There are beats to the romantic comedy, tropes that are consistently employed to tell the sorts of heartwarming and hilarious stories that demarcate the genre’s true sweet spot, and there is an expectation to the narrative flow that has been well established over decades of rom-com production. You know what you’re going to get when you watch a rom-com, and most of the time you can see the stories (and their inevitable outcomes) coming from a mile away. That’s not a knock on the genre, which is essentially the comfort food of blockbuster cinema, the theater-packaged mac and cheese of the popcorn film (a somewhat healthier choice, at least relatively), it’s simply a hallmark of it. Some movies go boom, others feature a hysterical run through the airport in order to capture the one they love before they fly off to Whereverville, But Not Here Land.
One of the most prevalent narrative tricks in the rom-com is the third act turnaround, one that typically hinges on some sort of last ditch effort (often, a very romantic one) to recapture a former mate (see: that airport run). Oftentimes, whichever character is intent on making amends and reigniting a stagnant flame has screwed up significantly (usually during the film’s second act, after all the fun stuff of the first act has worn off) and has to clean up other areas of their life in order to somehow prove themselves worthy of their lost love. It’s a classic beat, and it’s one that’s well represented in Judd Apatow’s latest release, “Trainwreck,” which lovingly pokes fun at its title — and the woman who embodies it, star and screenwriter Amy Schumer — before deciding to get things back on track, complete with the kind of major life changes that have just as much to do with Amy’s bad life choices as they do with her good love ones.
Yet, what makes “Trainwreck” and its third act clean-up so striking (in addition to being compelling and also a bit out of place after all the gut-busting mirth of the film’s first act) is the heaviness of the material at hand. By the time she takes stock of her life and resolves to change it for the better, Amy hasn’t just blown things with her boyfriend Aaron (Bill Hader), she’s also torpedoed the rest of her life, including her career and her relationship with her sister (Brie Larson), and she and Apatow would like us to believe it’s because, for all her fun and frisk, she’s an alcoholic. It’s a bitter drink to swallow, and although the film has made it clear that Amy likes to drink (a lot), the recognition that she has a drinking problem — amusingly illustrated by a classic “throwing out all the bottles of booze” gag that goes on for so long that it effectively transitions from sad to funny and back again — does feel a bit unexpected, if not heavy-handed in the context of the film.
Despite its somewhat clunky handling of Amy’s apparent alcoholism (including a teary reunion with her sister in which she admits that her drinking “isn’t working for her anymore”), this boozy “Trainwreck” subplot is in line with an uptick in similar stories in other contemporary romantic comedies. Modern rom-coms have consistently edged up against darker material to tell their sunny stories — look no further than the gold standard triumvirate of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks features, which address problems as varied as untimely spousal death (“Sleepless in Seattle”), the evils of big business (“You’ve Got Mail”) and terminal illness (“Joe Versus the Volcano,” which has always been less about volcanoes than the title would lead you to believe) — but the latest crop of features have taken things a step further, utilizing more timely and buzzy issues to round out and contextualize their tales.
Leslye Headland’s upcoming “Sleeping With Other People” also plays up its rom-com roots — it’s essentially a remake of “When Harry Met Sally,” a comparison that Headland has never shied away from — but still manages to insert some pretty heavy stuff into its narrative. It’s not just the “Saturday Night Live” connection that binds the films (Headland’s feature stars Jason Sudeikis, while Vanessa Bayer MVPs it up in “Trainwreck” as Schumer’s work BFF, with Hader serving as the star’s love interest), as both of them excel at not just recycling genre formulas, but also at leaning on them to make other bold themes go down just a bit more smoothly. “Trainwreck” brushes up against tough stuff with startling regularity, including Amy’s probable alcoholism and her father’s debilitating illness, while “Sleeping With Other People” is ostensibly about a pair of sex addicts falling in love with each other.
Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child” recently used an unexpected pregnancy and an even-handed look at abortion to tell her own (very funny) romantic story. Sean Mullin’s “Amira and Sam” couches its unlikely romance in a story about xenophobia and American attitudes towards immigrants from the Middle East. Even Susanna Fogel’s “Life Partners,” which puts its own spin on the genre (it’s more about the relationship between best friends than anything else), is concerned with same-sex marriage and equal rights, a theme that stays decidedly present throughout the film.
The romantic comedy has been through a series of upheavals in recent years — back in February of last year, LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson wrote about the death of the genre as a viable moneymaker, while I later countered that the films had not disappeared, they had simply moved deeper into the independent space — and a move towards injecting the ailing genre with more topical subplots and a sense of timeliness might help rescue it from complete eradication. Apatow and Schumer’s work in “Trainwreck” is certainly the most mainstream of these kinds of offerings, and while it doesn’t always ring true (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, “When a Man Loves a Woman” this is not, and thankfully so), it does signal the rise of the rom-com doing something smart: Using its expected structure to tell new stories. It’s something to love.