Sunday, August 21, 2011

My Best Friends Wedding Proposal

A few years ago I was invited to give a talk at another university and the lady who invited me offered to put me up for the night. That night, as I settled down on her sofabed, I looked through her DVD tower by the tv. All of her DVDs seemed to heavily feature the colour pink, with pictures of male-female couples, often in contrived silly poses and I realised her terrible secret - she was a romcom addict.

I shouldn't feel superior about anyone's film choices. I've pretty much lost count of the number of times I've shown one of my favourite films to someone at the start of a friendship, which has ensured they never invite me round again. Just coming out of the closet ? The self-hating gay men of Boys in The Band will send you right back in again! Fancy a fun lesbian romance? How about the kidnapping and religious rancour of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit? Are you recently pregnant? Well I'm sure you'll enjoy the abortion jokes in drag queen epic Girls Will Be Girls. Do you hate horror films? Well don't worry, retro-cult movie The House of the Devil isn't that scary at all. I'm sure you'll like it and not go upstairs halfway through, never to return.

It's only when I watch such films through the eyes of my friends that I realise that awful scenes of people being horrible to each other are not necessarily "read" as camp and hilarious but can be quite upsetting.

And actually, I'm not that picky when it comes to films. Despite a natural liking for some of the films I've listed above, as well as lowbrow nasties like Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, I'm also happy to watch something in Italian with subtitles, a rousing war film, a spaghetti western, a Disney film, a Bond film or even a romcom.

Although with romcoms they have to be enjoyed on two levels - first, as the creators would have you watch them - getting swept along by the story, caring for the characters and shedding a few tears when they finally get together. But also on a much more cynical, detatched, look how they are manipulating me level. All romcoms follow a formula - which can be reduced to: a heterosexual couple encounter various obstacles to love, then get over it and live happily ever afer.

My favourite romcom is 27 Dresses. As Stefon from SNL would say "It has everything!" I think it might be the most perfect romcom ever. You can tick off the bits of the formula.

  • A heroine who lives in New York and has a glamorous job (Katherine Heigl is Jane, a wedding planner.

  • A gorgeous leading man who despite his obviously contrived flaws that any normal person would be prepared to overlook, it will take the heroine the WHOLE FILM to realise she loves him. In this case it is James Marsden who is a bit grumpy and writes a slightly mocking article about the heroine. My personal favourite is Ryan Reynolds (Definitely Maybe, The Proposal).

  • A Distractor Male. This is usually a less famous actor who the heroine will think she is in love with but actually isn't. In 27 Dresses it's Edward Burns (who?)

  • A sassy "supportive/supporting role" best friend who hangs around on the sidelines and doesn't really have much to do except act as a cheerleader, make witticisms and be quirky. Margaret Cho sums up this character well in one of her routines "Hey, I can't get a man, but I got a lot of good advice!" The character has been around forever - Eve Arden made the wise-cracks to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, while Corale Browne did it for Rosalind Russell in Aunt Mame. In 27 Dresses, it's Casey, played by Judy Greer. In one scene, on seeing Jane, she tells her "Ooh, you clean up good. *I* might even be into you." But towards the end of the film, when Jane has humiliated her OWN SISTER by revealing her to be a meat-eating, dog-hating slut at her wedding rehearsal in front of the groom (and now "the wedding's off"), Casey tells Jane "You could have told him face-to-face. I mean, I know my moral compass doesn't exactly point due north, but... if I say something's wrong, something's wrong... What you did was unleash twenty years of repressed feelings in one night. It was entertaining, don't get me wrong, but if it was the right thing to do, you'd feel better right now. Do you feel better right now?" Oh the wisdom of the sassy best friend.

  • A love rival. Jane has her trashy sister Tess (Malin Akerman) who may as well be the devil in this film. Her most serious crime? She pretends to be a vegetarian to get Edward Burns into bed. Seriously - who hasn't told a few lies in the name of love? If we didn't hide all of the negative aspects of our personality at the start of a relationship, the human race would have died out long ago.

  • A musical number. At some point, the main characters will give a pitch-perfect rendition of a slightly naff pop song. In My Best Friend's Wedding the whole cast suddenly started in on "Say a Little Prayer" with no warning at all. Here, they sing Benny and the Jets by Elton John.

  • Declarations of love in public. Because these films are American, where everyone shouts and there is no concept of "private", nothing really counts or means anything unless it has been witnessed by a group of complete strangers and all of your friends. Therefore, romcoms frequently feature large parties where someone will grab a microphone, climb onto a stage and spontaneously announce that they loved Mary-Sue all along. Then everyone will go "ahh", smile and applaud, and the couple will have a passionate kiss, smug in the fact that they are the centre of attention, now and always. My favourite take on the public declaration of love is in "Failure To Launch" when, somehow, the crucial love scene plays out while the main characters are being watched on webcam by an entire COFFEE SHOP of hip Americans.

    There can be variations on a theme - poor old Julia Roberts ends up all alone (apart from her sassy (gay) best friend Rupert Everett in My Best Friends Wedding (there's two variations for you!) And I always like it when the romcom does "foreign" which means that the American characters wind up in London (as happens to Debra Messing when she hires a handsome male escort in The Wedding Date). It's a London that I have no experience of - everyone live in huge houses, goes to even huger country houses for the weekend, the males are all sporty and ruddy (sometimes they play rugby and wear rugby shirts constantly), it never rains and there are no poor people or black people anywhere. But really, Jane Austen wrote the original romcom - and give or take something disastorous happening with a pair of big pants, the winning formula hasn't changed since then.

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