Monday, June 10, 2013

On Indie Hipster Romantic Comedies

When I first saw Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer in 2009, I fell in love. Here, for the first time in recent memory, a romantic comedy had captured the zeitgeist of the North American romantic culture, with its confusing mixed messages and nebulous aims (Are we trying to get married, or trying to avoid getting married? Can I please have both?). It also managed to capture the postmodern romantic journey in a decidedly indie-hipster manner, complete with an amazing soundtrack and well-dressed millennials pursuing love in an urban setting. I wrote this about the film in 2009, and it still rings true:

For those of us under the age of 30, we've grown up in a media-saturated world with two contradictory views about love. There is the naively idealistic notion of love portrayed in popular films and music. This is the soul-mate love, the "I just can't help it" love, the sweaty palms and broken hearts kind of love. This is the Jack-and-Rose, the formulaic romantic comedy, the idea that there is someone special out there for each of us. 
Then there's the biological/hedonistic view of love, which has mostly has to do with either hooking up or procreating. There aren't soul mates or warm fuzzy feelings in love; our exorbitant amount of divorces and crappy marriages proves it. When scientists find the chemicals in our brain that make us "love" someone and we watch our parents' marriages fall apart, we're convinced that true love might not even exist. So if it doesn't exist, we might as well take advantage of what nature gave us and hook up with the hottest people we can find before we get old and wrinkly.

(500) Days of Summer--and, arguably, Garden State before it, in 2004--changed the game for romantic comedies in films. No longer was the younger generation satisfied with the happy ending between Julia Roberts or Hugh Grant and whomever they were romantically pursuing. Real life romances don't end in a nice and neat package, topped with a bow at the wedding altar, where the couple lives happily ever after. We see too much angst, too much heartache, too many failed marriages, and too much saccharine sentimentality. The emerging generation demanded something more authentic, more real, and certainly more cool.

Thus, the emergence of the indie hipster rom-com.

Landon Palmer wrote this insightful summary of the indie rom-com phenomenon at Film School Rejects:

As Hollywood seems hardly interested in making decent romantic comedies, the rom-com has become the most visible genre in narrative, non-subterranean indie filmmaking. 2012 included Celeste and Jesse ForeverSafety Not GuaranteedYour Sister’s SisterFriends with KidsLola VersusLiberal ArtsRuby Sparks, and the period dramedy Hysteria. Many of these movies feature: co-stars of a beloved sitcom, Mark Duplass, Greta Gerwig, or some combination therein; emotional realism tied to quirky comedy and attended with a killer soundtrack; a hip setting, trendy clothes, and characters with notably expendable income no matter their occupation or lack thereof; and some, though not all, feature a deliberately ambiguous and/or abrupt and/or decidedly unhappy ending with avoids Hollywood’s trappings of wrapping everything in a concise, wedding-themed bow. 
Few of these are bad films. Some are good. Most are fine. The problem isn’t with quality of output, or the fact that these films make their trade in genre (most above-ground narrative independents do). The problem is repetition and the fact that indie rom-coms are cultivating a litany of generic expectations much in the same fashion of the mainstream filmmaking practices that independent films are ostensibly poised against. If a group of films avoid Hollywood convention in the same way, they often end up creating suffocating conventions all their own.

In the past month, I watched Ruby SparksSafety Not Guaranteed, and Celeste and Jesse Forever. They certainly fit the indie hipster rom-com traits, with the inclusion of actor Chris Messina alongside Duplass and Gerwig as a standard indie romantic interest. (Messina was also in 2009's Away We Go and Woody Allen's 2008 film, Vicky Christina Barcelona, making him an indie hipster rom-com veteran.) The comedy in many of these films is either phallic or sardonic, switching back and forth between high-school-locker-room humour and the irony-laden cynicism of the millennial generation. I'm not a fan of the former, and can only handle small doses of the latter, so these films typically aren't as funny for me as they are amusing and affecting.

Ruby Sparks is written and directed by the same team who created Little Miss Sunshine, and stars Sunshine actor Paul Dano as a brilliant and neurotic writer longing for love. When the titular character of his next novel, Ruby Sparks, literally comes alive and appears in his home, Dano's writer must navigate the fine line between love and fantasy, freedom and manipulation. While Sparks takes a hip meta approach for the concepts of romance and creativity, and features an incredible performance from Zoe Kazan as Ruby, it's ultimately more interesting than insightful. Ruby is charming and fun, but Dano's character, Calvin, comes off as too controlling and agitated to be relatable.

Celeste and Jesse Forever is also written by its star, Rashida Jones, who portrays one half of a failing romance between two best friends. The marriage between these high school sweethearts and BFFs is ending, but for no obvious reason to the audience or their friends, apart from their naivete and selfishness. While they remain separated and are able to romantically pursue other people, they technically and practically remain married, with Jesse even living in the guest room of Celeste. When Jesse suddenly finds that a one-night stand he had with another woman has resulted in a pregnancy, instead of pursuing reconciliation with Celeste or having an honest discussion about their relationship, Jesse asks for a divorce so he can "make it work" with the mother of his child. Celeste remains inauthentic and controlling for much of the film, refusing to learn obvious lessons and creating a frustrating and unlikeable character. Celeste and Jesse is overly long, overly self-absorbed, and resorts too often to phallic jokes to lighten up its underlying depressing tone. When Celeste and Jesse finalize their divorce with a high-five, it's a celebration in futility.

The best of these three films, Safety Not Guaranteed, follows three magazine employees who pursue the story behind a cryptic classified ad seeking a traveling partner for an experiment in time travel. Aubrey Plaza stars as Darius, who is only slightly more upbeat than her charmingly cynical Parks and Rec character, April. As she discovers that Kenneth (Mark Duplass) is genuinely serious about his time traveling pursuits, she also finds herself drawn to him as someone who has also experienced loneliness and loss. Safety reveals that romance is best created when there is an adventure to be pursued together, where the couple is caught up in something greater than themselves. C.S Lewis once wrote in The Four Loves about the futility of trying to make another person the end goal in a romantic relationship or friendship; they simply cannot bear the weight of all our hopes and dreams. It's when we pursue something--or Someone--together that we find an adventurous love that endures beyond the first few dates.

I agree with Landon Palmer's assessment of the indie hipster rom-com phenomenon: Few of these are bad films. Some are good. Most are fine. The indie hipster romantic comedy likely will not become a genre that lasts forever, but it will be a cultural marker for the romantic endeavors of the 2000s and 2010s, revealing both the confusion and the wisdom that comes from a generation who watched their parents divorce and desire something better for themselves. For me, I look forward to viewing Richard Linklater's latest chapter in the romance between Jesse and Celine in Before Midnight, the third conversation-driven film about a couple's ups and downs in romance as they walk and talk nine years after their fateful Parisian conversation in Before Sunset (2004)...which was nine years after their initial meeting on a train bound for Vienna in Before Sunrise (1995). Deep and meaningful conversation filled with honesty, questions, confessions, fears, and dreams: this is the kind of indie hipster rom-com--and the kind of romantic love--that endures.

What is your favourite indie hipster rom-com? Why do you think they're becoming more popular?

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