The obituary for the traditional romantic comedy has already been written hundreds of times, but those who are just reading the headlines are missing the point. It’s not that the rom-com is dead; rather, the traditional form of the genre – with its outdated notions of love and regressive gender roles – has little use in our contemporary culture that demands authenticity. Romance and comedy can still live in harmony and two films released last weekend – Begin Again and They Came Together – offer revisions of the genre that obliterate the old tropes and light a path forward.
Begin Again is the more successful of the two, mostly because it probes deeper. The film marks the second major outing by writer/director John Carney, who is basically creating his own genre: the neo-musical. Like Once, his feature debut, Begin Again is a story of a man and woman who make great music together. There is a new song every few minutes, but it never breaks the fourth wall or devolves into spectacle like the musicals of old. It isn’t really about love in the traditional sense at all; instead, it substitutes the giddy, creative vibes of creating art together for the sappy tones of the romantic comedy.
Mark Ruffalo gives a warts-and-all performance as Dan, a down-on-his-luck, alcoholic record producer whose world changes when he hears Greta (Keira Knightly) play at an open mic night in Manhattan. With no resources, they hatch a plan to record an album all over the city, using New York’s unique ambient noise as atmosphere. It gives the film a guerrilla feel that jives well with Carney’s naturalistic style and the actors’ raw performances. The only problem is that the songs don’t quite hold up. Co-written by Once’s Glen Hansard and Gregg Alexander (lead singer of The New Radicals), the tunes sound exactly like the kind of major-label easy listening crap that the film claims to decry. Still, the songs don’t matter as much as you might think, since Begin Again is not about music so much as the act of making it, a feeling that, the film successfully proves, is remarkably close to being in love.
They Came Together fails to provide any such elegant insight. Undoubtedly, it is a less successful film than Begin Again, but, by spoofing the rom-com, it marks an equally important step in the genre’s progression.
Spoofing is widely considered a death knell for a genre. Some film historians go so far as to suggest that Blazing Saddles killed the western by laying bare all of its conventions and formulas. Likewise, They Came Together could have mercilessly skewered the rom-com’s many well-established tropes, but instead it seems happy simply to re-create them, displaying a deep love for the genre just when it’s supposed to be dancing on its grave.
Written by David Wain and Michael Showalter, who previously collaborated on the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, the film uses the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan vehicle You’ve Got Mail as its main reference point. Paul Rudd plays Joel, an executive at a corporate candy store chain that is threatening to put the mom-and-pop style candy store opened by Molly (Amy Poehler) out of business. They fall in love to the soundtrack of cheesy pop songs (not unlike what you would hear in Begin Again, incidentally), while running through a seemingly infinite list of rom-com tropes, including the “meet-cute” and an increasingly absurd trying-on-clothes montage.
It’s fine to display an in-depth knowledge of the genre, but simply emulating it does not qualify as satire. The film has its share of laugh-out loud moments, but few of them come from inverting or revising rom-com conventions. The film’s biggest laugh, for example, comes from a character succumbing to an intestinal urge at a costume party. The filmmakers know how to create a good comic set piece (honed on TV sketch shows like “The State” and “Stella”), but they never quite fashion it into a cohesive whole, and their reverence for the genre seems to be what’s holding them back.
Still, their delight at playing in the realm of the rom-com demonstrates its staying power. For those of us who grew up in the 1990s – the era of Pretty Woman, When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle, among many others – the rom-com will always have a place in our hearts, no matter how cynical our culture becomes. The existence of They Came Together and Begin Again prove that the genre can adapt to survive, but its success on a case-by-case basis will be determined by how creative a film is willing to be. Begin Again wins this round.