The mainstream romantic-comedy has steadily become saturated with genre conventions and narrative devices that seem to have shaped audience expectation. A formulaic love story that relies on certain narrative hooks and character details that become almost interchangeable. This is made more noticeable by the sub-genre trends that seem to overlap as they reflect current attitudes – think the few rom-coms released in 2010 that centred on artificial insemination. The films do not not disappoint rather they play out just as suggested in the trailer. While every genre has its conventions, two recent romantic-comedies Friends With Benefits (Gluck, 2011) and (500) Days of Summer (Webb, 2009) seem to bring attention to, and in some cases overtly criticise, the tendencies of the genre. Most importantly though both films offer the promise of no ordinary love story… and both films break that promise.
Recently more films have been challenging the conventions of the romantic-comedy genre, moving away from the uniform portrayal of heterosexual, Caucasian, materialist archetypes. The anomalous box-office success Bridesmaids (Feig, 2011) was viewed as a breakthrough for depicting stronger more rounded female characters – perhaps an affectation of actually being written by women. Although this film challenged certain Hollywood clichés and stereotypes it also appeared to reinstate and reaffirm others – such as the heterosexual, Caucasian materialist.
Whilst contemporary Hollywood films such as Bridesmaids have taken to modifying or subverting genre conventions, Friends With Benefits and (500) Days of Summer go as far as to criticise the model itself. Alluding to the tendencies of the genre through use of parody and pastiche, these films establish themselves as self-aware and somehow more progressive in comparison. They dissect the romantic-comedy format whilst taking on the very same appearance. Both films seem to be divided by their production and marketing, FWB typically more mainstream Hollywood and 500 more ‘independent’ – though these terms have become increasingly unclear with regard to finance and studio involvement, they are used here to denote the tone and style of the films. Despite this difference both carry a very similar message with many overlaps in character and narrative.
The progressive nature of these films is captured primarily in the representation of a modern day relationship – far removed from early Hollywood’s penchant for romantic chivalry. In reflecting the evolution of gender roles and relationship dynamics, romantic-comedies have bore witness to, and perhaps even influenced these societal developments. The comedy element of this genre has allowed filmmakers to play with and challenge taboos through comedic devices: from the 1927 film It (Badger), which saw Clara Bow sacrilegiously flaunt her sexiness in order to entice male interest, to FWB and 500 propelling the notion of casual or love-free relationships.
The titles of both films alone are emblematic of a modern-day relationship and set expectations as to the ‘different’ kind of love story that will ensue. “Friends With Benefits” depicts a relatively new relationship status that is purely casual and exclusive to feelings beyond lust. “(500) Days of Summer” is a little more complex – it alludes to the relationship at its core being short-lived, but also with sentiment anchored into the double meaning: the prolonged season of sunshine.
Opposing the standard model of the romantic-comedy or the love story, both films quickly establish the boundaries within the character’s relationships and reveal the absence of love in these arrangements. Illustrating the ways in which they differ from the typical rom-com is a mode by which these films offer commentary and criticism of the genre – a postmodern affectation that brings the audiences’ attention to the contrived processes in which they have been imagined.
Sexual Liberation and Liberalism
Despite the announcement of originality in the titles of the films, both follow the ‘new in town’ device in which the love/sex interest moves into the city following a job prospect. In FWB Dylan Harper (Justin Timberlake) is brought from Los Angeles to New York by Headhunter Jamie Rellis (Mila Kunis) as a potential Art Director for GQ magazine. Similarly 500‘s romance is based around the titular Summer (Zooey Deschanel) moving to LA as she is hired at the greetings card company for whom Tom (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) also works. This narrative parallel will be the first of many that also appears to fall in line with the typical romantic-comedy, many of which will become a means of subversion.
Set respectively in NYC and LA the films push forward the progressive liberal attitudes of the cities through peripheral characters and seemingly minor details within the narrative. These ideals resonate with a cultural significance and also support central themes within the films. In FWB for instance, the casual relationship that Dylan and Jamie agree upon – treating sex as a sport without tailing emotional baggage – resonates with the thematic idea of sexual liberation. Jamie’s mother flaunts a 70s Bohemian attitude, constantly joking about not knowing Jamie’s father’s identity and proudly talking of her sexual conquests. Refusing to settle down and evidently happy with this decision, her attitude supports the non-committal relationship at the core of the film. The Editor of GQ Magazine, for whom Dylan eventually accepts a job offer, is an openly gay sports jock who also talks of sex incessantly and unashamedly within his innuendo-laden rhetoric. This societal acceptance of homosexuality is echoed too in 500 when a greetings card writer pitches a new holiday for the calendar: ‘Other Mother’s Day’ – his opening gambit: ‘The nuclear family is dead’. Another minor detail that maintains this liberal standpoint is in the inter-racial marriage that both Tom and Summer attend. Whilst this does not seem to fare with the current controversy surrounding homosexuality in much of the United States, it is significant through its offhand and un-emphasised inclusion.
