Thursday, April 25, 2013

Every Silver Lining Has a Dark Cloud

Amazon informs me that Silver Linings Playbook will arrive April 30. I caught this flick, which won Jennifer Lawrence her Oscar, in the theater, but decided to add it to the DVD shelf anyway as something of recent vintage to watch with company. (Many of my visitors who stay for a movie are doubtful about the 40-90 y.o. pics that occupy much of my shelf-space.)

Romantic comedies of the current century rarely succeed both commercially and critically as well as this one. Not everyone liked Silver Linings Playbook, to be sure. Richard Brody in The New Yorker wrote an interesting but idiosyncratic review that was blistering toward the screenplay, though he expressed sympathy for the actors: “In other words, the plot is utterly ridiculous, the characters are created merely to fulfill its requirements, and whatever charm and integrity the movie possesses issues from the actors, who do their damnedest to lend their scriptbots flesh and soul.” Beyond this, he detected a “conservative” world-view in the film that was not to his liking. (I know nothing about the politics or philosophy of writer/director David Russell, but, just by the odds in Hollywood, I suspect this interpretation surprised him.) Overall, though, reviews were glowing, from Roger Ebert at the Sun-Times to Manohla Dargis at The New York Times.

Brody is right about the plot being contrived, but so are the plots of nearly all RomComs. In this one, we see two people with serious but manageable mental illnesses – plus supportive but flawed and stressed-out families – who might just be right for each other.

I side with The New York Times on this one rather than The New Yorker, but the fact that Silver Linings Playbook is a rarity raises a question. RomComs once were a well-liked genre, yet in the past decade few have won as many as three stars on Rotten Tomatoes. What happened? Christopher Orr in The Atlantic addresses this question in an article titled Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad? He laments “the long decline from Katherine Hepburn to Katherine Heigl.” To be fair to Miss Heigl, Hepburn had vastly superior scripts, e.g. Bringing up Baby and The Philadelphia Story. I don’t think the elder Katherine could have done any more than the younger one with Knocked Up or The Ugly Truth. Yet, the question remains: why are today’s scripts inferior? Orr’s thesis is that RomComs rely on couples overcoming obstacles to be together, “but society has spent decades busily uprooting any impediment to the marriage of true minds. Love is increasingly presumed—perhaps in Hollywood most of all—to transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender, and (on occasion) marital status.” The rare genre film that succeeds, he suggests, comes up with an obstacle we as viewers are willing to credit, such as the mental issues in Silver Linings Playbook or the age issues (the romantic duo are 12) in Moonrise Kingdom.

There is something to this, but I think something more basic is at work, too. By and large, we 21st century folk have become much more cynical about the whole idea of romantic love – at least as something other than a fleeting aberration that enters and leaves our lives now and again. It is this cynicism which keeps us from buying into the premises of most modern RomComs; we give a pass to the classic films, which so often ended with a marriage, because “people thought about things differently then.” The declining rate of marriage in real life reflects an increasingly widespread opinion (at least in hetero circles) that no good can come of it. (Not everyone agrees, of course.) Singles are a majority of adults, and most are just fine with that status. This already was an issue for screenwriters in the 90s. In Blast from the Past (1999), a successful RomCom, Alicia Silverstone informs Brendan Fraser, “Marriage bites! ... Everybody knows that. Ask my divorced sisters. Or ask my divorced mom and dad." Brendan doesn’t know that (thereby providing a work-around for the happy ending) because he has been raised with 1962 values.

It’s not just marriage. All forms of long-term coupling face the same image problem. When I saw the adventure film The Avengers in the theater, Scarlett Johansson, as Black Widow, got audience applause for her line, “Love is for children.”

How did we get this way? I don’t pretend to know (though I have some ideas), but it’s hard not to notice. It presents screenwriters with a challenge that only a few overcome. Moonrise Kingdom worked because…well…the protagonists are children. We’ll buy Silver Linings Playbook because they’re crazy. Either of those conditions could account for it. But without extreme explanations we are skeptical.


  1. I'm right with you on the issue of poor scripts in rom coms. They seem to have gotten especially bad since the mid 1990s or so. I've noticed that the characters have become so stereotypical that is nearly impossible to connect with them. The women tend to be obsessed with marriage to the point they that is their only character trait. The men are either milktoast bland clueless hunks or bland clueless bad boys that wouldn't scare a puppy. There is no happy medium, and no edge to these scripts.

    And the humor is not organic, it turns into joke set pieces that have obvious set ups, horrible executions and pointless punchlines. We don't get a lot of humor generated organically from natural character interaction or witty dialogue. One of the reasons "When Harry Met Sally" works so well to this day is that the humor really seems to build naturally from the characters. It never feels forced.

    Some folks complain about the formula in these films. But I don't think that's really a problem. All genre's have formulas they follow (action and horror movie formulas can get just as stale). But I think a good script can utilize the formulas to great advantage. It just takes a bit of thought and quite a few rewrites to get it to click.

    I'm must happy my wife has never been a fan of rom coms. There's a few she enjoys, but mostly she loves to watch horror flicks. :)

    1. I wonder if more scriptwriters have become so influenced by other TV and movie dramas (rather than by real life) that their scripts suffer "copy of a copy" degradation. We live so much of our lives in virtual environments these days that many of us may lose a feel for what "natural character interaction" really is.

      Re: your viewing partner's tastes, lucky you.