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A long time ago before Grindr or Tinder, there was a young woman named Cinders, who was treated like a slave by her ugly sisters. When they received an invitation to Prince Charming’s ball, they left her at home doing the dishes. Alone and despairing, Cinders wished she could go to the ball; luckily the Fairy Godmother answered her call and with a whoooosh of her wand, she had Cinders ready to go with a warning to be home before midnight.
All evening Cinders danced with Prince Charming, as her sisters looked on; until the clock struck twelve and she had to scarper, leaving behind a single glass slipper. A loved-up Charming searched his kingdom for the owner of the foot that fitted the slipper, almost giving up hope as he came to the last house. The ugly sisters tried with all their might to force the footwear on but couldn’t. Only when Cinders slid her foot into the slipper did Prince Charming propose to his one true love. Cinders was over the moon, and with Charming lived happily ever after.
Rom-coms have embraced ideas of fated couplings and love at first sight as trademarks. Moonlighting introduced the world to the love/hate relationship packed with simmering chemistry enjoyed by PI duo David Addison (Bruce Willis) and Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepard), of which they were entirely oblivious. Ever since, rom-coms have followed the same will-they-won’t-they formula: two seeming opposites meet, try to dislike one another, hide their affections behind passive aggressive barbs, uncomfortably realise they might be in love, and finally get together to no one’s surprise. Along the way there is never any doubt or danger that the pair won’t ultimately fall head over heels without breaking any bones or a concussion. Romance is a rose-coloured, candy floss flavoured delight with a side of arseholery but everything is fantastic. Nothing ever goes really, really soul-destroyingly wrong for the lovebirds. Ever.
In the world of Looking romance is a labyrinth the protagonists navigate carrying minotaur-sized insecurities, struggling to find themselves at the exit. Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Dom (Murray Bartlett) all had ideas of what romance should be but found it difficult to turn fantasy into reality. Sex proved easy enough for them to come across, Grindr made a quickie in the park or rendezvous with a squeaky voiced neighbour all too achievable (at any time); it was intimacy that was missing. But Patrick found himself lusting for and in an affair with his boss having snubbed a nice guy with a different social status, Agustin struggled to progress as an artist and domesticate his long-term boyfriend, and Dom just wanted to open his own goddamn restaurant. They let all of their anxieties build and did all they could to avoid the diaper wearing Roman deity flying around letting off arrows in all directions. After so long and so many failed relationships, the trio had to confront their fears or spontaneously self-combust without realising they could have fulfilled romantic lives that did not meet the full criteria of their fantasies. Giving each of them a chance to escape their self-made labyrinths, and pass ‘Go’.
Similarly Love showcases Gus (Paul Rust) and Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) being dazed and disillusioned by ‘Step 2’ of any budding romance: getting to know someone you might not have instantly and overwhelming disliked. From meeting in circumstances that would make a date in KFC appear romantic to spending a whole day exploring neighbourhoods, having multiple misadventures, and hotboxing in a car. The two become embroiled in and seduced by what they think the other is: Gus sees Mickey as ‘the cool girl’ and she sees him as the ‘nice guy.’ Neither of them neatly fit the archetypes they imposed on the other, both are riddled with insecurities that are expressed through: passive aggression, one-upmanship, self-destruction, and deceit. Instead of getting to know each other Gus and Mickey become obsessed by and addicted to one another replacing romance with rising toxicity.
You’re The Worst explores what happens when two toxic people end up trying to give a relationship a go, without believing in love or romance. Whereas, wannabe couples might spend their days starry-eyed and drunk on love, Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) fill their time with: sex, alcohol, sarcasm, and put-downs. Following more hookups they end up moving in together. Queue more days of: sex, alcohol, drugs, and failed attempts at Bloody Mary’s. The two anti-lovebirds find themselves in a relationship of their own making where their insecurities, narcissism, and loneliness forces them to attempt to grow-up. Which they approach in the only way Jimmy and Gretchen know how, by deflecting their emotions and blaming anyone but themselves for wrongdoings or situations they can’t and don’t know how to handle. Still, they find solace in that their most heartless and toxic behaviours compliment one another and could only lead to their mutual destruction.
Modern rom-coms forgo the traditional tropes of couples sending flowers, cute love notes, and sharing longing glances to be entirely unromantic. Instead of ‘instant connections’ these unromantic rom-coms explore the insecurities and anxieties of wannabe lovers, pushing them to their limits. Romantic fantasy acts as a delusion that holds all who suffer it from reaching their full potential, and coming to terms with who they are. Once their expectations have left them disappointed, the unromantic heroes are free to enjoy the minutiae of dating: arguments, little disappointments, unsexyness, halfhearted melodramatics; everything that’s more real than ideal, and to hope that reality is something they can live with. So long, to happily ever after.