New York City– Los Angeles
Though the settings of New York City and Los Angeles are very familiar to the rom-com genre, both 500 and FWB attempt to offer a different perspective to the many films that precede them, attempting to contextualise their fantastical representations within the narrative. Following the ‘new in town’ device, the natives (Jamie and Tom) take on the role of tour guide, revealing the hidden beauty of each city to the newcomer (Dylan and Summer) and indeed the audience.
FWB has Jamie try to convince Dylan of NY’s allure so that he will take her job offer – “I’m not going to sell you on the job, I’m going to sell you on New York.” The film manages to express awareness of the contrived and false representations of Hollywood by having Jamie state overtly that she won’t be showing the “bullshit tourist version” and also by having Dylan highlight the flaws that are usually looked over – commenting that the city is too crowded and too hot. Jamie’s tour of the city culminates in a flash mob at Times Square: a grand set-piece of apparently spontaneous choreography that appears enchanting and unreal. Excused by this notion of being a flash mob – a group of people who assemble in a public place in a sudden performance of some kind – the film tries to anchor the unrealistic Hollywood-typical scene in reality, whilst also appearing relevant to contemporary culture. This is the first of two flash mobs that bookend the film.
500 has Tom show Summer the overlooked beauty of the buildings in LA under the pretence of another developing plot point – Tom’s dream of becoming an architect. 500 also appears to embellish certain details which give the city a fantastical quality. For instance, Summer is usually seen travelling around the city renowned for its sheer amount of cars and congestion on a bicycle. Added to this, Tom’s younger sister Rachel cycles to his apartment to offer her consolation despite it being “past her bedtime”.
In more direct comparison to FWB, there is a day-dream sequence that appears as an equivalent to the flash mob scene. Having slept with Summer for the first time the film captures Tom’s self-satisfaction as he walks home. This scene quickly escalates into a parodic manifestation of his contentment as the world around him becomes fantastical. Beginning with subtle tweaks to the vibrant colours and background artists, people begin to interact with Tom until they form a full troupe complete with marching band that dance in time to the Hall and Oates soundtrack. This set-piece is reminiscent of scenes in Hollywood musicals that represent an idyllic community who incessantly smile and sporadically burst into song and dance. Upon checking his reflection Tom is greeted by the image of Harrison Ford as Han Solo: he feels like a movie star. The scene grows in absurdity until Tom has an animated bird land on his finger, before posing a cartoon-like posture himself and running back into the confines of the ‘real-world’ romantic-comedy. This scene parodies the surreal world of heightened emotion/expression that is common in the Hollywood musical before returning to the form established thus far. The scene is not introduced nor explained and the style never resurfaces again throughout the film. Significantly, the song that accompanies the scene is titled ‘You make my dreams come true’.
4:55 – 5:30
The fantasy scenes of 500 and FWB, when deconstructed, become a symbol of self-awareness and self-deprecation regarding the process in which they have been realised as a romantic-comedy. More than this however they are reflective of the separate styles and tones of the films as a whole. 500 expresses the emotion of the protagonist through the events on screen – an internal projection that serves to represent something small or, more accurately, intangible as something extravagant. Opposed to FWB which contexualises the scene as an external event – something large and extravagant represented as such. This perhaps subtle idea is best encapsulated in the way that the films market themselves.
Hollywood – Independent
The posters of both of the selected films capture perfectly the oppositional approach to marketing and the different audiences they intend to attract. Friends With Benefits displays a large, medium-close up of its two stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. To some degree the actors could be seen as an indicator of the intended audience for the film: both well-known and having mainstream appeal as well as hinting at the large scale production and budget. Their images are artificially clean and sharp with an unreal perfection that mirrors the Hollywood standard. Timberlake gestures with a pointed finger and comically raised eyebrows to a circle formed by the thumb and first finger of Kunis: a playfully sexual overtone that paired with the title creates expectations of tone and even the narrative to follow. The two tag-lines for the film both lend to this tone through comic innuendo: “Some friends come with a happy ending”; “Friendship is a four-letter word”. One detail that may be worthy of note is the inclusion of the term ‘happy ending’, which despite being used here with sexual insinuation, echoes the form of the typical Hollywood film. The poster also resonates with the technologically bound characters by linking to the films own website and Facebook page – also revealing the expected demographic – as well as presenting the first letter of each titled word in a different colour: as though suggesting its abbreviation in Internet shorthand or text-speak. This is also seen in the television promos that have the text emerge and collapse into the acronym.
