Sunday, August 11, 2013

Here’s Mud in your Yi

Many recent movie critics have noted the decline of the romantic comedy (RomCom) genre, once a staple of the industry. In a blog back in April (Every Silver Lining Has a Dark Cloud) I speculated that it has run aground on contemporary cynicism. Modern audiences find it difficult to buy into  HEAs (“happily-ever-afters”). RomComs with HEA endings are still made in the 21st century, but, with few exceptions, they are pretty lousy – compare The Awful Truth (1937) to The Ugly Truth (2009). Ugly indeed. Yet, The Awful Truth couldn’t simply be remade; audiences wouldn’t credit the attitudes, values, and dialogue as realistic in the present day, even if they allow them for an earlier era. RomCom filmmakers sometimes work around this by using unrealistic characters; he’s a zombie, she’s a vampire, it’s an extraterrestrial, etc. OK, we say, maybe with a zombie things could work out. In the case of last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, one of the rare RomCom critical successes of the past decade, the characters are human enough, but they’re crazy. “Ah,” we say, “that accounts for it.” Nor are we patient when we encounter the classic plot elements of the genre. The battle of the sexes – a standard feature in RomComs – no longer much amuses us either in real life or in film; it increasingly has grown to resemble those stretches of the World War I western front in which both sides sat in their trenches and refused to engage at all.

Yet, a few interesting films have come out of the current mood. Take the indie flick Paper Heart, and the mainstream suspense film Mud.

Paper Heart was a favorite at Sundance. If you’re not familiar with the offbeat young comedian Charlyne Yi, I suggest getting acquainted, though her humor doesn’t click with everyone. Her shows are much closer to performance art than to stand-up. In 2009 she had an idea for a documentary about love and why she felt herself incapable of it. After a false start, she and Jake Johnson (for some reason calling himself Nick Jasenevec in the credits) instead created an odd hybrid film: a scripted story about Charlyne and Michael Cera is used as a framework on which to hang unscripted interviews with ordinary people from coast to coast. Michael and Charlyne already were buddies in real life at the time, but in this film they are presented as meeting for the first time. While the entire premise of Paper Heart is Charlyne’s cynicism about love, several of her interviewees plainly don’t share it. Even in such an unlikely place as an Oklahoma City biker bar she gets a lecture on true love, which shows that a “prevailing mood” is never universal. The resulting film is strangely captivating. As fair warning, customers on Amazon gave the movie almost equal numbers of 1-star and 5-star reviews. Like Yi’s routines, the movie isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I recommend giving it a shot. The trailer below is misleading; more of the film consists of her interviews than of the scripted story with Michael.

In an entirely different vein, Mud (2012) is a suspense drama starring Matthew McConaughey as Mud (yes, that’s his name) and Reese Witherspoon as Juniper. (I caught it on pay-per-view last week.) There is no skepticism at all about the existence of long-term romantic love in this film, but it certainly is made to seem like a supremely bad idea. Mud is wanted by the law for killing one of Juniper’s abusive beaus; the family of the slain man also is seeking to avenge his death. Mud and Juniper are assisted in their efforts to escape together by a starry-eyed 14-year-old boy; he idolizes the couple because they truly seem in love, unlike his parents who are getting a divorce. He eventually is disabused of his adolescent romantic notions when he realizes that neither Mud nor Juniper has the character to make anything good come out of their feelings for each other. He is left with the suspicion that maybe no one does, and that other relationships in his life (friends, family) are more important.

So, it seems modern cynicism is soil for art after all; it’s not just a poison for RomComs. Perhaps in 20 years we will enter a more hopeful and trustful era, and we’ll write about the regrettable decline of cynical cinema. “Movies are just so naïve nowadays,” we’ll complain. “They just don’t make cynical films like Mud and Paper Heart anymore.”

1 comment:

  1. I've heard quite a few things about "Mud", and most of them have been positive. I think I'll have to check it out. Not a bit Matthew McConaughey fan, but in the right role he clicks for me.

    I've never heard of Charlyne Yi, "Paper Hearts" sounds interesting. I'll check that out too.