Tasha: So Genevieve. I really enjoyed the new feature Beyond The Lights, which was a surprise, since I’ve come to think of myself as pretty bored by romance films. Your review, and getting an opportunity to interview the film’s star and writer-director, helped me codify both why I liked it, and why it stood out for me: It isn’t a romantic comedy. It isn’t a genre movie with a minimally executed, required-by-law romance on the side, or a quirky indie that throws in a relationship as a feel-good booster for shenanigans. On a fundamental level, it isn’t gimmicky, and it doesn’t treat love like an afterthought that happens around more important things, or like part of a coming-of-age story that implies true love is delivered like a birthday present at age 16. It’s first and foremost a romance, and it’s about two adults, both of whom have problems and have to navigate them, separately and together. It’s sexy, and sometimes sad. It has its fantasy elements—one member of the central couple is a hugely successful pop star, and the other is a handsome cop with the political support of his community and the patience of a saint. But it still feels like the most mature, least ridiculous romance I’ve seen in years.
The real defining characteristic for me is that the obstacles between Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Kaz (Nate Parker) seem pretty believable and significant: Her career is demanding, and her fame makes privacy nearly impossible, and turns their relationship into a public sideshow. His political aspirations don’t include a fling with a pop tart, and besides that, I got a pretty solid sense that her game-playing and defenses and obvious emotional damage were a turn-off he often didn’t want to engage. Their problem isn’t that they’re living in different years, or that a magical fountain is causing crazy obsessions in everyone around them, or some insanely convoluted thing involving accidental death and narrative-conservation heart transplants. They’re problems that maybe, just maybe, a lot of sexual attraction and the whims of friendly fate or swooning destiny can’t automatically solve. There are actual stakes in this story. Did you get the same impression? And am I wrong in thinking this is a pretty rare mode for big-screen romances right now?
Genevieve: It is indeed rare, which is why Beyond The Lights feels pretty extraordinary despite being a very mainstream-friendly, mid-budget movie with modest ambitions. I characterize it as a melodrama in my review, which I stand by—the emotions and situations the movie traffics in are undeniably heightened—but there’s a truthfulness to the relationship being portrayed that doesn’t mesh with the common perception of “melodrama.” The key for me here, which you dance around in your description of Noni and Kaz’s relationship, is that both of these characters are interesting, flawed human beings on their own, and the film’s emotion comes from watching them try to square their own issues with this consuming love they’ve fallen into.
It seems to me that most modern love stories tip the balance to one side or the other of the relationship, homing in on one of the two characters and leaving the other floating in the realm of “love interest.” The problem with that is that the “love interest” only exists in the context of the main character, and is usually sanded down to a bland, one-dimensional supporting character with no real interesting flaws or goals, outside of winning over the protagonist. This is especially rampant in genre films that tack on a love story, particularly the YA wave and its seemingly mandatory love triangles, where a (usually female) protagonist must choose between two idealized specimens of slightly variable perfectness. Or within the indie-dramedy realm, where one (usually male) character’s problems are solved by the sudden appearance of an idealized, maybe slightly quirky but still totally awesome, love interest that teaches the protagonist something important about himself. (There should be a term for this type of female character. If only someone would coin it.)
There’s also another issue facing the modern-day romance, and it’s a squirrely one because it’s so subjective: earnestness. At the risk of generalizing, I think a lot of modern audiences are uncomfortable with bald-faced emotion in film, particularly if that emotion is loooovvvveeeee. Perhaps that’s why love stories are so often relegated to secondary, or even tertiary, status in movies: because something about people acting and talking about being in love without shame or snark makes us a little uncomfortable, and it’s easier to process if it’s in the context of a bigger story. When that love is the story, the temptation is to characterize it as “cheesy” or “manipulative”... and that can certainly be the case. But one person’s cheesy sapfest is another person’s favorite romance; it’s tough to draw the line. Do you think there are qualities or circumstances that make for a “good” romance as opposed to a “cheesy” one, or is it all in the eye of the beholder?
Tasha: When in doubt, check in with Linda Holmes at NPR, I always say. Holmes’ 2013 essay about the reported death of the rom-com (sparked by David Orr’s Atlantic piece “Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?”) spears one of romance’s big problems for me when she points out that even the classic rom-coms often include a hum-through plot, “meaning that you just hum really loudly and ignore how dopey it is until you get back to the great scenes where people are talking to each other.” I think the basic requirement for a decent romance is that the hum-through plot be, if not elegant, at least tolerable, non-obtrusive, and not distractingly ridiculous. The humming shouldn’t have to be shouting to drown out a bunch of nonsense. This is the basic problem I have with Nicholas Sparks movies: The chemistry may work, the people might be pleasant, the settings are often lovely, but all the warmth of romance between people who desperately need each other has to be offset by a big pile of trumped-up gimmicks and ridiculous twists. I can’t hum loudly enough.
