What? Are you kidding? It actually means nothing. Just like the low numbers for recent RomCom disasters When In Rome and Leap Year, the fact that Gary Marshall Valentine’s Day (which we here at SE&L lovingly refer to as Shit Cuts, in smarmy homage to Robert Altman’s masterful 1993 look at LA) was the number one movie over Valentine’s Day is no big surprise. It’s like buying pumpkin futures before Halloween, or releasing a Christmas movie over the 25 December holidays. The biggest date night of the year – which lucky fell over a four day weekend – had to be money for Warner Bros, especially when you consider the all star cast (a draw in itself) and the tightly held $50 million budget. If they blew this one, pundits would have been laughing all the way to the lonely hearts club.
With an A to Z list that runs the gamut from still popular (Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx) to up and coming (the Taylors, Lautner and Swift) and questionable at best (Kathy Bates, Patrick Dempsey) Marshall, who literally redefined the hooker with a heart of gold – remember Pretty Woman – took Army Wives scribe Katherine Fugate’s cliché strewn script and simply stuffed it full of celebrity. The result, a hodgepodge of predictability, sitcomedy, and by now rote RomCom beats, is pleasant piffle, a two hour plus time suck that strives for very little and achieves the same. It’s not meant to be meaningful or earth-shattering. It’s not designed to redefine the genre. But one would hope that audiences would recognize subpar slop when they see it and not favor it financially, possibility of post-screening sex or not.
Yet sadly, most Romantic Comedies come up short in the categorical imperative – meaning they are typically not very funny and rarely supportive of sane, loving relationships. They’re all gimmickry, the screwball sensibility of the ’30s and ’40s morphed into a mindless array of high concept conceits and Automat stupidity. Instead of having people meet like normal everyday individuals, couples have to commune over ancient cultural ritual, groan-inducing governmental intervention, sloppy seismic coincidences, and contrivances to artificial they make plastic look like the softest leather. Back in the ’70s, something like Annie Hall or Manhattan argued that intellectual, if angst ridden, people could partake of each other’s company in a witty and warm matter. No need for stunts. Fast forward to the new millennium and spinsters are spewing cash at anything that refrains from realism and promotes wanton wish fulfillment at all costs.
A while back, we lamented the lack of commercial attention given to the far superior anti-RomCom (500) Days of Summer. In comparison to the crapfest known as The Ugly Truth, we racked our pea brains trying to decipher – all name case aside – why crowds would flock to one and frown upon the other. Conclusions were hard to come by, sort of like comparing fine steak to rotting variety meats, but one thing was certain: the demo clearly loves ‘dumb’. That’s right, the reason the modern romantic comedy stinks like soiled sweat socks is that it celebrates mental midgetry at its most brazen. Everyone involved, from the cast to the characters to the crew to the concession stand suppliers are functioning at IQ levels so low that even the most addled film fan would feel superior. Instead of providing amusement, said films are making a self-esteem fragile fanbase feel better about themselves. Call it ‘Dr. Phil Cinema’
And it seems to be getting worse and worse. Every actress in Tinseltown worth their potential weight in TMZ style support is angling to get in on the lame love and mayhem game. In the last two months we had Amy Adams (who should have taken something away from the saccharine yet satisfying Enchanted) and Kristen Bell (who apparently learned nada from Forgetting Sarah Marshall) trying our motion picture patience. In the next few weeks we’ll see similar tripe from a dude, Jay Baruchel (She’s Out of My League), the ought to give up by now Jennifer Aniston (The Bounty Hunter), and the potentially potent pairing of Steve Carell and Tina Fey (Date Night).
Why? Why this seemingly nonstop streak of affection-based atrocities? Well, for one thing, when you aim as low as these films do, hitting a target – any target – is a cake walk. A $20 million budget with a known TV name can recoup most of its money in home video sales and rentals alone. Any box office is just icing on the itemized financial statement. Similarly, expectations have been so supremely lowered that when you don’t hit a home run, a ground rule double looks pretty gosh darn sweet. Then there is the omnipresent problem of meaty roles for today’s liberated lady. While it’s questionable that feminism would embrace the “nothing without a guy” mandate of these movies, most do celebrate independent gals going about their lives in busy, Blackberry-laced authority. So what if they sit at home at night and suck down the Edy’s in lonely despair. During the day, they’re bustin’ up that glass ceiling.
It’s all iconography and PC-polite apologies. It’s inference and surface with little or no depth. If we saw our own family members or friends running around naked in a rural Alaskan setting to avoid being shipped back to their home country (never mind the logic – just follow this), we’d find it pathetic, not sidesplitting. If a blind date showed up so blotto that she/he could barely speak coherently, we’d cower, not cackle. Today’s Romantic Comedies are so disconnected from the real world that they no longer function as candy-colored truth (that they ever did remains an issue for discussion). They’re now like Grimm’s Fairy Tales written by the crack adolescent staff of Lucky, or parables projected by Aesop’s gay friend, Frederick. Think Sex and the City drained of all its cosmopolitan chic and cougar libido and you’ve got the basic idea.
So good for everyone involved with Valentine’s Day – both the greeting card mandated celebration and the tacky tie-in entertainment. Making most of your budget back in three days is what everyone in the business of show strives for each time out. Over the course of the next few weeks, it will die down and defer to the random assortment of action films, horror revamps, and CG kid flicks floundering in the post-Awards, pre-Summer season no man’s land of January through April. It won’t be remembered well come DVD/Blu-ray time, and critics will still stand by their barely double digit rating at Rotten Tomatoes (16% and holding, baby!). A $50 million dollar triple-payday truthfully means very little in this context. In this regard, it’s a perfect reflection of the product itself.