Love is weird. Yet in romantic comedies, the hurdles to happiness are simple. Bets, bad guys, misunderstandings, and cases of mistaken identity stand in the way of romantic bliss, rather than more mundane issues like hoarding, fear of commitment, addiction, depression, and people suddenly deciding to move to Germany.
This is meant to be comforting. Since romantic comedy obstacles are straightforward, you can usually count on the couple ending up together before the lights come on. Sometimes these happy endings feel deserved (When Harry Met Sally, While You Were Sleeping, Definitely, Maybe). Sometimes they’re so formulaic and clichéd they’re actually cynical. Like a grumpy gangster forced to play Barbies with his granddaughter, movies like New Year’s Eve are just smashing their dolls’ faces together to get things over with.
And every once in a while, romantic comedies refuse traditional happy endings altogether. Woody Allen’s perfect Annie Hall is a valentine to a neurotic, warm-hearted girlfriend he’s bound to lose. The Jennifer Aniston-Vince Vaughn vehicle The Breakup stays true to its title. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julia Roberts plays a selfish, scheming, secretly vulnerable restaurant critic who ultimately doesn’t get the guy. Instead, she ends the movie cutting a rug on the dance floor with her other best friend, played by a scene-stealing Rupert Everett. Fittingly, he gets the last word. “What the hell,” he says. “Life goes on. Maybe there won’t be marriage, maybe there won’t be sex. But, by God, there’ll be dancing.”
Two new movies, Sleepwalk with Me and Celeste and Jesse Forever, cut their romantic stories from this same heartache cloth. The relationships at the center of these films are doomed from the start, which makes for some melancholy laughs. Both movies try to say something harder, and truer, about love than Hollywood’s usual celluloid song-and-dance routine allows.
[Spoilers after the jump!]
Each focuses on a couple whose problems mainly arise from their different approaches to adulthood. In Sleepwalk with Me, Matt (Mike Birbiglia) is an aspiring comedian who works at a bar to pay the bills. Beneath his aw-shucks, self-deprecating persona is a seriously ambitious core. When he finally starts getting gigs, he delights in long road trips to perform before single-digit audiences on college campuses. He loves the stand-up life: the crappy La Quinta Inn rooms, the camaraderie with his fellow scruffy comedians, the delivery pizza. When we see him jumping up and down on his squeaky motel bed, it’s clear Matt wants to be a comedian more than anything—much more than he wants to be with his longtime girlfriend Abby, played by Lauren Ambrose.
But while Matt is still striving to become the person he wants to be, Abby, a bohemian vocal coach, is more or less already there. She’s ready to move forward and get married. The conflict between the two is irreparable, and they both know it. But they stay together anyway, neither wanting to hurt the other.
Celeste and Jesse Forever, by contrast, begins after its titular couple has already broken up. Celeste (Rashida Jones) is a responsible, type-A trend forecaster who dumped easygoing, artistic Jesse (Andy Samberg) because he lacked the ambition and drive that she always imagined the father of her children would have. But when Jesse unexpectedly gets a girl with whom he had a one-night stand pregnant, he starts growing up fast—a development that sends formerly put-together Celeste into a downward spiral.
The two movies share more than an unsentimental view of romance. In both cases, the man in the relationship is a fun-loving, shambling creative type—a near relative of the Judd Apatowian man-child—and the woman is the responsible, organized one who’s ready to settle down and buy some nice curtains. This is a familiar narrative, not to mention a sexist one, and it’s probably pretty boring to anyone who’s managed to see a sitcom or watch a stand-up routine in the last hundred years. But Celeste and Jesse overcomes the cliché by digging deeper, while Sleepwalk with Me—which, I should note, is still a good and very funny movie—stays on the surface.
The reason Celeste and Jesse offers a more nuanced portrait of relationship troubles is that it’s not afraid to let women get messy. Like Kristen Wiig’s Annie in Bridesmaids, Celeste rides this rocky period in her life like a bucking bronco. Celeste’s character arc is about losing Jesse, but more than that it’s about losing control. She makes best friends with wine, smokes copious amounts of pot with her friend and dealer, causes a scene at an engagement party, shoots low blows at a befuddled Jesse and accidentally leaves mean-spirited messages on her teenage client’s voicemail. While Jesse struggles to prepare for impending fatherhood by getting a full-time job and taking up pilates and macrobiotic meals, Celeste keeps finding new bottoms to hit.
Celeste retains the audience’s sympathy precisely because the movie isn’t afraid to risk it. (Also because she’s played by Jones, an actress who radiates down-to-earth warmth.) The more her flaws and sharp edges emerge, the more she seems on par with slacker Jesse. That makes both characters equally responsible for their relationship’s downfall, which in turn makes their mutual pain and confusion over their divorce feel more real.
Sleepwalk with Me, on the other hand, seems afraid to cast unflattering light on Abby—perhaps because she’s based Mike Birbiglia’s real-life ex-fiancee. We know that Abby has a lot of scarves and dangly earrings, a big smile, and a great singing voice. But all of her personality traits boil down to wanting everything Matt doesn’t—marriage, babies, commitment, a new coat of paint in the apartment. She’s not a nag, but she’s also not a fully developed person, since the movie predicates her entire existence on how she envisions her relationship. The audience can only feel sorry for her, while Matt is fully realized. He can lie, cheat, and bumble—as well as sleepwalk, of course—and stay likable, but the movie doesn’t have the same confidence in his girlfriend. “At this point in the movie, I want to remind you–you’re on my side,” he tells the camera when he sleeps with somebody else. I was, but I also didn’t really have a choice. You can’t side with a cipher, even if she did play Claire on Six Feet Under.
There’s a reason that characters in romantic comedies so frequently fall in love with a person they believe is someone else — the pauper who’s actually a prince, the high school sweetheart who’s really an undercover cop. It’s a dilemma that perfectly captures, and simplifies, the way lovers idealize each other early on. Then we find out about short tempers and abandonment issues and all the other particular ways in which everyone’s completely nuts. I’m glad that movies like Sleepwalk with Me and Celeste and Jesse Forever are offering thoughtful, funny-sad portraits about what happens when the bloom is off the relationship rose. But I think it’s even more important that romantic comedies follow Celeste and Jesse’s lead and write their women as people who are complex and sometimes even wrong. If love is a two-way street, break-ups are too. Most of the time.