, the NYC skyline, whatever. As if there's no other closing shot imaginable. Again, it's not the cliche, it's the way it's done.


TOP OF THE STAIRS MOMENT - Don't get too literal: We don't always mean actual stairs. A ''top of the stairs'' moment is that scene where the heroine walks into a room transformed, looking for the first time like the bombshell we always knew she was.

Well, I'd hardly call Molly Ringwald "transformed" in Pretty in Pink. But this kind of goes along with the "blossoming wildflower" cliche, where (in some stories, at least) the most important growth a woman can have is realizing how beautiful she can look. There's nothing at all wrong with a big ta-dah moment for the main female character, but when it's the peak of a girl's character arc, that's a cliche I can do without. Pretty in Pink and Pretty Woman don't qualify, though, in my opinion.


EATING FOR TWO. OR THREE... - Our guess is the average rom-com heroine weighs somewhere around a buck-ten. So how come these gals always seem to have the appetite of a team of football players?

I remember Cindy Crawford once saying that she used to be tempted to go to a restaurant and order a big plate of fries and a burger just to piss people off and make people think she eats like that all the time. This is what Hollywood tends to do with actresses - or, judging by EW's examples, maybe just Sandra Bullock. :P

But I can't really hate this one, because I hate even more that thing in real life (and movies too, I guess) when women are afraid to eat in front of other people, especially men. I mean, everyone's gotta eat, you know?


EGREGIOUS GIRL BONDING - Gal pals in rom-coms have a tendency to prove their friendship with elaborate, embarrassing activities that usually involve music.

I could add many more examples to their measly two - I guess the columnist was getting tired - but this is kind of a silly one. Many, many gal pals DO dance and give car concerts and do other silly things to music. I've done it myself. Maybe it's not that fun for everyone to watch, and obviously it tends to drag a story to a screeching halt, but it's awfully fun to do, and I'm sorry this EW writer is such a fuddy-duddy.


WET CLIMAX - Kissing, fighting, serenading... You name it; everything is sexier in the rain.

Yes it is. Literally, in fact. It's a well-known fact in literature that water, especially people soaked in it, is a potent sexual symbol. This one goes with the bickering and right-under-your-nose cliches - Do. Not. Touch. They're cliches for a reason. They WORK.


I'VE NOTHING TO WEAR... - Rom-coms and fashion go together like horror movies and blood, so it's no surprise that the majority of them include a scene in which a character tries on a series of outfits in front of giggling friends, helpful salespeople, or smitten lovers.

Oh gosh, yes. This one does need to die. Although I must plead for the Pretty Woman fashion show. She's at least acquiring clothes she needs for her, ah, engagement, not just playing around in her closet. Man, that 27 Dresses scene was silly. And to think James Marsden just sat there and let it happen! No straight man would sit still for such nonsense.


SINGING INTO OBJECTS - Shakespeare said, ''All the world's a stage.'' But in rom-coms, it's more like one giant karaoke booth, where anything from a hairbrush to a spoon (preferably yanked out of a pint of ice cream) can turn into a microphone for an impromptu song.

Dude. Have you EVER had fun, Mr. Grumpy EW Writer?! I admit, I'm not big on actually singing into makeshift microphones. If I'm going to sing along embarrassingly in my living room, I tend to make like I've got a headpiece so I can keep both hands free for dance moves.

Was that too much information?


QUIRKY BFF - Heroines in romantic comedies tend to be a neurotic bunch. But they pale in comparison to their best friends, who are often eccentric to the point of flat-out craziness.

Well, the writers have to give supporting actresses *something* worth taking the part for, if they're not going to get the guy. And yes, Judy Greer is way overused in this role (in the indie world, she could be the quirky STAR, and if you ask me, she should), but she's not what I'd consider "quirky." Not in the Joan Cusack sense, anyway. I just find it amusing that interesting, colorful characters to give us something to care about besides the would-be lovers is a bad thing. Again, quirky can be endearing or annoying, and it's not always the writer who brings the color to the part. But dude - Joan Cusack was nominated for an Oscar for her "quirky bff" character in Working Girl. Don't be hatin'!


I said it several times above, but I'll say it again. Cliches are not a bad thing and something that people need to fortheloveofGod stop. If something is stale and annoying in a film, it's because it's written or acted in a stale and annoying way, not because a cliche is being used. The real problem here (and I agree there is one) is when filmmakers just push a cliche button like an automatic microwave timer button. The cliche is not going to do your job for you. You actually have to work to make it charming and make it not feel like a cliche.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


I'd heard murmurings about this film for a while, but hadn't really looked into what it was about. All I knew was that it starred Sam Rockwell, who I consistently find one of the more fascinating character actors working in films, period. He's not a star in the traditional sense, and certainly the bulk of his roles have been supporting ones. But he's the kind of actor who, though he might not bring a lot of name recognition to a project, can definitely carry a movie with his own unique charisma and considerable acting chops. George Clooney knew that when he cast him as Chuck Barris in the outstanding Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Duncan Jones has given him another chance to really shine in Moon.

Moon (2009)

This movie will remind a lot of people of 2001: A Space Odyssey, though it takes place in a much more "blue collar" Alien-esque space. It also bears some resemblance to Solaris and is quite a bit more cerebral than a lot of recent whiz-bang, special effects-laden science fiction films.

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the apparently lone occupant and worker on a lunar station that is harvesting resources from the moon that, in the futuristic setting of the film, is turning back the energy crisis on Earth. Sam is nearing the end of his three-year contract and isolation has obviously gotten to him somewhat. He goes through the motions in his work, and his only companion is GERTY, a HAL-like (though not nearly as menacing) artificial intelligence robot. He starts seeing funny things, and one of them leads to an accident. He wakes up in the infirmary, with GERTY tending to him. He doesn't remember what happened, and two injuries that he should still have from the accident and a previous incident inside the station are mysteriously gone.

What follows is bewildering, to say the least, and the whole middle of the film reminds me a bit of The Shining. Is this real? Is it a dream? Has Sam finally gone literally insane? How much does GERTY know? It's fantastic, and Rockwell - who is very much having to do all this alone, without any other actors to bounce off of - is phenomenal. Unlike The Shining, this movie answers the questions it raises, but in making that turn, it takes you into yet more unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.

GERTY, by the way, is voiced by Kevin Spacey, and is a much more benevolent force than you think at first, especially if he reminds you of HAL-9000. GERTY's loyalty is, refreshingly, not to the corporate machine or the greater good, but literally to Sam and his well-being. His job is to help Sam, and he does it faithfully, seeming to almost care about him in a human sense. He's not a menacing red light, like HAL; he's a yellow smiley-face, much like you'd see on an instant messaging program. In fact, his facial expression changes, as if to indicate his feelings. There were some giggles at this in the theater, but having taken part in many an IM conversation myself, I couldn't help being moved - even though GERTY is obviously a machine - when he would make a *sad face* or *concerned face* or even a *crying face*.

This is a really cool and genuinely quality little film, and I'm sad that it's probably going to get lost in the summer shuffle. It won't be out in the rest of the country for a bit, but if you see it's on near you and want something with a little more meat than the usual summer fare, I highly recommend it.