What I Learned From a Summer of Romantic Comedies

Seven lessons from the past three months of movie-theater love stories

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Focus Features/Warner Bros./Screen Gems/Sony Classics

This summer at the movies, we had two choices for what to see: explosions or romances. From alien robots making stuff blow up in Transformers to comic-book villains making stuff blow up in The Green Lantern, and from Nazis making stuff blow up in Captain America to ancient gods making stuff blow up in Thor, the lesson of the explosions was that it's fun to watch stuff blow up.

The lesson of the romances? A little more complicated.

First there was Friends With Benefits, in which Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis proved that anything Ashton and Natalie can do, they can do better. Then Owen Wilson became lost in Paris, in the space-time continuum, and in the dysfunctional labyrinth of Woody Allen's worldview. Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Julianne Moore and Emma Stone got crazy and stupid in love. Finally, Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess starred in One Day, a movie about two people, 20 years and, in the case of Hathaway, about 50 different accents.

So what have we learned from a summer spent cowering from the heat in the comforting embrace of the rom com? Here are the seven lessons I picked up:

People rag on romantic comedies because they secretly want life to be one.

One of the most amusing parts of Friends With Benefits is its mockery of its own genre. Mila Kunis's Jamie and Justin Timberlake's Dylan are at their funniest and most likeable when they're making fun of the conventions of the romantic comedy. "Shut up, Katherine Heigl, you big liar!" Jamie shouts as she passes an ad for a rom com. She and Dylan sit on the couch drinking beer and jeering at a fictional romantic comedy starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, complaining about the genre's emotionally manipulative music and unrealistically happy endings. When Dylan asks why it is that women think the only way to get men to do something is to manipulate them, Jamie blames "history, past experience, and romantic comedies." Secretly, though, Jamie loves romantic comedies. She knows every frame of Pretty Woman and every line of the fictional rom com she and Dylan so gleefully mock. She even adopts the "five-date rule" espoused by the fake movie's heroine (somewhere, in Hollywood, someone just greenlit a romantic comedy called Five Date Rule, I'm willing to bet). Her mockery of the genre is just a cover for her desire to have her real life turn out like a rom com. Which, because Friends With Benefits is a rom com, it does. Which leads us to the second lesson…

… Once you've mocked romantic comedy clichés, you are free to indulge in them.

All of them: the grand gestures, the emotionally manipulative music, that thing where one person magically knows where the other person is and manages to find them in a giant bustling city of over twenty million people, and, of course, the unrealistically happy ending. You can commit all these clichéd sins as long as you make fun of them first, and Friends With Benefits certainly does. Same goes for Crazy Stupid Love: Emma Stone's character Hannah, finding herself drunk in a hot man's bachelor pad, tells him, "I know what happens in the PG-13 version of tonight. I get really drunk and pass out and then you cover me with a blanket and kiss me on the cheek and nothing happens." We giggle, because we know she's right, and we've been expecting that very scenario. Similarly, when Steve Carell's Cal finds himself standing alone in the rain after a fight with his estranged wife, he says to himself, "What a cliché." And yet, while Crazy Stupid Love is more comfortable with ambiguous endings than Friends With Benefits, it's still heavy on the clichés: There is drunken passing out, there is a blanket, there is a kiss on the cheek. Apparently, some clichés are clichés for a reason.

Let's talk about sex—unless we're in love.

This is surely one of the most bizarre lessons Hollywood rom coms teach us about sex: You can only be open about your sexual desires with someone if you're not dating them. In Friends With Benefits, Jamie and Dylan are delighted by the fact that they can speak freely about their wants and needs—like where they do and don't like to be touched—because, it's implied, they could never be that open with a significant other. Jamie is relieved that she doesn't have to limit sex to a location with good lighting, the way she would with someone she was dating. In other words, Hollywood still wants us to think that honesty about sex is impossible in romantic relationships. When you're having sex with a friend, you don't have to fake orgasms, withhold constructive criticism of sexual technique for fear of offending your lover, or camouflage your repulsive body with flattering lighting. When you're having sex with a romantic partner, however, those things are par for the course. Which is a problem because…

… "Just sex" always becomes "true love."

Always. Doesn't matter if you put your hand on a Bible app and swear not to get emotionally involved, or if it takes you 20 cinematic years to make it happen: Sex turns to love as reliably as Anne Hathaway's accent turns from English to Welsh to American. The mandatory happy ending, in which a couple commits to a long term, monogamous relationship is alive and well in rom coms, particularly in movies that feature only one couple. Movies like Crazy Stupid Love, which depicts multiple couples, can, like Love, Actually and Valentine's Day before it, afford an ambiguous or even unhappy ending here or there. But for the most part, romantic comedies cannot bear to leave their lead couples unattached as the credits roll. Even Woody Allen, who has challenged the culturally mandated happy ending for decades, couldn't resist it this summer. Perhaps that's because…

Conservatism is back, albeit quietly.

Don't let the f-bombs or the casual sex fool you: This crop of chick flicks is, at its core, deeply conservative. The romantic comedy, of course, has been conservative for many decades; the genre never fully recovered from 1930s moral policing and, with very few exceptions, champions long-term, monogamous, heterosexual relationship as the pinnacle of human experience.

In the case of Friends With Benefits, the conservatism is subtle, but it's definitely there: As Dylan's confessing his love to Jamie at the end of the movie (oh come on, that is not a spoiler, we are talking about a rom com here), he tells her, "I can live with never having sex with you again." I'm willing to bet that that's a sentiment you've heard expressed in pop culture very rarely, if ever.

Similarly, in Crazy Stupid Love, the lead couple has been together since they were 15 years old, and were married at 17 as the result of an unintended pregnancy. Cal's son, who is 13, also seems destined to meet his "soul mate" at a very young age. Jacob, the promiscuous pick-up artist played by Ryan Gosling, is cured of his confirmed-bachelorhood and ready to settle down for life within months of meeting the woman he calls "a game changer." Like all good, artful political messaging in pop culture, the conservatism here is blink-and-you-miss it, but it's definitely there.

The grand gesture, like the happy ending, is alive and well and will totally work.

In real life, when a boy won't stop texting the girl he likes even after she has asked him to stop, we call it "relationship abuse." When a guy won't stop telling you he loves you, and when he shows up at your school and embarrasses you in front of your peers, we call that "borderline stalking." In rom coms, however, these things are called "persistence" and are considered "romantic." When the boy in question is 13, as he is in Crazy Stupid Love, it's meant to be endearing. To Crazy Stupid Love's credit, the woman in question is not swayed by this behavior. She's rightly mortified, and the boy in question is punished rather than rewarded for his refusal to take "no" for an answer. Until, of course, she forgives him half an hour later, and rewards his persistence by slipping him photos of herself naked. In a rom com, when a man declares that he will "never give up" on trying to win back a woman's affection, we're supposed to be touched and long for someone who will love us that intensely. In reality, though, we'd probably just say, "Hey, Steve Carell, stop sneaking into your wife's back yard and watering her flowers under cover of darkness. It's creepy."

Patricia Clarkson is the coolest mom in Hollywood and possibly in the world.

After last year's Easy A, I had my suspicions. Clarkson's performance as Mila Kunis's ex-hippie/groupie/party-animal mother left me fairly certain, and her turn as Jim Sturgess's loving but brutally honest mom in One Day confirms it: Patricia Clarkson is cooler than any movie mother in recent memory, and she's sure as hell cooler than your real-life mom.