Roughly nine percent of Americans are unemployed these days, and an additional 16 percent are underemployed. That means that about 25 percent of all Americans don’t have enough work to do. In the world of the American romantic comedy, however, the numbers are much worse. Almost all major rom-com characters are seriously under employed these days. Many of these characters have jobs, but either we don’t see them working at those jobs, or else the depictions of their working lives are so generic that the filmmakers might just as well have not bothered with them. Take for instance the recently released Crazy, Stupid, Love. By my count, the main character (played by Steve Carrel) is seen at work only one time in the entire film. He works in some sort of office, but that is about all the information we’re given about his working life. He may be an insurance salesman, a district attorney, an accountant for Nike, or a software engineer. His wife (played by Juliana Moore) is also employed. Her work is an important factor in the story because, in the film’s opening scene, she announces to her husband that she has been having an affair with a co-worker (Kevin Bacon). It’s remotely possible that the audience was told the exact nature of the work that Moore and Bacon do at their office but, if so, I missed it. It couldn’t have been terribly important (or interesting, for that matter). Another major character in the film is played by Ryan Gosling (the second lead, after Carrel). The filmmakers, presumably exhausted after working so hard to come up with careers for the Carrel, Moore, and Bacon characters, don’t even bother trying to come up with a plausible career for Gosling’s character. He is a member of a demographic that doesn’t really exist any more in American life: the leisure class. His father was rich and left Gosling a fortune. In other words, his character is pretty much straight out of fantasyland, like hobbits and vampires. Nowadays, in America, even rich people have jobs. They run companies or they trade commodities futures, but rarely do they sit around all day long living off an endless supply of wealth left to them by some dead relative. In some ways, Gosling’s character could have come straight out of The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntelroy, or some other Francis Hodgson Burnett novel. A fifth major character in the film, played by Emma Stone, is identified as a lawyer, but we never catch a glimpse of her working.
As American rom-coms go these days, Crazy, Stupid, Love is well above average. It is funny, well-acted, and has a very inventive (if often clumsily contrived) plot. My wife and I enjoyed the two hours we spent watching it. But I can’t help feeling that the movie would have been a lot better if the characters had been given a bit of backstory. And backstory, in most American lives these days, means “work history.” In a Victorian novel, when Character A is brought into significant contact with Character B, the first thing he wants to know about Character B is “who are his people?” In times past, family background was generally taken as an indication of an individual’s worth. In our somewhat more democratic era, we tend to forgive a man (or woman) for being of lowly birth (or, conversely, for being born with a silver spoon in his mouth) provided he has made something of himself in the professional arena. Thus, when we hear that a cousin has become engaged to a person we don’t know, our first question is, “What does the fiancé (or fiancée) do?” This may seem a superficial way of judging people, but in America these days a person’s occupation is much more likely than his family background to yield pertinent information about his character. Most Americans these days probably spend more time with their co-workers than with their progenitors. Many an American nowadays spends more waking hours with his co-workers than with his wife and children. Understanding how an American earns a living these days is vital to understanding his character.
But in the American romantic comedy, this vital information is often withheld from the viewer. Most of the leading characters in rom-coms these days belong to an industry I like to think of as BLAMED. That is, they are either bankers (a catchall for any sort of finance-industry job including stockbroker and day-trader), lawyers, architects, media workers (freelance writers, magazine publishers, TV anchorwomen, actors, screenwriters etc.), educators (college professors, preschool teachers, etc.) and doctors. These are all fine occupations, but they have been portrayed to death in contemporary rom-coms. Take for instance the characters played by John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale in Serendipity. He’s an M (he produces feature stories for ESPN) and she’s a D (a psychological counselor of some sort). In Family Man, Nicolas Cage plays a financial-industry bigwig and Tea Leoni plays an attorney. In Ghost Town Leoni plays an educator (she’s actually an Egyptologist/archeologist but we see her delivering a lecture at one point so presumably she also teaches) while her romantic interest, played by Ricky Gervais, is a dentist. In Just Like Heaven, Reese Witherspoon plays a doctor and her love interest, played by Mark Ruffalo, plays an architect (a landscape architect, but hey, you can’t have everything). In It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep is torn between her ex-husband (a lawyer played by Alec Baldwin) and an architect played by Steve Martin. In Bride Wars, the two leads are a lawyer (Kate Hudson) and a teacher (Anne Hathaway). In Confessions of a Shopaholic, the two leads work together at a giant media conglomerate. So do the two leads in The Proposal. So do the characters played by Rachel McAdams and Patrick Wilson in Morning Glory. The two leads in My Best Friend’s Wedding work in the media as a restaurant critic and a sportswriter. The two leads in 13 Going On 30 are also media types (he’s a freelance photographer, she’s an editor at a fashion magazine). In Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give, the two leads (Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson) are, you guessed it, media types (she’s a playwright, he owns a hip hop record label). And, in The Holiday, also directed by Meyers, all four leads (Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, and Jude Law) work in media-related fields (editing film trailers, editing newspapers, composing film scores, and writing book reviews, respectively).
Often, when a rom-com character doesn’t have a BLAMED job, he has a job that, like Ryan Gosling’s in Crazy, Stupid, Love is straight out of fantasyland – that is, he has a job that doesn’t make any sense in the real world. For instance, in Must Love Dogs, John Cusack plays a man who builds wooden racing sculls by hand. They are beautiful and he loves his work, but he has never sold a single boat. That’s right, he’s pushing 40 and all we know about him professionally is that he builds beautiful boats but has never managed to sell a single one. Curiously, we are told at the beginning of the film that he has a heavy alimony payment to make every month to his ex-wife. What the hell does he pay her with – wooden boat parts? It’s a fantasy job. It doesn’t exist in the real world. It exists in the film only to make Cusack’s character seem arty and iconoclastic, a romantic born into the wrong era. (Diane Lane, his love interest in the film, has a more conventional rom-com occupation: she’s a preschool teacher).
In About a Boy, Hugh Grant plays a man who lives off the royalties of his dead songwriter father’s single hit – an extremely annoying Christmas novelty song. It’s an amusing conceit but it is straight out of fantasyland. Likewise, in Music & Lyrics, Grant plays a man who lives off the royalties generated by his own brief career as a pop recording star. Bill Nighy’s character in Love Actually is a combination of the two aforementioned Hugh Grant characters. He’s a former pop star trying to transform a classic rock song into a Christmas-time standard. Such people surely exist in real life, but they comprise less than .0001 percent of the population. They are already drastically over-represented in rom-coms. To offset this imbalance between real life and romantic fiction, Hollywood would have to ban characters like Nighy’s has-been pop singer from rom-coms for something like a million years.
Likewise, the two main characters in director James Brooks’ How Do You Know? are a member of the U.S. Olympic softball team (which, last I heard, doesn’t exist any more in real life, because softball has been dropped as an Olympic sport) and a major league baseball player. Thanks to their glamorous jobs, these characters also live outside of the economic rules of ordinary American life (although I doubt any real-life American softball professional lives as luxuriously as Reese Witherspoon’s character in this film does). The third main character in the film, played by Paul Rudd, has a more conventional rom-com job (he’s in finance, but the details are hazy). Curiously, in a DVD extra, Brooks claims that it was his desire to explore the lives of high-profile female athletes that inspired him to write the film, and yet the film spends almost no time at all exploring what life is like for real female professional athletes.
Rom-com characters whose incomes appear to come from fantastical or uncommon sources are a blot on the genre. But even worse are the BLAMED characters who appear to have no real connection to their work, characters whose creators seem to have simply reached into a hat filled with paper slips and randomly plucked out either a B an L an A an M an E or a D. Take for instance the character played by Ginnifer Goodwin in Something Borrowed. She is an attorney. We know this because we are told it. We are even given a few brief glimpses of her at work in her private office in what is presumably a law firm. But we aren’t told anything at all about her work. The law is a diverse field. Is she a corporate lawyer who spends all her days fighting product liability suits? Does she work at a nonprofit corporation that helps poor people fight housing discrimination? Is she a criminal attorney? Does she practice family law? If we knew what kind of a lawyer she was, it might help us to understand her character a bit better. We are told at one point that she hates her job, but we’re never told why. Does she hate the law or just the sector of it that she practices in? Did she imagine that she would spend all her days championing underdogs and wind up instead merely researching patent claims? And if she hates the law, why did she go to law school in the first place? By answering some or all of these questions, the filmmakers might have made Goodwin’s character an interesting and unusual protagonist. But, alas, we’re given very little information about the character – so little in fact, that even the lovely and talented Goodwin can’t really bring this cipher to life. The same is true of her best male friend in the movie, a character portrayed by the equally talented John Krasinski. Midway through the film he discloses that he is moving to London to work with an editor there who likes the unpublished novel he has written. Prior to this (to my recollection at least) we are given no indication that the Krasinski character has any interest in writing. We never see him holding a book, a pen, a notepad, or even a laptop computer. He doesn’t work any literary references into his conversations and his dialog isn’t any more writerly than any of the other characters’. It comes as a bit of a shock, therefore, to discover that he’s a writer. Being an aspiring novelist isn’t like being, say, a pizza delivery driver. I imagine that few pizza drivers are passionate about their work. But aspiring novelists are generally passionate about literature. They may not be great writers. They may not have much talent at all. And they may eventually abandon their dreams of literary glory to become accountants at their father’s CPA firms, but while they are pursuing those dreams, they tend to be fairly obsessed with all things literary (having been an aspiring writer my whole life, I know this). But Krasinki’s character doesn’t betray an ounce of literary passion during the entire first hour of the film (or at any other time, for that matter). Thus the revelation that he is an aspiring novelist comes across as a mere afterthought, something tagged on during an eleventh hour script rewrite in order to justify the character’s sudden departure for London (which itself is straight out of fantasyland: even if we overlook the improbability of an unpublished American writer attracting the attention of a British editor, we have to wonder why he would need to relocate to London in order to work on the book with her – doesn’t he have email? And how can he afford the move to London when the editor hasn’t actually accepted the book for publication and has paid him no money? And what busy book editor would have the time to play nursemaid to a struggling writer who isn’t even an official client of hers? The false notes just keep on ringing and ringing.)
