It used to be that you could boil most of the plotlines in Hollywood down to “Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back at the airport.” But the golden days of Hollywood romance are behind us. There are no more Billy Wilders. Cameron Crowe isn’t even Cameron Crowe anymore. Meg Ryan’s best days are behind her, and even Meg Ryan’s shallow replacement, Kate Hudson, is rarely seen these days. The deep, heartfelt romantic comedies are disappearing, and not even the high-concept rom-coms like The Proposal, Bride Wars, Something Borrowed or What Happens in Vegas no longer play well as the multiplex. Ashton Kutcher has moved to television, Julia Roberts has vanished, and even Matthew McConaughey has graduated to better things. It’s not that rom-coms are completely dead — after all, Silver Linings Playbook is the very definition of a rom-com, and it doesn’t even bother to subvert the formula; instead, it perfects it — it’s just that they are fewer and more far between, and there doesn’t seem to be any one individual who wants to take it upon him or herself to keep true love alive and burning in Hollywood.
To be sure, romance is still a very larger part of the equation. Look at the Twilight franchise, or the love triangle in The Hunger Games, for examples of the biggest success. But they are genre movies, and that’s what Hollywood is mostly about these days. The boy still gets the girl, but not before facing the threat of death or the destruction of the world. Love is secondary to the action. Big, Hollywood romantic love has dimmed. We don’t get our hearts broken very often at the multiplex these days, nor are we treated to the rousing, feel good “I LOVE YOU MARCEE” moments. What’s it say about Hollywood that the most earth-shatteringly romantic moment of the last few years was in Up, an animated film?
I miss it, I miss the warm and fuzzies, characters whose relationships we are truly invested in, whose outcomes can wound us or heal us.
Enter Jonathan Levine, our savior, a guy who understands romance, and heartbreak, and what it feels like to fall in love. I had hopes for for Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) but that bastard ditched us for another goddamn franchise. Michel Gondry was too weird and ephemeral to top Eternal Sunshine, and it’s still too early to make a call on Derek Cianfrance and Colin Trevorrow. Levine himself hasn’t achieved huge box-office success. In fact, he’s not a particularly recognizable name. But his movies are amazing, and with each successive one, he gains more recognition, but hopefully it’s not the kind that will pull him toward another goddamn genre franchise.
Levine’s latest was Warm Bodies, the box-office’s number one film last weekend. While it’d be easy to chalk it up as another genre movie — it’s about zombies, after all — it was ultimately one of the most romantic films we’ve seen outside of SLP since Levine’s last movie, the cancer comedy 50/50. Yes, there was a zombie apocalypse at the center of it, but that was just the hook. What Warm Bodies was really about was a man overcoming an insurmountable obstacle — death and zombiefication — to find love and, ultimately, save the world, not with bullets in the head, but with old-school romance: Chivalrous gestures, bonding over a shared love of music, and sacrifice. The zombie carnage notwithstanding, Warm Bodies was a beautiful movie, full of tinglies and heart-bursting romanticism. If Billy Wilder had made a zombie movie, it’d be Warm Bodies.
50/50, likewise, was pitched as a “cancer comedy,” but again, that was the hook: 50/50 was really about a couple, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick, overcoming even more huge obstacles — an ex-girlfriend, the doctor-patient relatioship, and life-threatening cancer — to be together. 50/50 was about romance, and there is no greater romantic gesture than defeating cancer for the girl!
As for The Wackness, Levine’s first commercially released film? That movie was perfection: Sweetness, wistfulness, magical 90s hip-hop and mad heartache. That was a movie about heartbreak written and directed by a guy who clearly knows what it means to have your fragile soul smashed by a dismissive smile. The Wackness was about hanging on to that ache, appreciating it, if you allow yourself to feel, sometimes what you’re going to feel is devastation. Isn’t it grand!
The point I’m making here is that Levine understands the true, heart-shattering, emotional exuberance of being in love, the fleeting moments, the overwhelming insecurity of it, and the monumentality of it, the vulnerability, and the kindness. Those qualities in a director are so often forgotten in what passes for romance these days: The Vow or The Lucky One or Wanderlust. Yes, the concept is important to sell the movie, but it’s what you do with it, how you craft the perfect love story around it, that really matters. There are, undoubtedly, a few other directors that can do it, but it’s Levine that’s making a career out of it. For the few hopeless romantics that remain in our action-driven genre culture, that makes Levine a sparkling gem, a luminary of love in a sea of bows and arrows.