Perhaps it’s glib for film critics to target rom-coms, a genre often dismissed as ‘women’s cinema’ or ‘chick flicks’ that struggles to be taken seriously. That said, even the rom-com has a responsibility to be entertaining. To spruce up this classic genre to tell interesting rather than cliched stories, it’s necessary to cast romantic leads who have good chemistry, actors who aren’t just a pretty face. Unfortunately, this is where the popular Christmas films The Holiday and Happiest Season fall short. Let me explain.
The Holiday is about two very rich and very single women who swap homes around the festive period. Iris (Kate Winslet) opens the film with a monologue: “I suppose I think about love more than I really should”. She is hopelessly in love with her co-worker and craves a change from her quiet cottaged life in the UK.
On the other hand, Amanda (Cameron Diaz) is a Hollywood producer, living the fast life in Los Angeles until she chucks out her partner having discovered he’s unfaithful. Both need a change of scene, and what better way than to cross the Atlantic and swap houses for the holiday having bonded over a very dated AOL chat.
The Holiday’s worst sin is that it all too willingly goes through the classic rom-com motions. Iris meets a songwriter Miles (Jack Black), heartbroken from his cheating model girlfriend, whilst Amanda meets Iris’s ‘player’ brother Graham (Jude Law) when he turns up to her house drunk.
The film is bookended by everyone meeting on New Year’s Eve, a new equilibrium achieved. Although it’s made clear that neither of these ‘career’ women are going to leave their jobs for their men, which is something I was worried about, they still entirely revolve their lives around male validation. “I’m looking for something corny in my life”.
It’s a romance film, so in true form, it suggests that the eternal goal in life is to find ‘the one’. However, there needs to be a little more about these women outside of that. They’ve got personality; Iris helps an ageing Hollywood writer find his confidence, and Amanda narrates aspects of her life in the format of movie trailers.
And yet there’s little about them that doesn’t fall back on stock tropes. There’s an uncomfortable sequence of Amanda buying all the food in a village shop, walking down the isles drinking an open bottle of wine. Ah, yes, a woman at her lowest point.
Films find their meaning in unanswered questions that keep audiences watching. The question here is “will they or won’t they?”. Iris is still in contact with her neglectful co-worker, and bonds with Miles who is also being neglected by his partner. Amanda has to go back home yet finds herself falling for Graham within a few days of knowing him. They will of course end up together despite such a short time. It’s inevitable. “Legend has it, when the Santa Anas blow, anything can happen”.
Without mincing my words, it’s very straight. The characters are flat and boring. However, these examples of bland Christmas cheer and seasonal romance are not ‘straight’ film issues. The recent Happiest Season, a lesbian coming out Christmas story, suffers from the same problems.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) wants to propose to her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davies) but is shocked to find that Harper hasn’t yet come out to her family despite the two staying with them over the holiday. “I’m scared that if I tell them who I really am, I will lose them”. Inevitable hijinks ensue. Like The Holiday, the film really is a bit of light fun, but it is still so templated and so emotionless. Despite the genre being updated, made more inclusive, and an undeniable milestone for representation, it still falls for all the same reductive cliches.
In one scene Abby, feeling dispirited, meets Riley (Aubrey Plaza), only to find out that Riley is Harper’s ex. Harper also kept Riley a secret and Abby and Riley soon bond. The two have palatable chemistry, and it almost feels as if the film is about to go off and let them be together. But of course, the film can’t allow any sort of ‘natural’ romance.
Even as a piece of lesbian romance, it has to appease a Hollywood-approved formula. Add to that the subplot of Harper’s politician father, and her fear that coming out would ‘hurt’ his chances of winning, the film is an unexpectedly conservative vision. A lovely, lighthearted comedy, about Christmas at a Republican’s house.
It’s a shame, and it’s also a shame that it revolves around coming out. Recent movements have argued that gay people deserve a cinema that isn’t just about heartbreak (Call Me By Your Name, Carol, Portrait of a Lady On Fire). However, the ‘lighthearted’ answer to this seems instead to revolve around coming out stories (Love, Simon, Alex Strangelove).
There’s more to being gay than coming out or being heartbroken. In both serious and fun incarnations, mainstream gay films seem unable to move past this focus. Not to mention these films are robbed of any tension because the ending is so inevitable.
Is it right to ask for more from a genre that prides itself on its easy access? If these films aren’t heartbreaking, then what can they be?
They can still have substance, surely.
There are many ‘chick flicks’ with real characters such as Bridget Jones or Angus Thongs. There are even films that revolve around the same anxieties like loneliness and yet speak about love freshly and beautifully, such as Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. Why then, does Hollywood struggle to translate this to gay films focusing on the same issues?
It’s just such a waste to see a good cast appear in soulless media that instills the idea that you’re lost without a partner, or that you should tolerate your partner’s lack of communication – all in the name of this commodified fantasy of ‘true love’.