The romantic comedy has been dead for a long time. Numerous autopsies – most recently, Christopher Orr’s much discussed piece in The Atlantic – have provided a range of theories speculating the cause of the rom-com’s creative rigor mortis. Blame is assigned to a lack of willing (or good) stars, the decline of the genre’s box-office potential, problematic representations of women, or screenwriters’ increasingly inane plot conceits. Those factors do bear responsibility, but I’ve always felt the malignancy is something far more fundamental: romantic comedies have inexplicably forgotten about the romance.
Filmmakers no longer bother to invest any time in showing how or why their two protagonists are meant for each other. Any kind of significant on-screen courtship has been abandoned. Instead, they shortcut their way to a poor facsimile of romance; they rely on actors’ built-in chemistry to do the work for them, then lazily throw in meet-cutes and montages of long intimate conversations to provoke our genre familiarity into filling in the blanks (“Okay, they talked all morning/afternoon/night, they’re meant for each other and in love now!”). That’s largely because somewhere along the lines romantic comedies started to believe all audiences wanted from the genre was the inevitable happy ending (which is why they include them now in trailers as an assuring “Don’t worry, it’s here!” selling point). So, fully developed romantic courtship has gone out the window in favor of stock formulas that scoot us as quickly as possible to the happily ever after.
Andrew Haigh’s remarkable Weekend realizes better than most rom-coms over the last decade that when it comes to cinematic romance, it’s all about the means – not the end. It understands that for an audience to care about a wish fulfilling ending, they need to be invested in the people and romance inching towards it. As much as the driving question of rom-coms is “Will these two people end up together?” it ultimately yields a superficial “yes” or “no” answer. The romantic comedies that want to achieve greatness and truly resonate with audiences know that the more important question to invest time in answering is “How and why will these two people end together?” It’s Weekend’s hows and whys that make it great and illustrate what romantic comedies have been missing.
“How” the film’s two leads – Glen and Russell – fall in love is through one of romance’s most fundamental building blocks: the undulating flow of conversation. From the moment they wake up the morning after their one-night-stand, we see the spark of a few words go on to kindle more until there’s a bonfire of them strong enough to burn down the walls erected between two people who don’t know each other. The words one would say to a stranger give way to more personal ones that are inextricably woven together with feeling – words that start to increasingly echo with joy, affection, vulnerability, sadness, fear, honesty. As they talk about their friends, their pasts, their hopes, their sexuality, their views, we are shown how Glen and Russell fall for each other. And so we become invested in them and their romance as more than something on a linear path to formulaic inevitability. But the investment Weekend elicits goes beyond seeing conversation bring them together. We become invested because we can relate.
Anyone who has experienced the magic of a conversation that propels a seemingly never-ending good first date (and subsequent ones), knows that the way we most get to know and connect with someone is through talking to them. When represented on screen, that universal form of courtship evokes immediate relatability and therethrough connection with the characters. In movie romances we need to see two people fall in love so we don’t just care about them but also so we can see ourselves in them. That’s what modern romantic-comedies fail to understand when they reduce conversations to rushed montages. Broad formulaic strokes distance us, relatable details draw us in.
As for the “why” Glen and Russell fall in love, we’re shown that too. As the two men get to know each other throughout Weekend, we get to know them as well. Which is why if we’re asked afterwards why they care for each other – unlike with romantic comedies – we can provide deeper answers than “because the movie needed them to.” But Weekend also illustrates that why two people fall in love extends beyond affection and compatibility. We’re all on some level trying to find ourselves in this life, and Weekend acknowledges that sometimes someone else is instrumental in facilitating that. Love – to sound like a bad poem – changes us. Why Russell and Glen fall for each other is because they’re a good match, but also because they change each other. We see Glen’s angry detachment and Russell’s shy elusiveness slowly erode in the wake of the gentle force of intimacy. And so we care. Because, again, Haigh’s not only takes the time to develop his characters and romance to produce the needed “whys” but, in the process, evokes something we can relate to: how the right person can help us find ourselves and makes us better.
It’s been weeks since I re-watched Weekend for this article, and I still think affectionately about Glen and Russell and their courtship. I can’t remember the last romantic-comedy I saw that I had any affection for. I can’t even remember the last romantic-comedy I saw. That’s because there hasn’t been one in a long time that’s bothered to do anything remotely memorable, substantial or relatable with its characters. Weekend doesn’t have that problem because it never loses sight of the fact that what matters in a cinematic romance is fleshed out characters and romance – not formula and happy endings. Shortly before Weekend ends, Glen jokingly asks Russell if they’re about to have their own “Notting Hill moment.” If future romantic comedies want to succeed, they’d do well to think hard about having more than a few “Weekend moments” that bring back the “hows” and “whys” of on-screen love affairs.
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