Smell the Bacon
The latest crop of romantic comedies tends to keep revisiting the shattered psyches of the recently heartbroken the way a plane crash survivor might replay the sensation of going down: obsessively, repeatedly, and without gaining any insight into what has happened. One might think these movies symptoms of collective hysteria over the state of romance in the 21st century. But if they are, this collectivism springs out of an isolation that these movies focus on as an inextricable part of the human condition. They may be comedies, but there’s enough loneliness in them to make Nietzsche sob into his beer.
Consider Someone Like You, in which heroine Jane Goodale (Ashley Judd) is summarily dumped just before embarking on a live-in relationship. This so devastates her that she begins compulsively poring over psychological, anthropological, and philosophical tomes, all in an effort to make sense of the inconstant way the male animal conducts himself. Eventually she alights on a possible explanation in the natural world—the reluctance among bulls to mate with a given cow more than once—and less-than-scientifically projects this characteristic across great swaths of the mammalian kingdom to conclude that unfaithfulness is inherent to the male gender, regardless of its species.
Her research for this theory, which she dubs the “New Cow” theory, takes for experimental subjects not only Ray (Greg Kinnear), the aforementioned ex-lover, but also Eddie (Hugh Jackman), a womanizing coworker with whom she must move in after her falling out with Ray leaves her homeless. As Eddie brings home one sex partner after another, Jane psychoanalyzes him relentlessly—culling information for a monthly column she eventually begins writing for a men’s magazine, yes, but also trying, by proxy, to distill Ray’s actions into an abstract principle. This will let her turn her recent breakup into an inevitable act of nature and she can thereby avoid the unthinkable alternative, the possibility that something in her identity leaves her singularly susceptible to rejection: “If this theory’s wrong,” she wails to Eddie later in the movie, “men don’t leave all women—they leave me.”
As she and Eddie bicker endlessly about the quality of men and women’s respective characters, we learn that Eddie also has a tragic heartbreak in his past: since his girlfriend Rebecca dumped him, he’s been unable to trust in intimacy and instead obsessively philanders to forget about his loss—to, as Jane says, “narcotize” himself with “casual sex.” Someone Like You‘s press kit describes Eddie and Jane as a “Hepburn and Tracy of the modern era,” but this undercurrent of painful loss and compulsive grief avoidance is precisely missing from movies like Desk Set and Adam’s Rib. Jane and Eddie are really much more like Sam and Maggie from Addicted to Love or Rob and Marie DeSalle in High Fidelity—seeking solace in one another’s pain, and mutually soothing two related terrors: that they will die alone, and that they will never recover from their depression.
Notwithstanding the romantic comedy genre’s affection for happily-ever-after endings, Someone Like You occasionally testifies to the futility of attempts to recover from or understand Jane’s sense of loss. Take, for instance, Jane’s inconsolable voice-over monologue as Ray leaves her, strolling away across the street without even turning around. It’s borrowed basically verbatim from the book: “Short of death, I think, there are few things sadder in this life than watching someone walk away from you after they have left you, watching the distance between your two bodies expand until there is nothing but empty space, and silence.”
The novel has several passages like this, when the broad comedy of manners and light-hearted repartee trail off into simple, irreducible statements of existential gloom. Although generally sunnier, the movie captures the novel’s misery from time to time; when Jane first moves in with Eddie, and discovers that the passage from his apartment to her room is neither a doorway nor a walkway, but a gaping, jagged hole in the wall, framed by splintered wood. At first Eddie claims to be remodeling, but eventually he admits that after Rebecca moved out he “just took an ax and started hacking away at it.”
Once Jane moves into the room she cries and studies there in more or less equal measure; as she sobs away Eddie reaches around a curtain haphazardly draped over the hole to hand her a glass of scotch. “Morphine for the pain,” he assures her, rattling the ice, and the jagged doorway’s role as a symbol for the persistence of heartache is hard to miss. A tad subtler is the room’s symbolism as she sits numbly watching nature documentaries, formulating her “New Cow” theory, completely oblivious to how much her own cavelike dwelling resembles those of the small rodents she’s studying on tv. Her theory falls into place via a hallucination as one of the rodents looks at her from within the tv and asks, “Smell the bacon, Jane?”
Well, no, if by “smell the bacon” the rodent means to ask, has Jane finally managed to step outside the animal kingdom, to observe all its fickleness as though floating somewhere above it, insulated in the comfortable isolation of reason? For all her attempts to think herself out of her own humanity—scattering her lair with assorted piles of articles and books until it looks more like a nest than a room—she’s just as much a pitiful critter as the rest of us.