Politics & Policy

When Harry Met Sal

The birth of the man-crush romantic comedy.

As movie genres go, the romantic comedy should be dead. Born in the fast-talking screwball comedies of the 1930s, the simple formula of “meet-lose-get” has been followed in so many films, and in so many permutations, that its possibilities should be exhausted. Hollywood has even strip-mined the genre’s name, with “rom com” being the stubby remains. But new life has recently come from surprising sources: Superbad and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, two movies that, while middling in themselves, should be seen as following and expanding upon an innovative precedent first set by Wedding Crashers, that of the man-crush romantic comedy.

#ad#Although it seems to have gone unnoticed, the secret to Wedding Crashers success was that it was a romantic comedy in which the two buddies are the real couple. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play John Beckwith and Jeremy Grey, divorce mediators by day who are the ultimate pick-up-artist team on the wedding circuit. They are such best friends that every year for John’s birthday, Jeremy brings over his sleeping bag for a mini slumber party. But when John discovers that Jeremy is dating a woman behind his back, the friends fight and break up, with John going so far as to call Jeremy a hillbilly and white trash, the same exact insults they heard from a divorcing couple at the beginning of the movie.

Attempting to patch things up, Jeremy shows up unannounced with his sleeping bag on John’s birthday. He confesses, “I miss seeing ya’…You know I love you.” But though that bold move fails, John later succeeds with his own grand gesture when he makes a surprise entrance at Jeremy’s wedding. Happily reunited, the pair return to their wedding-crashing ways at the end of the movie, though now with their female love-interests in tow.

Seen in this light, the arc of their friendship is straight out of a romantic comedy: the courtship/relationship, the breakup, and the grand gesture leading to permanent reconciliation. In Will Ferrell’s character, Chazz Reinhold, an overgrown brat and seducer ad absurdum (he prowls for vulnerable women at funerals), the movie even contains the stock romantic-comedy character of the “wrong suitor,” whom John must reject. The only standard convention that is missing is the “meet cute,” since John and Jeremy are already friends when the movie begins.

This new sub-genre is taken still farther in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a propagandist comedy (there is even a reference to “the great Mayor Giuliani”) about two straight firemen pretending to be a gay couple for financial reasons. Adam Sandler is Levine, a track-suited, self-proclaimed man whore (who is ultimately inspired to be a better man when he falls for the couple’s gay-rights attorney, played by Jessica Biel), while Kevin James is Valentine, a teddy bear of a father who, like Tom Hanks’s character in Sleepless in Seattle, obsesses over his long-dead wife. (No “meet cute” is portrayed, though how the two humorously met at the Fire Academy is later described.)

Going far beyond keeping up appearances, the macho best buds become honest-to-goodness domestic partners who take on stereotypical sex roles, with Levine becoming a motherly caregiver who exfoliates and sips beer through a straw. They go so far as to sleep in the same bed, which is notably not part of their scheme to dupe the authorities, with Levine taking the wife’s former side. Stressed from living together while under investigation for fraud, they deteriorate into a bickering couple (“All he does is watch baseball!”; “You’re smothering me!”) and split apart. A reconciliation scene quickly follows, in which Valentine symbolically throws out his wife’s clothing and the two sleep together again. But their friendship is fully consummated at a public hearing during which the two mutually declare “I-love-yous” so jarringly earnest that they almost derail the movie. And in case that wasn’t clear enough, over the credits plays Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend,” which includes the lines “You’re my sunshine / And I want you to know / That my feelings are true / I really love you.”

Superbad, a raunch comedy about sex-crazed but romantically retarded teens trying to get laid at a party before they head off to college, also has as its heart a man-, or rather, boy-crush. Jonah Hill plays Seth, a pudgy, obnoxious porndog who suffers from what is best called phallomania, while Michael Cera is Evan, his sensitive, androgynous best friend who would prefer to date a girl rather than take advantage of her. So co-dependent are the two that they feel separation anxiety about heading off to different colleges. Making matters worse, Evan is set to room at Dartmouth with über-nerd Fogell, the other “suitor” who makes Seth jealous. As one thing after another goes wrong on their big night, the pair quarrels (“You bailed on me!”; “I’ve wasted three years of my life with you!”) and splits up.

Seth, however, comes to see the error of his past adolescent ways and salvages their friendship by carrying passed-out-drunk Evan in his arms, thereby “saving” him from the cops. After that heroic feat, the two bed down next to each other on the floor in sleeping bags (a scene that nearly occurred in Wedding Crashers). Before falling asleep, they drunkenly but sincerely express their unembarrassed mutual affection. Seth actually nuzzles Evan’s nose with his finger before hugging him and whispering into his ear, “I love you.” The movie ends ambivalently with the two heading off in opposite directions, each paired with a potential girlfriend. As Evan and Seth wistfully look back at each other, Curtis Mayfield croons on the soundtrack, “I guess I’ll always feel the same / Love is strange.”

Having been described in these ways, there can be little doubt that the friendship at the center of all three movies follows the conventions of the romantic comedy, with the exception of the meet cute. In lacking that sort of an introduction, the movies are specifically versions of the romantic comedy of marriage, in which the central question is whether the already-existing couple can stay together.

Another convention in all three movies that is worth noting is the sexually exhausted male, spent from behavior or desire, who becomes civilized by settling down with a virtuous female. But though that theme is common to traditional romantic comedies, which are fundamentally about the transformative power of love, in these films the transition from cad to gentleman is additionally, even chiefly, made possible by the cementing of the male bond; Platonic love, too, is shown to have life-altering effects.

While of course previous buddy flicks have shared some similarities with romantic comedies, only the recent crop fully (and perhaps self-consciously) completes the genre’s checklist. Most significantly, only in these newer movies is the relationship both overtly affectionate and sealed with explicit declarations of love. Since the feelings expressed are real and not one of the jokes, the movies show themselves to be borrowings from, not parodies of, the genre.

Such re-workings are obviously smart for their original laughs and broad audience appeal; coarse, juvenile humor plus heartfelt emotion offers something for both sexes. But why is this new sub-genre being born now? One explanation can be found in the greater social acceptance of men sharing their feelings, an aspect of the more general feminization of the culture. (Though it may seem counter-intuitive, that larger trend might help explain why porn-addicted, video-game-playing, man-children are the subject of so many recent comedies like Knocked Up; The 40 Year-Old Virgin; You, Me, and Dupree; and Failure to Launch. Not having been effectively socialized into masculinity, adult males have become less manly but more boyish.)

But there might be a deeper reason for the advent of the man-crush rom com. In these extremely unromantic times (Is there anything less romantic than having sex while wearing a condom?), in which serial monogamy followed by divorce-prone marriage has become the norm, living happily ever after has become a less and less believable fantasy. By contrast, “best friends forever” is not just a live possibility, it’s one that is widely lived. And when romantic relationships are impermanent, life-long friendship becomes one of our few consolations. Admittedly, such an interpretation is an awfully heavy take on light entertainment. But if one looks past the full-frontal vulgarity, even the most immature comedies might be capturing a contemporary truth: Outside the family, anyone looking for undying words of devotion might just have to settle for “I love you, man.”

Justin Shubow is a student at Yale Law School.

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