Something Borrowed is a textbook example of contemporary Hollywood’s disinterest in the way Americans earn their living. The top-billed performer in the film is Kate Hudson, but I have no idea how her character makes money. She is perfectly devoid of backstory (unless I blinked my eyes and missed it). At one point she describes the Ginnifer Goodwin character, her best friend, as “the sister I never had and the mother I never knew.” This is drearily reminiscent of the character Hudson played in Bride Wars, whose parents both died when she was young (curiously, in both films Hudson’s character ends up being impregnated by a character played by actor Steve Howey). Later on in Something Borrowed, we are informed that, despite her claim to the contrary, Hudson’s character was never accepted as a student by the University of Notre Dame. We are never told where she was accepted as a student, or whether she went to university at all. This is Hollywood laziness at its worst. Rather than bother developing the character’s history, the filmmakers merely inform us that she has none. She has no sister, she has no mother (or, apparently, any father), and she didn’t actually get accepted into Notre Dame. The character is defined only in negative terms. We are told what she doesn’t have and what she hasn’t done with her life, but we’re never told what she did do with her life. Her fiancé (played by Colin Egglesfield), like Goodwin’s character, is a lawyer. But since Goodwin and Egglesfield are both only 30 years old in the film, one must assume that neither of them is a high-powered and wealthy legal eagle just yet, especially since they live and work in Manhattan, where it takes a lot of years and a lot of luck to rise to the top of the legal world. Thus, we have our four main characters: two young lawyers, an aspiring and apparently unemployed writer, and someone with no visible means of support. Inexplicably, these four people spend every weekend partying in the Hamptons at a house that looks a lot like Ina Garten’s mansion. It’s pure Hollywood buncombe.
Outside of BLAMED jobs, there are a few other occupations that crop up frequently in rom-coms. The florist, for instance, is a popular alternative to the BLAMED group of occupations. Jennifer Anniston plays a florist in Love Happens (which is actually a rom-tearjerker rather than a rom-com), and Lena Headly plays a florist in Imagine Me & You. Bookshop owners and clerks are also popular. In You’ve Got Mail, both main characters own bookstores (actually Meg Ryan’s character owns a small children’s bookstore while Tom Hanks’ character is a co-owner, with his father and grandfather, of giant bookstore chain clearly modeled on Barnes & Noble). The two major supporting characters in the film work in the media (she’s in publishing, he’s a newspaper columnist). In Notting Hill Hugh Grant’s character owns a travel bookstore. In The Love Letter Kate Capshaw’s character owns a bookstore. In High Fidelity, John Cusack’s character owns a used-record store, which is a sort of variation on the bookstore meme.
Currently, bakers seem to be all the rage. In Bridesmaids, the main character, played by Kristen Wiig, spends much of her time ruing the failure of her bakery. In Life as We Know It, Katherine Heigl owns a small Atlanta bakery. And in It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep owns a successful Santa Barbara bakery. Even in portraying bakers, however, Hollywood has no interest in realism. At one point in It’s Complicated, Streep’s character whips up a batch of croissants from scratch for her boyfriend, played by Steve Martin. The entire process is completed in an hour or so, late at night, when no one else is in the bakery (a time when the kitchen of any real bakery would be operating at full capacity). In real life, it takes about thirty hours to whip up a batch of croissants from scratch, a fact Nancy Meyers seems blithely unaware of.
I am not suggesting that Hollywood filmmakers ought to turn every rom-com into an exploration of how various Americans make a living. But work is an integral part of American life these days. Even during a horrible economic climate like the one we have now, most adult American’s spend eight hours a day or more at their jobs. And the jobs we have say a lot about our personalities. Very few of the people I know actually work at their dream job. Most of them had to give up on their dream long ago and take a job that would pay the bills and keep their children fed. But even the jobs that we back into say something important about us. Like a lot of people, my stepdaughter Andrea dreamed of being a movie star when she was little. Now she runs a company that provides nationwide notary services to escrow companies and loan companies. The story of how she went from an aspiring actress to a successful businesswoman in an industry she has no great interest in says a lot about who she is. When she found herself the mother of three children and married to a man with no great breadwinning skills, she had to reinvent herself. She went from being a stay-at-home mother to a low-level assistant at an escrow company (she sought the job not because she cared about escrow but because she had a connection with the company – her mother worked there). Eventually she worked her way up to a job as an escrow officer. She moved from company to company in order to climb the escrow ladder. Fifteen years ago, when she noticed how difficult it was to find freelance notaries to handle document signings outside the escrow office, she decided to set up a nationwide signing service. She had no passion for either escrow or notary work. But she was passionate about seeing her children grow up with many of the material comforts that she didn’t have when she was a child. The company she started has been a success. Despite a nationwide collapse in the housing market, Andrea’s business continues to thrive. Her job doesn’t define her, but it says a great deal about who she is.
If the makers of America’s rom-coms would spend just a little bit more time developing work histories for their characters, we viewers might understand and care about those characters a lot more than we do now. It’s all too easy to label a character “lawyer” or “doctor” or “architect” and then do nothing more to inform the viewer of how that character spends the 30 to 40 percent of his waking hours during which he earns that title. Rom-com characters too often live in a reality-free zone where everybody occupies a cool Manhattan loft or California beach house despite the fact that no one seems to spend any significant amount of time at work. If the camera does happen to follow a rom-com character to work, we’re usually shown a generically glamorous glass-walled suite of rooms in a modern high-rise building where everyone wears expensive suits and works in a corner office with a killer view of the local skyline.
One of my favorite rom-coms of the last decade or so is director Adam Brooks’ Definitely, Maybe. The main character in that film, played by Ryan Reynolds, has a real job. What’s more, his employment situation actually evolves over the course of the film. In the beginning he is just a young poly-sci major who aspires to be President of the United States. Soon it is 1992 and we see him working as a flunky in the New York headquarters of the Clinton presidential campaign. We observe as he slowly works his way up the ladder. He gets a promotion not because the film’s plot requires him to but because he earns it by using a combination of marketing savvy, bullshit, and a genuine gift for communicating his political passion to other people to raise large sums of money for the campaign. After Clinton becomes president, Reynolds’ character is “rewarded” with a very low-level job in a Washington bureaucracy. He hates the job and so, with a partner, he forms his own political consultancy corporation. Eventually his firm is hired to run the campaign of a New York gubernatorial candidate. When that campaign crashes and burns, he finds himself in the professional wilderness for a few years, drinking heavily and not doing much work. Eventually, he cleans up his act and takes a job he loathes with an advertising company, where he writes promotional flak for consumer products such as Quaker Oats. There is enough detail about the character’s working life that a synopsis of the movie might mistakenly make it sound as if the film were a political drama. But this is a genuine romantic comedy (with plenty of drama thrown in, as well). Reynolds’ character comes to life in a way that few rom-com protagonists ever do. Brooks’ script demonstrates the way that a person’s personal and professional lives can become inextricably linked. Reynolds’ character has a Bill Clinton-like desire to be liked by everybody. As a result he finds himself, a la Clinton, entangled romantically with more women than he ought to. He has the born politician’s desire to please everybody, to be all things to all people, and at times this leads him into trouble. What’s more, the film unfolds almost as a deposition (he is relating his life story to his young daughter) during which he continuously selects words as cautiously as Clinton did when being deposed on the Monica Lewinsky situation. In one scene, the daughter (ably played by Abigail Breslin) assumes the role of an opposing attorney and tries to trick Reynolds into describing one former girlfriend as a “bitch,” but he refuses to be trapped and uses terms like “heartbreaker” and “double-crosser” instead. This connection with the Kenneth Starr White Water investigation is made explicit when Reynolds’ character criticizes Clinton’s testimony before Starr’s inquisitors. “If he can’t define a word like ‘is,’ what happens if they give him one of the hard words, like ‘truth’?” he asks. Because the character has a life outside of his romantic entanglements, those entanglements seem more real, more engrossing. A film about Will Hayes (the character played by Reynolds) would be interesting even if it didn’t focus on his romantic life, because the character is three dimensional. He has a believable life as a single parent, a believable professional life, and a believable social life.
Not as good as Definitely, Maybe but well above average for an American rom-com is David Koepp’s Ghost Town. The two major characters in that film are a dentist played by Ricky Gervais and an Egyptologist played by Tea Leoni. This is one of the rare cases where the “doctor” label wasn’t haphazardly slapped upon a character just to identify him as a successful professional man. In this film, we see a great deal of Gervais’ character at work. We see him interacting (or, more accurately, trying hard not to interact) with his patients and his fellow medical professionals. At one point, the character, who is somewhat of a misanthrope, explains why he likes being a dentist: “Because 90 percent of my patients have cotton wool shoved into their mouths.” And thus he isn’t forced to make conversation with them or listen to their life stories. This may be a bit contrived (in my experience, dentists and patients tend to engage in a lot of inane small talk of the kind Gervais claims to have become a dentist to avoid; perhaps he should have become an anesthesiologist), but within the framework of the film it comes across as genuine. A dentist has to see his patients only once every six months or so, and this seems to suit Gervais’ character just fine, since he despises the idea of close personal intimacy with his fellow human beings (at least in the beginning of the film). Likewise, Tea Leoni’s character has a job that actually seems to fit her personality. At the beginning of the film, her closest personal connection seems to be with a mummy that died in Egypt 3500 years ago. This connection takes on resonance when we learn that Leoni’s husband has been dead for a year. On the day her husband died, Leoni’s character discovered that he had been having an affair with a young yoga teacher named Amber. Ever since this discovery she has been picking at the memory of her marriage with the same obsessive devotion she brings to her examination of the mummy. These two dead men dominate her professional and personal lives, and they both seem to mean more to her than the boyfriend (a lawyer, naturally) with whom she is maintaining a fairly tepid romance.
By giving his main characters real careers and showing how those careers intersect with their emotional lives, Koepp gives us a film that is much more moving and realistic (despite being a fantasy involving a ghost who can’t cross over to the afterlife until he resolves some unfinished business in this world) than 98 percent of the rom-coms to come out of Hollywood in the last few decades. Even his secondary characters have jobs that save them from two-dimensionality. The lawyer boyfriend isn’t the scumbag ambulance-chaser Gervais’ character first mistakenly suspects him of being. Rather the lawyer is a tireless defender of human rights throughout the world who, nonetheless, frequently comes across as a conceited proselytizing blowhard – in other words, a mixture of both good and bad, like most people. Leoni’s dead husband, winningly played by Greg Kinnear, was a greedy businessman when he was alive. Death has made him a more sympathetic and mellow person, but he still can’t completely stifle his competitive businessman’s nature. He competes against his fellow ghosts for the attention of the living, and uses a variety of tricks to induce Gervais’ character to help him resolve the unfinished business that is preventing him from crossing into the afterlife. With Kinnear’s character, Keopp seems to be suggesting that, even in death, we are likely to be dogged by our career choices.
It is nearly impossible to care about a character in a rom-com if we know almost nothing about her except her romantic situation. It isn’t enough to just tell us that she is a lawyer or a teacher or a doctor. The filmmakers must allow us to see the life she leads outside the realm of romance. Show us her parents, her oldest friends, her siblings, and, especially if she is a contemporary American earning her own living with a job that demands 40 hours a week or more of her time, show us her co-workers: her boss, her secretary, her clients, her competitors – in short, all the people who add depth and dimension to her existence. No one except the perpetual playboy (pathetic creature) spends much more than a small fraction of his life wooing and/or being wooed. For most of us, that wooing is confined to only a few months of our lives. But almost all of us spend a great deal of time trying to earn a living. Rom-com makers who forget that simple truth will never be capable of producing anything greater than such cinematic fluff as Something Borrowed. I am a hardcore rom-com junkie. I can usually find something to enjoy even in a piece of romantic fluff (although, for the life of me, I could find nothing to appreciate in such recent duds as All About Steve, The Bounty Hunter, and Because I Said So). But if more filmmakers understood what a profound influence the working world has on the private lives of most contemporary Americans, Hollywood might become capable of giving us movies like Definitely, Maybe and Ghost Town on a regular basis, which would give the reputation of the romantic comedy a much-needed boost. Instead, such films as those are rare feasts for the brain and the heart, scattered among a smorgasbord of bland appetizers.