This article contains spoilers for the movies Love and Other Drugs, Friends with Kids, Blue Valentine and Pride and Prejudice. Please be advised that some of the hyperlinks include profanity.
I take issue with many chick flicks. Known also as romantic comedies – if they’re funny – or romance movies – if they’re not – they often present the sexist connotations of a woman needing a man to feel fulfilled. Mostly my issue is with the implications behind a genre that treats makeovers and gay best friends as main staples in the same way an action movie treats guns and slow-motion fight sequences: indispensable. The current thorn in my side, however, is how chick flicks make a happy ending integral to their story. Happy endings are rightly associated with fairy tales and legends of servants turning into princesses. Why, then, are they encouraged in cases where they are meant to bear verisimilitude that very same fairy tale quality? Even when the audience knows instinctively that the two people onscreen should not end up in a relationship together, most chick flicks will find a way to make us think they should.
In Love and Other Drugs (2010), Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal), a sales representative for Pfizer, meets Maggie (Anne Hathaway) and finds out that she has Stage One Parkinson’s disease. Their chemistry is so intense that naturally, we believe they’re meant to pull through and find a way to beat this disease with their love. This almost worked for me, if it weren’t for one scene when Jamie and Maggie are at a convention for patients and their loved ones dealing with Parkinson’s. Jamie, alone at the refreshment table, asks a strange man (Peter Friedman) for advice. The man, who tells Jamie that his wife has Stage Four Parkinson’s, says to him, “My advice is to go upstairs, pack your bags, and leave a nice note. Find yourself a healthy woman. I love my wife. I do. But I wouldn’t do it over again. The thing nobody tells you is this disease will steal everything you love in her. Her body, her smile, her mind.” After over an hour of watching Jamie and Maggie and their unclear future together hovering in peripheral vision, this nameless face of suffering is painful to watch. His words strike so close to home – verbalizing everything that could go wrong if Jamie and Maggie decide to stay together, everything that can never be said about a sick loved one – that he is impossible to ignore. Instead, though, the movie ends with a heartfelt, tear-filled reunion, with Jamie professing to Maggie how she needs someone to take care of her and that he is just the guy for the job.
Playing up more of the “comedy” bit, Friends with Kids (2011) is the story of six thirty-something New Yorkers (including Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm and Maya Rudolph) who need to adjust their lives to having children. Two of them decide to have a go at it even though they’re not together. Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) make the strangely lighthearted decision, which they naturally consider very mature and compartmentalized, to have sex and procreate, despite the fact that they feel like siblings to each other and wouldn’t date. Inevitably, Jason falls for Julie by the end of the movie – but not before Julie has spent half of the exhaustive 107 minutes pining away for him. Adam Scott’s superb acting – which gives a film badly in need of an editor its most redeeming quality – keeps everything afloat and believable, making you want to root for him even though he’s dating Megan Fox. Nonetheless, something about Julie’s simpering, doe-eyed expressions when Jason comes home from his womanizing ways, or perhaps the oft-repeated refrain of how much Jason loves big boobs, made me want to roll my eyes when these two characters finally got it on – in the love sense. A witty repartee does not a good relationship make. Yet one of Scott’s most powerful moments is when he passionately kisses her and, through tear-filled eyes that on any other actor would have looked like an allergic reaction, whispers to her, “Does it feel like I’m not into you?” And just like that, they’re MFEO.
On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, Blue Valentine (2010) is a film about class difference and failed expectations in a relationship. More so than its reputation for being mostly improvised by its main actors, the film’s very damning reputation is that it is extremely depressing. True, when you’re watching two people go from blissful happiness to an utter train wreck over the course of 120 minutes, the natural reaction would be to recoil and vow never to go through it yourself. I can’t help but wonder, though, if the film would have been more popular had the marriage between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) been more like the relationship in Friends with Kids. Like Jason and Julie, Dean and Cindy have a child, albeit from one of Cindy’s previous lovers. Would an unhappy marriage that stays intact have a different effect on the audience than an unhappy marriage that dissolves? If Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) is any indication, the movie would just sort of thud to an ending, without much of a sound. Either way, Blue Valentine would most likely not evoke as much passion and emotion as it does now.
Not to beat on Jane Austen, but she seems like a marvelous place to find the root of many issues in 21st century storytelling. Pride and Prejudice (1995) is the quintessential example of an audience rooting for a doomed couple. Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth) is an abusive, entitled aristocrat. Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) could never have fulfilled the necessities required of the higher class, which would have weighed on their marriage and been a constant source of pain for them both. Yet every chick flick that comes out year after year seems to be trying to find its own version of Mr. Darcy. Whether it’s to sate the audience of Sex and the City fans waiting to vicariously watch passion and destiny played out, or because all women secretly want to be dominated by a controlling, arrogant man like in Twilight, the idea that Mr. Darcy is the man for whom we’ve all been waiting is downright scary. In reality, Mr. Darcy was much more suited to Miss Bingley (Anna Chancellor) in both stature and temperament than he ever was to Lizzy.
I’d hate to think that we buy into this because somewhere in the back of our minds we’re afraid that this is a real possibility in our own lives, finding ourselves unsuited to our chosen partners but willing to stick it out and make things work on opposite sides of the house. Maybe I’m overreacting; maybe we all just want to be surrounded by happy people, and, thanks to Miss Austen, happy people are most often married people. If only we all had a Rupert Everett in our lives to come waltzing through our best friends’ weddings – if not to make the world a better place, at least to remind us, “Life goes on. And maybe there won’t be marriage. Maybe there won’t be sex. But by G-d, there’ll be dancing.” Dancing, and many more chick flicks to keep us company.