romcom

52 Films By Women: Bride & Prejudice

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Screenshot

By Andrea Thompson

Last week I delved into one of the darker, more bloody species of film to include a romantic storyline, in part so I could fully explore an adaptation of one of the most well-known, romantic, love stories ever: the 2004 musical “Bride & Prejudice,” based, of course, on Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice.”

The movie itself is a joy, an example of the universal appeal of love stories across cultures and borders. Granted, the family has four daughters rather than five since it eliminates Kitty, but thanks to director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha, “Bride & Prejudice” mostly comes across as intended, which is as much a tribute Bollywood musicals as it is to Austen. Adaptations of Austen's work that take place in modern times can be a tough sell, mostly because the social forces that played such a huge part in the lives of her characters are either entirely absent or just not as resonant.

Chadha solves much of that problem by setting the film in a modern, yet still somewhat rural India, where there's still apparently a great deal of community involvement in marriage, and which is also still considered a necessary part of a person's life. There's even a song that partially explains why, mostly in how local businesses greatly profit from any big (expensive) wedding that comes to town. In such an environment, it's pretty feasible and believable for weddings to be substituted for balls, which allows “Bride and Prejudice” to more smoothly incorporate much of the novel's events while giving us some truly catchy, energetic songs.

While many (including her fans) often see Austen's writing as little more than harmless romantic fluff, Chadha doesn't forget just how much of Austen's novels were satires, with a whole lot of commentary on the class system of her day. Chadha smartly, if more blatantly, incorporates much of this spirit into the movie by having our two would-be lovers William Darcy (Martin Henderson) and Lalita (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) butt heads on Darcy's condescending American view of India. When he calls arranged marriages backward, she points out that its modern incarnation is more like a global dating service. When Darcy talks about building a 5-star hotel, Lalita speaks of the phenomenon of people who want to come to India without having to deal with the people who live there, and calls him an imperialist. When Darcy protests that's he's American, Lalita responds, “Exactly.”

Lalita may be literally half a world away from the rural England of the beloved Lizzie Bennet, but she's very recognizable. The same can't be said for Martin Henderson's Darcy. Henderson is just one of those leading men the film industry tries to make happen every now and then when it forgets that you need a charismatic presence far more than good looks in films that depend on the appeal and chemistry of its leads. Compare that to Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies), who in this version is a seemingly laid back, open-minded world traveler. Also abtastic. Who wouldn't swoon over this guy? I mean...

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Identity is also a big thing in “Bride & Prejudice,” which acknowledges the Indian diaspora, especially of those who leave and forget where they came from, with the Indian-British barrister Balraj (Naveen Andrews), aka Bingley, telling his very Westernized sister Kiran (Indira Varma, who played Ellaria Sand on “Game of Thrones”), not to be “such a coconut.” Not that the movie dislikes modernism of course. Part of the reason Kholi (Nitin Ganatra), its version of Mr. Collins, is so unsuitable isn't just because his success in America has made him lose touch with his roots. He's also a misogynist who shakes his head over the outspoken, career-oriented women in America, some whom are...lesbians! Ganatra manages to make this guy hilariously unappealing though, rather than just unappealing. Plus, he provokes Lalita's most impressive zinger when he talks about how India is too corrupt when she fires back, “What do you think your U.S. was like after 60 years of independence? They were all killing each other over slavery and blindly searching for gold.”

That said, this cosmopolitan emphasis is where the film deflates somewhat once the sisters leave India for London and LA. Appropriately enough, it's in LA where Lalita and Darcy start to connect and fall in love, albeit in a more rushed way, although we do get the song “Take Me To Love,” sung by everything a gospel choir, a mariachi band, and lifeguards. Trust me, it works. Even if you don't know the story, you know there's a fallout coming, in this case when Lalita finds out that Darcy is behind Balraj's sudden, abrupt departure from her sister Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar) and rejects him. Also, (Alexis Bledel's appearance as Darcy's sister Georgie is far too brief!) But the two make up pretty quickly in London, when Lakhi runs off with Wickham. Sure, it's rather hurried, but we also get to watch a dramatic confrontation in a theater where a similarly dramatic Bollywood movie is playing. After that, the movie quickly arrives at its happy ending back in India, which sees a double wedding between Balraj and Jaya, and naturally, Lalita and Darcy in a traditional Indian wedding. It's certainly ends up being a very chaste on-screen romance, since Lalita and Darcy never even kiss, even when they marry.