Other requirements are secondary but important. It helps if the writing is believable and approachable, and the characters don’t talk in transparent metaphors. It helps if the characters are interesting and appealing rather than appalling—everyone’s mileage varies in terms of what’s appealing, but the rom-com wave of the 1990s and 2000s often seemed to be about pairing that featureless love interest you mention with a thoroughly awful person (I’m looking at you, Bridget Jones), and pretending the relationship can fix both awfulness and blandness. A romance is more likely to work for an audience that’s pulling for the characters to get together, not for them to both die in a fire.
But beyond the basics: Do we have to accept the idea of a hum-through plot at all? 2014’s The Fault In Our Stars falls into my category about first teen love, so it isn’t operating in the same realm as Beyond The Lights exactly, but it is a melodrama focusing tightly on a romance, and the plot isn’t a gimmick or a hum-through. It’s an actual story, an integral part of the romance instead of a grafted-on support system for it. That’s rare in romantic dramas, and even rarer in modern romantic comedies. The rom-com’s box-office dominance has certainly waned, and I think what killed it was the ridiculousness of the gimmicks. Film after film was sold more on the premise of the high-concept barrier keeping the lovers apart (She has amnesia! He’s marrying someone else! She’s super-fat! He still lives with his parents! She’s dead!) than on the couples themselves, or any chemistry between them. Why not accept romance as a plot itself, and dispense with the idea that no romance can operate without a big clumsy device in the way?
If big false gimmicks are the rom-com’s hurdle, over-earnestness and treacly seriousness are the romantic drama’s similarly de rigeur hurdle, and that’s where humor helps, by offsetting that bald-faced emotion. Humor is just as important a factor in a real-life relationship as sincerity—and it helps puncture self-importance and let everyone relax. It seems significant that the important scenes in Beyond The Lights, the ones that sell the story, let Kaz and Noni spend quiet time alone, where they can share important details and tease each other enough to get around their mutual barriers—where they can let go of the drama and contrivance and Great Big Stakes, and just be people together.
Genevieve: Yeah, they can also be funny together! I laughed several times during Beyond The Lights in spite of the fact that it is decidedly not a comedy. A big part of falling in love is laughing together, and the fact that Noni and Kaz do that as a couple—in addition to all the other more serious, life-and-death-and-love stuff—is part of what makes them, and their relationship, seem real.
As you suggest, this can be a real problem with poorly executed rom-coms: The focus is usually on the humor first and foremost, and it’s easier to derive humor from situations—particularly absurd, high-concept ones—than it is from subtle character interactions. Your Nicholas Sparks movies of the world, on the other hand, tend to over-correct in the opposite direction, with earnestness that often borders on unintentional comedy. Not that non-comedic romances don’t have their share of high-concept tomfoolery—again, particularly Nicholas Sparks (see: A Walk To Remember, The Notebook, and 2013’s Cobie Smulders Is A Ghost, a.k.a. Safe Haven).
Even Beyond The Lights has a premise that seems fairly ridiculous on paper; with a few minor tweaks, it could have easily been either a broad rom-com, or a sappy goopfest. The fact that it is neither is refreshing from a viewer standpoint, but problematic from a marketing perspective. The fact is, there just aren’t that many movies like this one, so it’s a tough thing to sell people on without resorting to inaccurate reference points. In Beyond The Lights’ case, the marketers behind it seem to have settled on playing up Prince-Bythewood’s involvement, which is smart, given that she previously cracked the code, in a way, with Love And Basketball. (Then again, that’s just another reference point, and not a particularly apt one, as the two movies are quite different.)
Here’s the thing, though: This is all academic, highfalutin’ critic talk, and not indicative of how most people actually watch and appreciate romantic movies. As tempting as it is to delineate between “good” and “bad” romances, the fact is, there are a lot of X factors that affect how viewers respond emotionally to any movie, particularly ones that overtly engage with viewers’ emotions. If I may indulge in an obvious analogy, romantic movies are sort of like love in that way: They can look absolutely perfect on paper, but then there’s just no spark; or conversely, something that seems totally wrong for you on its surface might just hit your heart in an unexpected way. To a certain extent, this is true of all movies—hence the whole “guilty pleasure” phenomenon—but I think movies that traffic in love specifically have the potential to hit us harder than those that don’t.
I guess this is all my roundabout way of admitting that if I come across The Notebook on TV, I will sit down and watch that thing to the bitter end every damn time; there’s something about those characters and that setting and the nostalgic feelings I have of watching it with my girlfriends that just gets under my skin. Do you have any romantic movies like that, Tasha?
