February 05, 2004

Two Weeks Off and romcom musings

Alias and The Handler have been on winter hiatus, presumably storing their nuts for fall Ė err, I mean, stockpiling their episodes for February sweeps. But I need something to watch while exercising. Iíve been making my slow way through the Angels in America miniseries and Iím sure Iíll have something to say about it once I finish, but honestly? Itís fascinating but not ideal for aerobic sessions. Too talky, too serious. These are not flaws in the work, but definitely flaws in the workout.

So I switched to Two Weeks Notice, which Iíd taped off HBO. I didnít expect much beyond some snappy cute dialogue and some wincingly clichť situations. The first time I put it on the VCR, I ended up sweating my way up to forty minutes (my usual has been thirty). Obviously it held my interest.

I thought the first half of the movie was one of the best told romantic comedies Iíd seen in a while. Sprightly, fun, the characters nicely delineated and not ones weíve seen a million times. I admit to a soft spot for a woman whoís a fiery political activist and whose parents are too. Nice way to portray a lawyer for a change. And Hugh Grantís character was pretty damn similar to Dudley Mooreís in Arthur except without the alcoholism or the butler Ė no, actually he has a butler-type chauffer dude, so I stand corrected Ė but he was nevertheless charming in that Hugh Grant sort of way, and the character was written self-aware and intelligent enough to make him quite likeable. Beyond that, though, I loved how the relationship between the characters built into something with a real back-and-forth and attitude built in. Sheís his lawyer but he values her opinion so highly he asks for her advice on pretty much everything. Thereís a lot of affection in that scenario, and also a lot of natural exasperation. The movie still has a typical romcom larger-than-life trying-too-hard dishonest sheen, but in a genial, fun way.

Then came the twist: she wants to quit. (Hey, itís in the title, itís not exactly a big shocker of a spoiler.) And after that the movie turned to shit. Genial, pleasant shit, but shit nevertheless. Thereís a new pretty lady lawyer in a classic All About Eve setup. She poaches on Sandra Bullockís man Ė I mean employer. Bullock doesnít care but she does. Bullock and Grant share a kiss only it doesnít count. He acts out. She acts out. They deny feelings. They have a big fight. And so on. Romantic Comedy Boilerplate Number Forty Two on the movie factory assembly line. All the individuality in the script was washed away by a river of clichťs. I ceased caring about the characters because they ceased relating to each other, instead they were just pacing out their emotional beats in some formula cheat sheet sent out by a studio directive.

Man, was I pissed. I donít know who was responsible for sabotaging that script, whether it was a flaw in the original script version or a result of some idiotís notes, but they turned what was shaping up to be one of the freshest, most enjoyable romantic comedies I can remember into a cheap plastic toy of a movie.

Romantic comedies are hard. Iíve written a few myself. I donít know why I did. In retrospect, itís obviously not my mťtier. But I like good ones. And good ones are rare as hell. The problem is, itís hard to keep two people apart in a funny way that allows them enough time actually in the same room to create sparks. When social spheres rarely mixed, marriage was forever, people didnít have sex first (at least not on screen) and the Hayes Code was in full bloom, it was easier. There were plenty of ways to create emotional/sexual/romantic tension without resorting to bizarrely convoluted situations that seem as real as a photoshopped portrait of an emu in flight. Now? Not so easy. When Harry Met Sally did it well because it stayed real. It also had very little story, but that was okay. Now you need more story to get something made, though, and you end up with these meet-cute fight-cuter high concept nobody-really-lives-that-way formula pieces. Itís too bad. I do love good funny romance. Itís just hard to pull off.

I understand, I think, why someone decided Two Weeks Off needed some goosing in the second act. Fear of box office disaster. Fear of the great unknown. I just wish the filmmakers had trusted what they had a little (a lot) more. It would have been a far better movie.

Posted by Tamar at February 5, 2004 11:20 PM

I agree about "Two Weeks" - it really had potential.

I'm writing two romantic comedies. They ARE difficult to do. I love reading/watching romantic comedies, that's why I'm trying my hand at it.

I really like the thoughts you express on writing. I feel like you're verbalizing my own feelings sometimes.

Posted by: Amanda at February 6, 2004 08:18 AM

Totally agreed on your assessment -- that's one of the best dissections of what went wrong with that movie that I've seen.

I think the lure of making their "problem" funny tends to entice a lot of writers to make the "funny" superficial, because they forget (or executives forget) that humor and pathos are two sides to a coin. And, that even if something is difficult and painful, it can still be truly funny. That's where they backed off -- as soon as they got into painful territory, they lost their nerve, and it shows.

Posted by: toni at February 6, 2004 10:35 AM

Good luck to you on it, Amanda. I still love romcoms. When they're good.

And yeah, I think that's true, Toni. I think what the filmmakers backed off from was continuing with the characters they'd built and the issues that would naturally come out of those people separating from that symbiotic relationship. That's tricky stuff. It's easier to just go with slapstick and the standard Other Woman scenario. Lazier. Sloppier. But easier.

Posted by: Tamar at February 6, 2004 08:55 PM