Nevermind. The musical numbers are fun, the whole cast seems like they're having a blast, and Lalita is always a heroine worth rooting for, even during the few times the movie doesn't do her justice. The fact that Chadha managed to incorporate so many issues about the continuing evolution of the modern India without “Bride & Prejudice” feeling preachy or overstuffed is remarkable. So if you want a different, fun, deeply recognizable kind of love story with a lot on its mind for your Valentine's Day viewing, you could do far worse.

52 Films By Women: Set It Up

By Andrea Thompson

I had high hopes for the Netflix film “Set It Up,” which looked like a delightful romantic comedy that was just as invested in the heroine's career as it was in her love life, which of course she and her requisite male lead insisted on complicating. Instead, it's an example of how women can also get invested in sexism if it gives them a kind status that can result from buying into it. After all, when you are able to gain quite a bit of social cache by following the rules, you're less likely to advocate for those rules to be broken.

Rom-coms are tricky anyways. They depend more on conventions than other genres, which means there's little chance for suprises. They also obviously depend on romance, and that said romance will run into some obstacles before the two leads realize what everyone – from the people around them to any audience who happens to be watching – around them already knows. They are meant to be together!

IMDB

IMDB

Forestalling such an obvious truth is tricky, and that's why so many rom-coms buy into pernicious stereotypes, not only about love, but about gender and the so-called differences between them. It's a lazy way to create conflict when there's a very real danger of not there not being enough of it. “Set It Up” doesn't so much buy into traditional mores as the new ones which sprung up from the old, and are about as damaging. The fact that it's written and directed by women adds insult to injury.

First, the premise. It's actually an interesting one, as Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell) are long-suffering, overworked assistants to demanding, workaholic bosses. It's strongly indicated that Charlie's boss Rick (Taye Diggs) is a venture capitalist, but it's not made quite clear aside from the fact that Rick's job involves a whole lot of money. Harper's boss Kirsten (Lucy Liu) is the formidable head of a sports journalism site that Harper longs to be published on.

IMDB

IMDB

Harper and Charlie work in the same building and are at work before everyone , which is how they happen to meet, and Charlie quickly establishes his jerk bonafides. Harper is just barely able to persuade him to split the food that she ordered, but Charlie is quick to take for his own boss since Harper doesn't have the cash required. After Harper and Charlie meet up again and swap horror stories, as well as their complete lack of personal lives, they start to consider how their jobs would get a lot less demanding if their bosses Rick and Kirsten were seeing each other. And since Harper and Charlie control their schedules and nearly everything else in their lives, they can actually arrange this.

So Harper and Charlie decide to do just that. They get Kirsten and Rick trapped in an elevator together, only for that to go hilariously awry when a claustrophic deliverman gets trapped in there with them. Their second meeting, where Harper and Charlie arrange for them to sit together at a baseball game, goes much better, and Kirsten and Rick actually start dating, freeing up their assistants' time.

IMDB

IMDB

It's when this relationship starts that “Set It Up” gets problematic. Or rather, its leads prove to be as shallow as much of the corporate world the movie tries to criticize. Much of Kirsten's personality, time, and workaholic tendencies are assumed to revolve around the fact that she's not only a single woman of a certain age, but a woman sans children. Kirsten mentions that a lot of men proposed to her in her 20s, as if male attention suddenly dries up when you hit 30. Near the end of the film, she tells Harper, “Men don't want to date you when you're beating you to a story. But I've met someone who wants me to be strong, and he likes that I'm successful. I mean, he's a goddamn unicorn!” In the world of “Set It Up,” men who date women their own age aren't just rare, those who are attracted to women with power are apparently almost nonexistent.

Needless to say, Rick's behavior doesn't need to be similarly explained. He's barely humanized at all, and the moie seems just fine with this. While dressing down Charlie, Harper even says that he can be better, and that Rick can't help being an asshole. Really? Rick doesn't have the capacity to be a better person, or even the free will to do so? It's a rather disturbing justification of male behavior.

