Two RomComs Make a Right

Filed under:It's the Jihad,Movies,Reviews — posted by Anwyn on August 19, 2006 @ 3:47 pm

Though I’m depressed as hell to find out the Lebanese army isn’t just cowed, but will be actively assisting the Hezbollah jihad, there isn’t much I can do about that, or even say, except that when the “legitimate” Lebanese army fires on the Israelis, we will officially have arrived at WWIII.

So for a little weekend escapism, let’s review two of this year’s romantic dramadies, The Break-Up and The Lake House.

The title of this post and the description “dramadies” are somewhat misleading, since Break-Up isn’t romantic and Lake House isn’t a comedy. The former is a depressing real-life “comedy” starring real-life couple (long may they last) Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston, while the latter is a redemptive escapist romance/fantasy drama starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. As something of a disclaimer, I would see a movie starring Reeves and Bullock as romantic leads if it consisted of them reading the newspaper to each other for two hours … which, let’s face it, is a lot like what they do in Lake House. But their chemistry remains right on throughout; has been since Speed.

I saw these two in back-to-back weeks. Break-Up left my jaw on the floor because–**SPOILER**–the title of the film is not just a clever name. They actually do break up. Call it my innate romantic streak, or call it my familiarity with Hollywood-style love stories, but I wasn’t prepared for that. After the initial fight and the mud-dragging that follows, they’re supposed to get their act together and kiss and make up, not trail off into a lousy “meet and greet” of an ending that’s presumably meant to show us peons how a “healthy breakup” is accomplished. They go from the “comedy” of living in the same condo after a blow-up that’s all too realistic–typical male/female power struggle of “please do what I want even though you don’t want to, or at least make a stab at understanding why I want you to” vs. “say what you want, forgive me if I screw it up even when you say it clearly, and shove ‘telling me what I should want to do if I loved you’ where the sun don’t shine”–to the poignancy of the moment of truth, when he’s realized how much he doesn’t want to live without her and she’s realized how much she just might. Vaughn and Aniston really work in these everyman/woman roles; both the initial fight and the eventual finality are heartbreaking, if you can get over some of the silliness in between the two events. What makes the movie unforgivable is the end after the end–a while later they meet on the street, finding each other better-looking, better dressed, wiser, more successful, and generally more confident and pulled together without each other. They do the typical “Wow, you look great, we should get together for coffee sometime, it’s been too long,” and part, never to meet again, we are sure. We’re supposed to believe that in addition to the above superlatives, they are truly happier without each other.

That may be true of these characters, and I’m not implying that all breakups are mistakes. Far from it. What I am saying is that the movie destroys all its “realistic” credibility with an insipid ending that bears surface resemblance to reality but betrays no hint of what an ordinary non-Vaughn-or-Aniston mortal would be going through in that circumstance. Meet your old boyfriend or girlfriend, the one you really loved, probably not wisely but too well, someplace unexpected (or even expected). Have the small talk. Break the ice a little. The little things that attracted you to his or her personality in the first place surface. Damage your calm. He or she seems genuinely glad to see you, but you struggle to remind yourself he or she is a nice person–of course they’re not going to go out of their way to make you feel uncomfortable about the meeting. Quite the reverse, actually. When he/she leaves you with the Vaughn wink or the Aniston smile, you’re very close to dying inside with all the pain of the original breakup.

In other words, breaking up sucks and continues to do so after the object is out of sight. A friend I saw the movie with offered the half-hearted supposition that we’re meant to believe they get back together, having each gotten themselves together a little bit in the time off. I don’t believe it for a second. It was a Hollywood preachment intended to show us how we could be better off for absorbing the lessons of a breakup and discarding the pain, moving on quickly, etc. Well, thanks for trying to improve the miserable lot of mortal love, but no thanks. I’m not looking for real-life breakups in the movies. I’ve been there, done that myself. Leave it to me to struggle with my own breakup hangups; don’t offer the false hope that emotions can be packed into a box labeled “Ex-Boyfriend” like photographs. When I meet him on the street, it may look like Aniston/Vaughn on the outside (in actions, not looks, haha), but don’t you dare try to tell me it should be that way on the inside. Not even close to real.

Ahem. The Lake House brought my spirits up the following week. Classic tale of true love made ineligible by circumstance but encouraged by the cosmos; the magic time-wormhole mailbox could almost be read like a metaphor for internet relationships, but I’ll not get into that in this post. Suffice to say, two lonely people find each other in the gloaming, or the “Wood Between the Worlds,” surrounding an enigmatic house built out over Lake Michigan. They fall in love, but unbeknownst to them–**SPOILER**–their love is already rendered even more impossible (try that for a concept) by the fact that in her time, about two years after his, he has already died trying to find her. In her arms, no less. The movie makes that fairly obvious early on, without coming out and saying it’s him, and we are left on tenterhooks to see if she will figure it out and warn him off. She does, he waits, they find each other beside the real mailbox and true love wins.

True love wins. I’m old-fashioned. That’s what I really like in my Hollywood love stories–the plain vanilla happy ending. When you watch The Lake House, don’t worry about the ridiculous paradox-riddled time-travel aspect; just look at the relationships. And not just between the principals. They each have their tangential lines–mother, father, co-worker, boyfriend, would-be girlfriend. See how their focus on each other affects the relationships around them.

Is it a profound work of cinema? No. Will it leave you feeling better about human relationships, rather than worse? Yes. Perfect antidote to a Break-Up.

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace