Don't give up on romantic comedies

They're taking new shapes.

 

I’m in Los Angeles killing time before a movie when I pick up a copy of the Atlantic and happen upon this headline: "Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?" The piece, by Christopher Orr, makes me a little irritated, not least because it gazes back wistfully on Pretty Woman, which Orr describes as full of “ascending optimism.” Well, it’s certainly full of something. Tempting though it is to engage yet again with the problems of Pretty Woman 23 years after its release, and to explain what’s wrong with an aspirational fable that pushes the idea that prostitution is a neat way of making some pocket money until Mr Right whooshes up to the kerb in his limo, I’m going to hold back.

Orr insists that the rom-com has not died so much as adapted, taking on new shapes, but then it has always done this; riffs such as the recent bromance trend, or the Yuppie screwball comedies of the 1980s, are merely period variations on a theme. To take but one example, I Love You, Man is a perfectly sprightly movie where both rom and com emanate from the same source (one man’s panic over not having any male friends). You can read the article online here, where you also get the benefit of some savvy reader comments pointing out the myriad exceptions which defy the thrust of the feature’s headline.

And then Identity Thief, a wonderfully smart comedy, provides its own spin on the rom-com. Actually, it’s an amalgam of several genres and elements. It is partly an odd-couple/ buddy /road movie, with Jason Bateman as the hapless suit pursuing a fraudster (Melissa McCarthy) who has stolen his identity, maxed out his credit cards, landed him in trouble with the law and lost him his job. That she has also stolen his name (it’s a running joke that he is called Sandy, which everyone believes mistakenly to be an exclusively female name) makes the film’s subtext explicit. This alternative Sandy is the other side of him, the version stripped of all his advantages: female, overweight, no apparent taste or refinement, no friends or family, no money or possessions other than what she has stolen. While male Sandy frets over a new job with a $200K raise, female Sandy spends thousands of dollars of other people’s money buying rounds for strangers in bars to win herself some chums. Pretty serious stuff. All the best comedies are.

Where the rom-com element comes into it is in McCarthy’s brazenly sexual persona, which challenges her co-star Bateman not to find her attractive. (There is at least one scene, following her makeover, where he crumbles—and so do any doubters in the audience.) Popular culture rarely accommodates the idea of the democratic libido; in mainstream movies, TV and music, it is only young, gym-toned hardbodies who can love or lust. But in Bridesmaids and now Identity Thief, McCarthy plays ravenous and plays it straight. This doesn’t preclude the audience from laughing, but there is no sense that we are laughing at the absurdity of her desire—if anything, it is the embarrassment it causes others, and McCarthy’s lack of concern at this, which allows the comedy to flourish.

Near the end of the movie, female Sandy gets to meet male Sandy’s petite, elegant wife (Amanda Peet), and corners her in a woman-to-woman chat in which she reassures her that nothing happened between Sandy and her. “He did not lay a finger on or in me,” she says. The joke might once have come from the far-fetched idea that a slim and successful man could ever fall for a woman like McCarthy. But one of the points of Identity Thief is that there is less dividing us from our fellow citizens than we might think; in fact, the old comforts and snobberies are withering away in the long economic winter. The rom-com playing field is more level than ever.

"Identity Thief" opens in the UK on 22 March

Melissa McCarthy at the Oscars (Credit: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.