IMDB

IMDB

At least the movie knows where to draw the line. Harper and Charlie may be desperate enough to arrange for Kirsten to have a bikini wax once they learn that Rick is completely turned off by hair, but at least Harper isn't willing to hide Rick's plan to continually cheat on Kirsten with his ex-wife, even after he decides to marry Kirsten. Shockingly, Charlie is at first willing to in order to gain a promotion, and thus financial security from Rick, but his eventual decision to run to the airport to break up a romance is at least a nice twist on rom-com conventions.

Then again, Harper and Charlie don't seem much worth investing in either. Charlie is continually a jerk to her, and has a habit of, among other things, hanging up on her when they're in the middle of a conversation. Harper also comes off as little more than a Cool Girl cliché. She's into sports in a way only unrealistic female characters are: when it's convenient. And of course, she totally goes crazy on unhealthy snacks when she's sitting in the apartment by herself while somehow maintaining Hollywood beauty standards, even when she's at her lowest.

IMDB

IMDB

At least “Set It Up” places a lot of emphasis on Harper's career and her complicated relationship with Kirsten, deeply humanizing her boss by the end. But the movie's attempts at female empowerment ring rather hollow when it invests so much time into many of the beliefs that hold women back. Then there's the topic that goes completely unadressed: race. Their bosses are both minorities who worked their way up in corporate environments that still openly favor white men. The movie does dip a toe into how draining capitalism can be for those on the lower rungs, but it doesn't even approach as to how race might play a factor into Rick and Kirsten's personas and just how isolated they are. Rom-coms have come a long way recently, but “Set It Up” shouldn't be praised when other films have taken the genre much further.

Romance, Homogenized: Crazy Rich Asians And Cutlure in Rom-Coms

By Arrisa Robinson

As I reflect on “Crazy Rich Asians,” (which is FINALLY out in theaters), I can only think of the vast differences between family dynamics in this film versus what we typically see in most romantic comedies. But as I begin thinking more and more about these differences, it occurred to me: does race have that much of an impact on the type of families represented in these films?

Well let’s look into it! For starters, I sat down and binged-watched a bunch of rom-coms on Netflix, starting with “13 Going On 30.” Main character Jenna Rink (Jennifer Garner) had a small family that consisted of a mom, a dad, and herself. Then I moved on to “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) and Ben Berry (Matthew McConaughey) both came from small households. Andie’s family was barely mentioned, but Ben’s family was made up of a mom, dad, uncle, brother, sister-in-laws, and a couple nieces and nephews. They were standardly nuclear for the most part.

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But then I pulled up some of my favorite rom-coms, which consisted of casts who were primarily non-white. I saw mom, dad, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, every unnecessary in-law, exes, frenemies, and everything in between. The predominantly black cast of “Guess Who” includes extended family members and friends. Even in “Our Family Wedding,” which features an extensive black and Latino cast, the various players combine to create one gigantic, chaotic family by the end.

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But an even bigger epiphany came to mind: where’s the culture? This doesn’t even go for films that involve people of color. As I thought about what these movies had in common, I recognized this lack of culture in a lot of big romantic comedies. Sure, we as Americans have a certain stigma about ourselves but-sorry, not sorry-we’re more than that. We’re comprised of Africans, Chinese, Indians, Irish, Indonesians, Greeks, Pakistanis, Australians and so many more! And they all have their specific values and traditions. Even in films such as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” or “Polish Wedding,” their family units stand out because of what is culturally acceptable and what we all have in common. It's customary to have an overbearing mother or aunt who cares about who’s marrying who, a host of cousins who intrude on every aspect of your life, or that one aunt and uncle who take their nieces or nephews under their wing like they were their own.

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Ultimately, I realized that Hollywood didn’t fail at having more families in its romantic comedies. What Hollywood has failed to do was have more culture. Americans are composed of a staggering amount of races and ethnicities, and it ought to be fair to represent them rather than homogenize them on the big screen. So seeing a film out like “Crazy Rich Asians” openly express how Asian-American culture is represented makes a hell of a difference in Hollywood and in our society. There hasn’t been a primarily Asian cast in theaters since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club” 25 years ago. So if you were wondering why everyone is emphasizing why representation matters, just remember...25 years. That’s why.

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Sure, romantic comedies are supposed to be light and cheery, and by all means, they should continue to be. But here in the great US of A, white people are not the only people in this country. America consists of different shades, cultures, traditions, and values, and they should all be represented and accounted for. Making it to Hollywood is one thing, but Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, America Ferrera, Lance Gross, Zoe Saldana, Lena Olin, and Nia Vardalos all represent the diversity that make America America. Hollywood embracing that is just another step towards getting acquainted with our neighbors, and we have plenty of them. I hope to see more films with more people of color, races, ethnicities, sexualities and genders coming to theaters soon. Because it definitely matters.

52 Films By Women: A New Leaf

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By Andrea Thompson

When I saw Elaine May's “The Heartbreak Kid,” possibly the greatest anti-romantic comedy of all time, May became one of my favorite filmmakers. When I watched May's “A New Leaf” at the suggestion of my friend Sydney, I became convinced May is a national treasure.

“A New Leaf” was made in 1971, a year prior to May's far more famous work, “The Heartbreak Kid.” In the latter, she directed. In the former, she directs, writes, and stars. “A New Leaf” is also a far darker, and funnier movie. The premise? After wealthy playboy Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) discovers he's spent all of his money and is now penniless, he decides to marry a wealthy woman. Then kill her and walk away with the money.

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May quickly establishes the meaningless, heartless world Henry resides in, where people care about possessions above all, and getting new ones as quickly as possible. It's just as quickly established that Henry isn't an outlier at all. He's lazy, uncaring, spends money on useless crap on the slightest whim, and that's just how he likes it. He has no ambitions to be anything else, and even if he did, he doesn't have the skills required to do anything practical or useful. It makes the scene with his accountant, who has the task of telling him he has exhausted his wealth, not only humorous, but delightful. May gives us even more reason to relish the jeopardy with overwrought, dramatic music as Henry imagines a life without all the opulence he's become accustomed to.

“A New Leaf” also puts a hilarious spin on the loyal butler trope. Henry's valet Harold (George Rose) stands by him, not out of loyalty, but because Henry is one of the only men left who would actually use his services, or as Harold puts it, to “keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born.” Yet Harold is the closest thing Henry has to a friend. He is the only one who knows what's going on (except for Henry's murderous intentions), and encourages his employer to fight for his right to remain among the idle rich.

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Henry's attempts to find a wife fail quite hilariously until he meets Henrietta, a botanist, at a tea party, who is played by Elaine May herself. In any other movie, their first moments together would be a meet-cute. She drops her glove, and her tea, in what would now be called adorkable. Henry comes to her rescue due to his discovery that Henrietta is both wealthy and without relatives. This not only causes Henrietta's to spill even more tea on their host Mrs. Cunliff's immaculate carpet, it inspires said host to call Henry a son of a bitch. Unfazed, Henry delivers one of the best retorts in cinematic history.

“You dare call me a son of a bitch?” Henry responds indignantly. “Madame, I have seen many examples of perversion in my time, but your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque, and certainly the most boring I have ever encountered. You ought to be scorned and pitied. Good day, Mrs. Cunliff.”

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“A New Leaf” doesn't cater to our expectations of the genre. This isn't a story about two ridiculously attractive people falling for each other in a series of outrageously comic adventures. Nor is Elaine May interested in making Henrietta relatable. Just how would a woman so shy, inept, and isolated actually live? May shows us, especially after Henry overcomes a few obstacles, such as the objections of Henrietta's lawyer, and manages to marry her. He discovers his wife's life is in complete disarray. The mansion she lives in is a mess. The people who work for her take shameless advantage of her. And the lawyer who seemed to have Henrietta's best interests at heart turns out to have been in on everything. Henry quickly straightens things out, and takes over the management of Henrietta's life and accounts, all so he can use it to his advantage after he disposes of her. In the process, he actually becomes quite a competent, knowledgeable person who learns some useful skills, almost without becoming aware of it.

Of course, his fondness for Henrietta grows, in a fashion similarly unknown to him. Henrietta truly does change him for the better and make him more responsible and competent, even if he does have to check Henrietta's clothes for crumbs and price tags before she leaves for work every morning. The most touching moment is when Henrietta discovers a new species of plant and names it after Henry, thus granting his wish for a kind of immortality. His realization that he loves his wife is sweet, but it's more an acceptance that nothing in his life will turn out as he's expected from now on. When they walk off into the sunset together, we too breathe a sigh of relief that the danger is past.