Does anyone really care about the romantic comedy anymore? Does anyone see the once burgeoning chick flick genre as anything but a placeholder for the current actor or actress du jour? This year alone we’ve seen He’s Just Not That Into You, Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Proposal - even the bro-mantic farce I Love You, Man. Currently at the box office, two competing titles offer a sharp contrast in content and approach. One is all studio system stumbles. The other is indie iconographic.
The Ugly Truth, starring wannabe starlet Katherine Heigl and 300‘s Gerard Butler, hopes to take the cinematic category into ruder, cruder Apatow territory. It thinks ladies letting lose with genitalia specific quips is new and novel. And on the opposite end of the spectrum both creatively and commercially is Marc Webb’s wonderful (500) Days of Summer. Offering cinematic cool kids Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a vignette oriented effort, it spins the entire structure of the he/she courtship into something more closely akin to life. As a result, while the mainstream Truth continues the genre’s tragic downfall, (500) Days finds hope among the hokum.
The biggest problem with The Ugly Truth, aside from the basic elements of entertainment value (a severe lack of same) and humor (ditto) is in how it portrays people. Heigl’s character is an uptight TV producer who’s so anal and obsessive in her life - interpersonal and professional - that she can’t get a man. It’s not a question of looks, or putting herself out there. Her personality reeks of the uber-feminist, the callous career gal who wants it all and yet has no friggin’ realistic idea how to get it. And all she wants, oddly enough, is a dick.
Into her stunted life walks media darling male chauvinist oinker Butler. Offering advice that would give cavemen the creeps, he’s all about the bimbo. Shake your moneymaker, he argues. Treat men like butt-scratching demigods. Play up their insecurities and downplay your smarts. Objectify yourself and the guys will go ga-ga…and you know what, it works! Heigl uses Butler as a kind of revisionist Cyrano, guiding her into a relationship with a dopey dreamboat doctor. A couple of musical montages later, and our heroine realizes that she doesn’t want the passable pretty boy. Instead, she craves Butler’s Neanderthal machismo - and what it’s packing down below. One big shout down later and its kiss, kiss…coitus
Typical of the way current Hollywood treats love, Truth turns personality into cartoons, women and men both forced into farce for what someone thinks is a meet-cute comedic design. When Heigl “accidentally” wears a pair of vibrating panties to an important business dinner, you just know those suckers will eventually go off. Similarly, when Butler gets “busy” with a couple of Jell-O spelunking bikini babes, you quickly realize his level of commitment. No matter the muddle backstory given to both, the decent guy dimensions of his relationship with his nephew or her stark realizations over her own insecurities, we wind up with pawns played clumsily toward a check lifemate closure.
(500) Days on the other hand, starts out with a premise that many used to the old formulas will find disconcerting. Deschanel plays a love object who doesn’t believe in the first part of the tag. She’s a recently relocated secretary who sees relationships as the foundation of a strong friendship. But romance and true feelings of affection are just hyped-up Hallmark greetings. She’s not above said sentiments - she just doesn’t think they exist. Gordon-Levitt, however, is hopeless. He pines and spoons, worshiping such antiquated conceits as “love at first sight” and “the soulmate”. Sure, life has led him a little astray, a failed career in architecture resulting in a job writing greeting cards, but for someone who believes in the whole “roses are red” ridiculousness, said occupation seems more than apropos.
Webb, who directed music videos before making his big screen debut, presents their on-again/off-again dating game in fragmented, randomized sequences. One moment, we are at Day 45 and seeing the start of something sexual. The next, it’s Day 210 and Deschanel is showing signs of tuning out. From the initial (Day 1) meeting to the (Day 400) possible parting, each 24 hour cycle is decisive, offering the piece of a puzzle which argues for the success, or collapse, of such human endeavors. Gordon-Levitt may be an impossible romantic, but he’s also a post-modern realist. If such a fairy tale ending doesn’t happen, it’s not really the end of the world. It will hurt, but that’s what life is all about. But it’s definitely not something a musical montage will remedy.
Aside from obvious elements like a genuine sense of humor, a glorious Smiths-ccentric soundtrack, and a pair of likeable 20-something stars, (500) Days also differs from The Ugly Truth in one significant way - it’s not afraid of failure. Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt may seem perfect together, but life doesn’t always give Prince Charming his proposed royal Miss. Indeed, the strongest statement made by this movie is that, unlike the “destined to be” dumbness of Heigl’s stuck up bitch bowing to Gerard, not all “perfect matches” are same. Sometimes, the flowery language of ballads and sonnets is just that - bullshit. Only in Hollywood could two polar opposites pretend to fall freely into something akin to ‘happily ever after’. In the real - if still slightly mannered - world of (500) Days, boy does always end up with the girl, perhaps, because they do really need to.
Of course, when you’ve got the major backing of the Tinseltown studio system behind you, your wish fulfillment message is going to make the bigger mainstream splash. This past weekend, The Ugly Truth took in a little over $27 million. Released in over 2880 theaters nationwide, this is seen as a strong opening for Heigl and her burgeoning A-list movie career. (500) Days of Summer, however, has earned a paltry $3 million in its two weeks in theaters. Granted, it recently expanded to 85 venues, but one can hardly call it a solid success - at least, not right now.
If there was any real justice in the movie making business model, Truth would be rejected as the flimsy star vehicle whimsy it is, while (500) Days would top the charts and champion a whole new category of clever, confident “realistic” romantic comedies. Like Woody Allen did back in the ‘70s with the sensational one-two punch of Annie Hall and Manhattan, guy meets gal doesn’t have to be cliché meets commercial crassness. Human beings can and do fall in (and out) of love, and sometimes, watching them do said is entertaining and endearing. The Ugly Truth reflects its unattractive moniker flawlessly. (500) Days of Summer, on the other hand, offers promise to a genre that, for the most part, is desperate, dateless…and almost dead.