Tasha: Not really, because I’m not much of a re-watcher; I don’t do “comfort movies” because I get more comfort out of getting to something new on my infinite must-watch list than from watching something familiar. But I do have movies I look back on fondly because I think they handled romance particularly well and memorably. I admired When Harry Met Sally for its humor and for looking at how relationships change over time and can mutate into love, or not, depending on where two people are in their relative growth. Up isn’t a romance, but the first 10 minutes remains the industry standard for depicting a believable, sweet, powerful romance over the course of a lifetime. Once particularly leaps to mind as a really unusual romance, because it acknowledges that not every love can or should be acted on, but it still gets at the chemistry and connection that makes infatuation so compelling—and prompts so much hope that it could develop into something deeper. See also: David Lean’s excellent Brief Encounter. And actually, Hal Hartley’s Trust, which winds up being about a relationship that’s more passionate and intense and romantic than a simple friendship, but still isn’t really sexual. And now that I think about it, Some Kind Of Wonderful was the big meaningful romance of my teen years, and that doesn’t get the leads into bed, and then there’s Casablanca, and Julie Andrews movies like Sound Of Music and Thoroughly Modern Millie… Wait, do I have some sort of issue with movies where sex happens ever, at all, between anyone? Does it help if I say the last romance I really enjoyed was Friends With Benefits, where Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake alternate banging and bantering, and the last romantic re-watch I really dug was our Movie Of The Week Out Of Sight, which centers entirely on the sexual zing between George Clooney and J-Lo? (Come to think of it, Thoroughly Modern Millie is pretty racy for its era, with plenty of comedic bedroom-hopping, and Carol Channing entertaining a series of instructors who clearly aren’t primarily around for their tennis or skiing skills.)
Maybe, as I look back over this list, the problem isn’t that there are so many sexless films on it, it’s that there are so few really recent ones. Part of that is just a tendency to romanticize older films and the romances I encountered when I was younger and less cynical, but part of it is, I think, a tendency to try to make today’s romances so edgy, they aren’t really romantic. I’m thinking about, for instance, Friends With Kids, a mean-spirited comedy which literally has Adam Scott saying “Let me fuck the shit out of you” as its big romantic moment. Or Obvious Child (which I know you loved, so I’m treading on thin ice) with its jokes about panty gunk and vaginas edging out any sweetness. Or That Awkward Moment (which you didn’t like, so back on thick ice), with its Viagra jokes and dick jokes and toilet jokes and dangling-dick-over-toilet-because-Viagra jokes. As you said earlier, there seems to be a sense that any sincerity is too much sincerity, and there’s no middle ground between Bridesmaids-level raunchy humor and Nicholas Sparks schmaltz. So is there a way to fix the modern romance? And will audiences show up for a film that does fix it, given how hard it is to sell a romance without a big distinguishing hook?
Genevieve: How would I fix an entire genre, you say? One that barely exists anymore, as evidenced by how much difficulty we’ve had coming up with examples of “pure” romances in this conversation? That’s easy: lots and lots of hardcore sex. You appear to be uncomfortable with that, though, so I think it’s really just a simple matter of filmmakers making (and studios producing) more films where a relationship is the focus of the story, rather than an incidental. And then those movies being good. And then those movies being marketed smartly. And then audiences actually showing up for those movies instead of waiting to see them on home video or streaming. So yeah, basically, a complete upending of the status quo is the answer here.
I’m being glib because there is no easy “fix” to something that’s not really a problem so much as a symptom of the current moviemaking climate. Mid-budget, non-genre studio movies are becoming rarer by the year, and indies, in addition to usually playing on a much smaller scale, often favor very premise-y setups in an effort to draw attention to films that may not have the budget or big-name stars to draw the idly curious.
Another possibility: the dearth of good romantic movies might also be a symptom of the dearth of good romantic-movie stars. As we’ve talked about, so much of a good romance depends on the chemistry between the people doin’ the romancing—I co-sign your approval of Friends With Benefits and its extremely charismatic leads—but I’m having a hard time coming up with anyone post-heyday-era Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts who seem both willing and able to anchor not just one, but many different romantic movies like they both did in their prime. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is fabulous in Beyond The Lights, but she isn’t exactly a name you can hang a whole movie on, at least not yet. (The Cult Of Mbatha-Raw stars here, people!) And while we may occasionally get a Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton turning on the charm in a Nancy Meyers movie, for the most part, today’s big-name movie stars don’t seem all that interested in the genre—probably because, as we’ve established, it isn’t not a particularly vibrant genre at the moment. It’s a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario, and one that won’t be remedied without a little risk on the part of the people in front of and behind the camera, as well as the audiences shelling out for their date-night viewing.
And that could happen. Movie trends, like all trends, come and go, and we may just be at a low ebb for a genre that’s just waiting for the right star and/or director to bring it back into the spotlight. Beyond The Lights is a solid nudge in the right direction, but it’s unfortunately a little too low-profile to prompt us to ring the “Movie Romances Are Back!” bell just yet. We’ll just have to save that for when Jennifer Lawrence and Channing Tatum sign on to co-star in a romance, and singlehandedly revive the genre.