Have you noticed how it’s become a tradition right around Valentine’s Day for film lovers to make a pilgrimage to the Cemetery of Cinema to visit the grave of Romantic Comedy?
Many here shed tears for the dearly departed. Some take a brazen piss on the heart-shaped headstone. Love it or hate it, folks can’t help but wonder whether romantic comedy will lie dead long. Will it someday be resurrected in radiant glory to lead us on the righteous path, or will it zombie-claw its way up through the dirt, slavering to feast on moviegoers’ brains anew?
I’m not going to rehash the causes of death; better critical minds have dissected the subject quite skillfully. I believe the definitive autopsy was performed in 2014 by Amy Nicholson for LA Weekly, as an amusing and elegant analysis, full of frontline insight from famous friends of the deceased.
For my part, I just want to help keep the eternal flame burning, because I have faith that the spirit of romantic comedy is immortal. The ideal of this genre is to tell an emotional story in a lively way—to explore human connection through a humorous lens. I believe comedic romances will endure in one form or another, because at their best they can reveal human experience more fully, and with more hope, than drama alone can.
But that corpse still kinda stinks, doesn’t it? I mean, you tell me: Is it cool anymore to say that you love to watch romantic comedies, or that you’d love to make one? I suspect not, partly because the worst examples of the genre feel so maudlin and cloying that their fetid miasma hovers over even the best of the genre. It’s challenging to get contemporary audiences to swallow emotionality that is sincere and unself-conscious, even when served with a healthy side of humor. They’ve been hurt before: They’ve seen feelings faked too many times, too poorly, and they aren’t about to get tricked again. So now, funny movies about love tend to jack themselves up with crude transgression, self-referentiality or knowing cynicism to earn the embrace of audiences who’ve become suspicious of stories that dare caress heartstrings, tickle tear ducts or attempt to connect on a nakedly human level.
As a self-proclaimed keeper of the flame, I’d like to suggest an alternative to that somewhat jaded path. I believe that pervasive overfamiliarity with the genre demands that we approach the romantic stories we are trying to tell with genuine intentions and specific ambitions—to entertain, certainly, but also to reach for something true and complicated about what it means to desire communion with one another, without regurgitating easy answers and warmed-over emotion.
This was what we attempted with our first feature film, Tumbledown. My wife, Desi, wrote this funny cinematic love letter to her hometown in honor of a lost friend, and populated it with characters drawn from the community that raised her. She shaped it with a light humanistic touch into an exploration of courage after loss, our fumbling attempts at transcendence and joy, and the addictive ecstasies of music. We wanted to tell a story unafraid to gaze into the abyss, but too exuberant to wallow there.
Does it sound like we set out to make a romantic comedy? No, we were loath to even use the term, lest we exude the aforementioned stink. We bobbed and weaved and dubbed Tumbledown a comedic romance with a serious soul (God forbid we mumble “dramedy”). But what we found over the years was that because our subject is romantic love, because the plot spindles around the decisions of the female protagonist, because the dialogue is (some have said) witty, and because the story culminates with the characters coming together (they may even kiss), the gatekeepers of film financing and distribution (and eventually some critics) smelled Eau de RomCom no matter how hard we scrubbed our grave-robbing hands.
Fortunately, the ones who didn’t fear the funk were the actors. I’d like to think this is because the protagonists Desi created are complicated and passionate; they are granted a wealth of expressive dialogue and they are set at odds for reasons intrinsic to their characters. We sought to do justice to the essential elements of the classic romantic comedies—“the romance of banter, of competition, of surrender, of personal style,” as Wesley Morris put it in his Grantland article mourning the current dearth of these qualities.
While we’re quoting critics, A.O. Scott remarked way back in ye olde 2008 that “the few remaining stars who show the kind of audacity and charisma that great romantic comedy requires tend to be busy with other things.” But, busy as many actors may be paying the bills by squeezing into colorful spandex and/or squeezing off banana clips, our experience casting Tumbledown seemed to indicate that a good number of them still hunger for the challenges, dramatic latitude and fun they get to have in a well-realized specimen of the romantic comedy. (And let’s not forget, they also get to pretend to be in love/make love with another remarkably attractive professional make-believer, which should not be discounted as far as incentives go.)
Because on Tumbledown, we were quite lucky to find that, when in due time it reached the right hands, Desi’s script attracted a basketball team’s worth of fascinating actors, with a pair of uniquely soulful and vibrant point guards eager to flex their skills in the paint. Which is all it takes, right? Charming performances, riotously funny dialogue, a touch of humanity, a little wad of cash, and wha-bam, you’ve got yourself a beloved and enduring chunk o’ cinema.
Linda Holmes of NPR is inclined to remind us: “Making romantic comedies as good as the ones Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made is very hard. It’s art. It’s like all other art—nobody is making what Andy Warhol made, either… the execution is everything, and making people care about a story where everyone usually knows how it ends isn’t easy.” My beloved screenwriter/wife, Desi, and I certainly found that to be the case, but it felt like a great privilege to get to face those challenges in service of a story that came from the heart.
As I stand here at the grave of romantic comedy on Valentine’s Day, trying avoid getting the naysayers’ pee on my pant cuffs, I like to imagine that the romantic comedy isn’t down there putrefying—that maybe it’s not even a corpse at all. Maybe this gravestone actually hides the secret passage to a cavern where romantic comedy serves as the particle accelerator of the cinematic sciences. Humor is the magnetic propulsion, flinging intellectually dexterous and comically idiosyncratic characters on a collision course so their worldly armor shatters on impact, exploding the fascinating, freaky fundamental particles inside them into dramatic relief, so that we may learn something about ourselves. Maybe so. And then I’m like, “Never smoke weed in a graveyard again, dude.” MM
Tumbledown opened in theaters on February 5 and On Demand February 12, courtesy of Starz Digital.