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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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