If we must have overstuffed, treacly "ensemble rom coms," shouldn't they at least show a few gay couples, interracial pairings, or unhappy endings?
New Year’s Eve is not a good movie. Remember that time your roommate threw up all over you and passed out in the bathroom before Dick Clark/Ryan Seacrest had even shown up on the TV? New Year’s Eve is worse than that time.
The film disappoints not only by being tooth-achingly saccharine and remarkably un-funny. It’s disappointing because, as an ensemble romantic comedy inspired by the likes of Love Actually, it had the opportunity to tell at least a couple of non-traditional love stories—and it completely wasted that opportunity.
The poster for New Year’s Eve features no fewer than 19 actors, including some big names like Halle Berry, Sarah Jessica Parker, Hilary Swank, and Ashton Kutcher. This is the exact number boasted by the posters for Valentine’s Day (2010), which, like New Year’s Eve, was directed by Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride) and written by Katherine Fugate. The poster for Love Actually (2003) featured only 10 stars, despite billing the movie as “the ultimate romantic comedy.”
The romantic comedy is a genre that people love to hate on. Part of that hatred comes from the fact that rom coms are largely movies made for and about women, and hating on "girly" things happens gleefully and frequently these days. It's no coincidence that the few rom coms most people admit to liking, from modern classics like Groundhog Day to newer fare like Knocked Up, are written by men and tell a love story largely from a man’s perspective.
But there are legitimate reasons—you know, non-sexist ones—to dislike the genre. For every quality romantic comedy it produces, Hollywood churns out at least three terrible ones (though of course the same could be said of many other genres). Big-studio romantic comedies are almost always stories about upper-middle-class white people. They almost always portray straight relationships as if they’re the only kind of relationship that exists. And their screenwriters cannot bear the thought of the characters on screen being single once the ending credits role: Kate and Leopold (2001) was so desperate to bring its central couple together that it resorted to time travel to do it.
What’s more, there’s plenty to dislike about the current trend of “smorgasbord” rom coms, featuring multiple stories and protagonists. Movies like He’s Just Not That Into You (2009), Valentine’s Day, and New Year’s Eve, based on advice books or pegged to holidays, are craven and transparent money grabs. They throw dozens of thin, somewhat intertwined plot lines together into the script. And because each of those plot lines is allowed about five minutes of screen time, there's almost no character development, which wastes the talent of the actors. Given this, many people no doubt wish that Love Actually, though it’s probably the best of the smorgasbord rom coms, had actually been the ultimate romantic comedy—as in, the last one.
On the other hand, it is possible that these movies, though shoddily constructed and poorly acted, might in fact allow Hollywood to take baby steps toward a less predictable and more progressive rom com. Maybe.
In Love Actually, Keira Knightley’s Juliet is paired with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Peter. It’s an interracial coupling, which is something we almost never see in romantic comedies with just one central couple. Peter and Juliet’s union is presented as utterly uncontroversial; the interracial element is never noted. They’re simply two people who love each other and who are getting married. It’s true that we don’t see much of their relationship, but what we do see of it is loving and happy. The movie also resists the Hollywood cliché that the couple must end the story together: Laura Linney’s Sarah, who falls for her gorgeous boss Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), decides that her relationship with her troubled brother takes precedence over her love life, and at the end, Sarah and Karl don’t get their Hollywood happy ending.
Love Actually originally featured, among its myriad couples, middle-aged lesbian partners, one of whom is dying of cancer. In the movie’s deleted scenes, we see their worn-in, loving relationship, and watch as one of them cares for the other. In the director’s commentary, writer and director Richard Curtis explains that much to his chagrin, their plotline was cut to get the movie down to an acceptable length. Obviously, it would be ideal to see an entire mainstream romantic comedy devoted to an interracial marriage, or a committed lesbian partnership, or to Sarah and Karl’s “doomed” relationship. At this moment, however, that's wishful thinking. Instead, a movie like Love Actually, because it has many couples instead of one central couple, has just a little room for more progressive stories. That is, it can tell love stories that are not just about upper-middle-class, straight, white people, and it can tell love stories that don’t end “happily.”
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The same can be said for Valentine’s Day, in which Bradley Cooper plays Holden, the boyfriend of closeted pro football player Sean (Eric Dane). Would it be cooler to see an entire Hollywood romantic comedy about a gay pro football player, rather than 15 minutes of plot development, a two-minute coming out scene, and a hasty happy conclusion? Yes. Does Hollywood make big-budget romantic comedies about gay men? No, and it probably won’t any time soon. It’s a sign of progress, however, that Holden and Sean aren’t walking gay stereotypes, and that their happy ending is depicted as just as happy as all the heterosexual ones the movie offers us.
Unfortunately, New Year’s Eve offers us no interracial relationships and no gay or lesbian couples. Furthermore—here’s a spoiler if you can have a movie like this spoiled—it offers us nothing but happy endings. Unlike Love Actually, Valentine’s Day, and He’s Just Not That Into You—in which the marriage of Janine and Neil (Jennifer Connelly and Bradley Cooper) ends around when the movie does —this film simply cannot bring itself to tell a single story that ends with the lovers apart. This failure makes it even worse than its smorgasbord predecessors. In New Year’s Eve, every bow is neatly tied, and everyone who ever had a chance at a kiss at midnight gets that kiss. It’s regressive, and it represents a missed opportunity.
When it comes to romantic coupling, Hollywood still plays it safe. An entire movie about a gay or lesbian couple, or in an interracial couple, or a couple who don’t end up together, is a risky investment. The smorgasbord rom com, because it invests in many couples rather than in just one, can afford to invest in non-traditional love stories because, scattered among so many other stories, they don’t represent such a risk. This certainly isn’t an ideal situation, and it carries the air of token representation. Indeed, it's certainly not by mere chance that when something had to be cut to get Love Actually down to an acceptable length, the lesbian storyline was excised. But it’s better than the otherwise entirely traditional love stories that films like New Year’s Eve present.