In past reviews I’ve proposed the curious state of contemporary gender relations as a possible reason that romantic comedies – once the prime staple of Hollywood – haven’t done well with critics or audiences since the beginning of this century. By and large, folks are too cynical to buy into the premise anymore. They buy into infatuation, which pretty much everyone has experienced, but that is different from romance of the romcom sort (it is likely to be one-sided for one thing) and is broadly acknowledged as something likely to end badly. The successful cinematic exceptions are telling. Something outlandish is introduced to the plot to explain the romance, which apparently is otherwise inexplicable: a character is a time traveler (Kate and Leopold), the lovers have a psychic connection (In Your Eyes), they’re too young to know any better (Moonrise Kingdom), or they’re actually mentally ill (Silver Linings Playbook). With their screenplay for Playing It Cool, Chris Shafer and Paul Vicknair approached the problem (not very successfully) by writing a meta-romcom about a screenwriter who is stuck midway through a romcom script because he thinks all the romcom clichés are no longer credible. Even Disney has gotten on board. Frozen, Brave, and Maleficent are at best dismissive of romance; the males in these flicks are feckless (Phillip and Kristoff), oafs (Merida’s suitors), or downright evil (Stefan and Hans).
The cynicism reflects the changing way in which people live – especially in the prime youthful movie-going demographic. This clearly shows up in the waning of marriage. The marriage rate is lower than it ever has been. The median age of first marriage for those who bother at all is higher than it ever has been. Not just formal marriage but all types of committed relationships are less common. According to Gallup, “Young adults are not simply swapping marriage for living together, but rather [are] less likely to be making the more serious commitment associated with moving in together – whether in marriage or not.” A lot of this may have to do with the declining fortunes of men. According to Time, median male wages in real terms are down 20% since 1980; young men make up only a third of current college undergrads. Most young guys are, in short, lousy prospects, and according to a 2012 Pew study “a secure job” still topped the female list of requirements for a partner. Only the upper-middle-class and wealthy minority of men and women still get married in large numbers, and they tend to do so with each other. (This exacerbates class differences, but that is a matter for another blog.) Never mind committed relationships, Millennials don’t even date as much as Xers and Boomers did at their ages. None of this is fertile soil for the presuppositions of romcoms. Audiences still might have the same romantic fantasies as they always did, but they find it harder to “suspend disbelief” for two hours while indulging them; what they see on the screen just isn’t consistent with their own experience or expectations.
Nonetheless, I’m up for seeing how filmmakers try to deal with modern cynical audiences, so on Monday I went to see How to Be Single, currently in theaters. A major *Spoiler* is included below, so those for whom that matters may wish to stop reading. There are several overlapping plots – all distinctly from a female point of view – but the central story is that of Alice (Dakota Johnson), who feels she never has experienced being truly single. She always has been in some relationship. So, she tells her boyfriend Josh they should take a break from each other. That way, if they do end up back together, they won’t blame each other for having missed out on life. Alice moves to Manhattan where her sister Meg is a single-by-choice OB/GYN. Alice meets Robin (Rebel Wilson) at the law firm where she gets a job as a paralegal. It doesn’t take much freewheeling casual sex for Alice to decide the experiment is over; she contacts Josh to resume their relationship but discovers he meanwhile has met someone else whom he plans to marry. Robin, who embraces carefree excess as a lifestyle, tries to push Alice to do the same. Alice’s NYC romances, including with a single dad, don’t work out. There are subplots with Robin, with Meg who decides to have a child by artificial insemination and then meets a younger man, and with Lucy (Alison Brie) who methodically seeks out the perfect partner with social media. Tying the plots together is Tom the bartender who offers string-free sex and a little male perspective.
Alice’s epiphany (the reason for the spoiler alert above) comes when she realizes that she has not been learning how to be single; instead, she has kept trying to become part of a couple. Being single is something you do alone: it doesn’t mean you don’t have friends; it doesn’t mean you don’t have dates; it means you have no responsibilities to anyone but yourself. That’s a pretty cool thing at any time, but especially in one’s 20s. The final scene has Alice watching and savoring the sunrise alone in the Grand Canyon, something one can do at a whim when single, but which is a hassle when not. Adult singledom is a great and free period of life; for some of us it is the only one we ever want.
How to Be Single is by no means a great movie or even a particularly good one, but I’ll still give it a thumbs up for trying out a romcom ending that suits the times.
Not as relentlessly raucous as Rebel Wilson's lines might indicate: