In my relaxed, post-monastic-retreat state, I’ve been more open to random experience than usual. For example, I recently decided to go to the movies and see whatever was on when I arrived at the cinema. Although I was in Newtown (ie well within my usual comfort zone), it turned out not to be the arthouse film I might have chosen, but a Hollywood movie, Crazy Stupid Love.
The plot follows a couple whose marriage is breaking down: at the beginning, the wife tells her husband she wants a divorce and has slept with another man. He responds by letting himself fall out of their moving car, a gesture that symbolically foreshadows his next step which is to go out and fall into bed with lots of other women. In the end, he renews his commitment to his marriage, and the couple decide to try to restore their relationship. There are subplots about other people, including their children, going through similar struggles to find and sustain romantic love within a culture which is more supportive of sexual conquest.
Glancing at the reviews on the internet, most people seem to have responded to this film as a sweetly romantic romcom. The few critics who took a different view have complained about it being full of falsehood and fantasy (but what do you want from a romcom?), or more subtly have pointed out that the film’s messages about the importance of lasting love and family values are somewhat compromised by the fact that “three-quarters of the cast are acting like sex pests.” Anthony Morris, the critic who made this observation, nevertheless held to the majority view that the film is basically a piece of feel-good entertainment and objected to Julianne Moore’s performance in one of the lead roles as striking a false note by being “just a little too convincing as a woman who’s lost her way in life.”
My friend Tom saw the film in Bondi Junction. He told me that the audience there didn’t pay too much attention to Moore’s interpretation of her role. They cheered and clapped at the end, behaving as if they were part of the crowd of proud parents at the school speech day that comes at the end of the film and provides a pretext for speeches made by the father and son characters about their commitment to lurve.
The fact that Moore, playing the wife and mother of the family, looks stressed and slightly hysterical in the final “reunion” shot with her husband clearly didn’t register. Her thirteen year old son seems similarly stunned at the end of the film. The object of his repeatedly declared and rejected affections, a considerably older babysitter, has just given him some nude photos of herself, shots she had earlier intended to use in order to seduce his father. As she walks away, the boy’s father remarks, “He looks happy,” blithely ignoring the actual expression of bewilderment on his son’s face.
In Newtown on a weekday afternoon, there weren’t many other people in the cinema. Naturally, we maintained a cool silence when the credits began to roll. I don’t know what the others were thinking, but to me, the interest of this film was in what I took to be its deliberate contradictions. It appeared to defend the conservative dream of life-long love and family commitment, but it also played on an equally strong fantasy about the pursuit of sexual conquest without limits. And in its more realistic and disturbing details, it suggested that in a culture which promotes both these fantasies at once and refuses to see the incompatibility between them, the result is a distressing level of confusion and anxiety. Individuals who sense that neither of these ideals matches their experience, or even their desires, face a disconcerting lack of more nuanced models for intimate relationship. In the world of American romcom, it seems there’s no middle way.