Cinema has seen some interesting thematic changes over the past decade. The rise of 3D is one; the dominance of dark, brooding heroes in morally complex tales another. For a third, you could probably argue for the endless stream of sequels, prequels and spinoffs that dominate the multiplexes. But today, I’d like to talk about a more subtle development, and one that you might not have noticed. Today, I’d like to talk about the new recent direction of romanctic films, and about the Rise of the ManCom (and no, that’s not the title of the next Transformers movie).
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for a love story. Not any love story, mind – I’d much rather drink vomit from my shoes than watch The Notebook, or be kicked in the balls repeatedly over watching anything starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Romantic cinema needs to be more than emotional manipulation, or heartless, soulless stereotyping. It needs to tap into something more. The classic romantic comedies of the 1990s-early 2000s, for example, were able to dominate the field of romantic films, and the best of them couple to signposts of their particular type – the moderately successful working woman meets a handsome, dashing fellow, has a whirlwind romance followed by a reality check, culminating in a chase through the airport/invasion of a wedding/tearful reunion in a romantic location – with humour, pathos and not a little emotion. Give me a copy of “You’ve Got Mail”, couple it with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s and I’ll be yours forever. Seriously.
But the romantic comedy has been in steady decline for years, both in frequency and in quality. As with all popular genres, when the heyday is over the innovation disappears and the need to make money starts to dominate. Classics like Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally are left to the nostalgics while the studios pump out an endless stream of sub-par stereotypes with dodgy Meg Ryan imitators (read: SJP).
Alongside this decline, the eternal themes of love and romance have found a new home in a slew of films that are certainly a lot more man-friendly, even if they aren’t necessarily aimed directly at the masculine audience. For the purposes of simplification, I’ll call these the ManComs, the new leaders in mainstream cinematic romance. Here’s how you go about identifying one:
1. The main character is either an Everyman or a slacker, most likely played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, or Owen Wilson.
2. Mr Everyman has a best friend/best friends who act as the comedy sidekick, and is either gay, stoned, a womaniser, crudely comical or generally a bit of a dick. Mr Everyman will also likely have a family that is dysfunctional.
3. Early in the piece, Mr Everyman conveniently meets a girl whom he considers to be the girl of his dreams, out of his league, or otherwise awesome. Said WonderGirl has quirky and endearing character traits which cast a spell over our protagonist. There is a strong possibility that she’s played by latter-day Drew Barrymore, Zooey Deschanel, or Emma Stone.
4. After an initial honeymoon period, their relationship will gradually deteriorate as her apparent quirks cease to be so charming, a masculine love rival appears, and the pedestal the Mr Everyman has built comes crashing down around his ears.
5. Generally – but with some important exceptions – Everyman and Wondergirl learn to move past these problems and to accept each other as they are. Importantly, however, there’s a strong possibility that the end will be bittersweet and our couple remain nothing more than friends. It’s not about who ends up with who as long as everyone learns their lesson.
There are a few other things that your archetypal ManCom might contain – crude humour, in particular, is a common feature – but these five elements are the key. They constitute a fairly bounded world of films that have sprung, seemingly from nowhere, and now dominate a sphere of modern cinema in their own right. But where did it all begin?
This might seem controversial, but I would say the originator of this particular development is Richard Curtis. Notting Hill is probably the original and seminal example of the genre – normal bookshop owner with mental Welsh housemate meets and reveres Hollywood star, they fall out when their respective flaws become apparent, and are reunited in a magical ending where each accepts the other as they are. You could also make a case for the Graduate as an early prototype, and for Woody Allen’s earlier work (particularly Manhattan). More recently, Jerry Maguire could be considered an intermediate version. But Richard Curtis, for me, was the first to use the categories outlined above in a way that was self-aware and genre-defining. Notting Hill remains the undisputed King of the ManCom. End of story.
Unfortunately, however, the true inventor never gets the credit, and rarely does he become the populariser of his own invention. Plenty of time elapsed between Notting Hill’s release and the modern development of the ManCom as a widespread, popular genre. In reality, the true populariser of the ManCom in modern Hollywood is Judd Apatow. Apatow has brought a lot to the land of cinema, and not all of it positive – the rapid rise of Seth Rogen comes to mind, as does the phrase “from the producer of Knocked Up” plastered all over the crappy, second-rate films that profit from his minor involvement.
However, the Hollywoodisation of the ManCom can be traced directly back to Knocked Up itself, which was upheld at the time as a new breed of mature, gender-neutral adult romance. It features all the classic traits: slacker with mad stoner friends meets girl whom he considers out of his league, they hook up, the central relationship deteriorates, before they accept each other and redemption follows. There’s also plenty of crude humour to really let you know you’re in ManCom territory. Apatow’s follow-up features also contain these traits, such that he can be considered the contemporary ruler of the genre (with Richard Curtis, of course, having now been promoted to the position of God).
Just as the late 80s-late 90s were the Golden Age of the Romantic comedy, so the current age could be considered the Golden Age of the ManCom. Films like 500 (Days of Summer), Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Garden State, have carried the thematic torch into interesting territory, and met with both critical and commercial success. That’s not to say that all ManComs are good – as with any genre there are ups and downs. But, as with any genre, the best examples are those films which not only combine the necessary elements, but infuse them with life, energy, and emotion, strong characters and a great central relationship. And, as with any genre, good films from other fields – think Zombieland, The Amazing Spider-Man, Midnight in Paris – can dip in and steal central elements and put them in a different setting, creating something new and interesting.
So enjoy the Golden Age, because it inevitably comes to an end. Just over the horizon is a poor-man’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, biding his time before he parasitically takes over the declining genre. Just as Judd Apatow’s recent output has been disappointing, so too will the genre as a whole decline and die as the studios put together the ManComic equivalent of “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” The wheel turns, nothing is new, and the ManCom goes back in the drawer, waiting until the next wave.
This article was first posted on March 26, 2013