(500) Days of Summer adopts a quintessentially ‘indie’ appearance with its poster, which is strikingly complex in comparison to FWB. Although there are a few variations of the design they each carry the same motifs. The version that is annotated here consists of a large collage of photographs of Summer divided in colour to create a blue sky and golden sun on which the title rests; Tom sits in the bottom corner of the picture astride a simply illustrated grass perch, drawing in a notebook. The layers of images and styles reveal a lot about the tone as well as referencing elements of the narrative. The images are all slightly overexposed creating a collative haze – labelled by the title, these are Tom’s memories that will make up the film. The subjective positioning of the story is even revealed in the title for it is Tom that experiences 500 days of Summer. The handwriting-style font used for the actors’ names, tagline and even the studio also carries a quirky charm. More than this however, this subtle semiotic detail could be reaffirming that the film is told from Tom’s point-of-view. He sits drawing his own surrounding, writing in the details and filling the frame with his images of Summer. The brackets that enclose the number 500, will become a recurring motif in the film that will tell the viewer which day of the 500 is being shown – or remembered. This use of a non-chronological timeline is also not typical of the Hollywood production, separating it further from FWB.
The actors Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel have become known for their independent body of work though both continue to work in the so-called mainstream. Levitt perfectly symbolising independent spirit with his pet project HitRECord that recently saw television release: an ‘open-collaborative production company’ that allows anyone to take part in or initiate projects.
Beside the tagline reads the endorsement of Official Selection for Sundance Film Festival 2009 – ‘the premiere showcase for independent film’. The tagline on this particular poster is one of three similar variations: “This is not a love story. This is a story about love” ; “Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t”; “It was almost like falling in love.” Where FWB referenced a ‘happy ending’, each of these taglines possess a slight downtrodden pessimism, or realism perhaps, that reflects the spirit of the independent film: a celebration of imperfection and the championing of underdogs. The first two tag-lines appear to mimic and subvert the expectations of a Hollywood rom-com, showcasing itself as different to the love story and the familiar ‘Boy meets Girl’ format.
Guilty Pleasure – Vintage chic
Both films suggest the direction of their story early on, 500 openly states it in fact, undeniably shaping the audience’s expectations. The films reliably follow the template outlined by their posters providing details that are typical of Hollywood and independent films, to the point that character quirks and narrative details become mirrored. Both films, for example, feature musician/actor’s in a lead role in Justin Timberlake and Zooey Deschanel. Timberlake is known for being a musician before being an actor, arising to fame in pop-band N’Sync and continuing into a hugely successful solo career which continues to date. Recognised as a megastar he appears to encompass the Hollywood perfection hinted at by the FWB poster. Zooey Deschanel is also a vocalist, of the group She and Him – an indie duo that often play, alongside original songs, sentimental/romantic covers of songs such as “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” by The Smiths. This particular song, and group, plays an important role in 500 as part of the soundtrack and also the narrative, actually becoming the catalyst for Tom and Summer’s first conversation; or ‘meet cute’:
Echoing the taste of the actors 500 attempts to create characters who have a certain appreciation for music, not only through the music they listen to but how they listen to it: seen perusing records in a small vinyl shop, listening through headphones (as opposed to the more common earphones) and reviving the romantic gesture of making mixtapes. Contrasting this in FWB, Dylan confesses a childhood obsession he had with 90s child rapper KrissKross, rapping along to the famed track ‘Jump‘ whilst Jamie laughs along. This guilty pleasure in taste reoccurs throughout the film in both of the central characters.
Opposed to 500‘s sense of sentiment and nostalgia, FWB‘s characters are seen to be extremely technologically involved – in place of vinyl Jamie plays songs from her smartphone.The fast paced New York couple often use their smartphones and tablets seamlessly as part of conversation. Whereas Tom and Summer seem to resist technology: failing to remember the soundtrack to Knight Rider and speculating until memory prevails later in the film.
Other parallels in the interests of characters can be seen in their taste in art and film. Summer’s apartment displays various decorative ornaments – a noticeable addition being a bowler hat with an apple resting on top: a home-crafted reference to René Magritte’s Son of Man. Dylan Harper, having connections to the Banksyesque street artist Lieutenant-Kali, is able to gift Jamie with her own original piece in the film, once again tying in themes of contemporary relevance and status.
Tom and Summer are shown going to the cinema to see a film called ‘Vagiant’ (Half Vampire, Half Giant) – rather than a guilty pleasure their enjoyment is one of ironic distance, along with a cult-like fan-base. If their artistic sensibilities weren’t clear enough, Tom daydreams in the style of different styles of classic European cinema.
Jamie’s fondness of fictitious romantic-comedy ‘I Love You, I Love New York’ continues the theme of guilty pleasure – but more than this, it becomes a device in which the film is able to criticise the typicality of the genre. For example Dylan has a resurfacing joke about the score of rom-coms guiding the audiences reactions. Not only does this allow the film to distance itself from others within the genre, it excuses the conventions when they appear in the film later. Whilst criticising the typical rom-com and declaring itself as progressive in comparison, the most telling detail that reveals FWBs place in contemporary culture is the release of No Strings Attached (Reitman) in the same year – a reworded equivalent, that evokes the same expectations of a romantic-comedy that also happens to be set in LA.
The ways in which the films allude to the taste of their characters is fitting with the Hollywood/independent divide. Whilst the indie kids flaunt their taste as an expression of themselves, the Hollywood power couple excuse their interests mostly as guilty pleasures. Tom is effected by the sentiment he has anchored into the music associated with Summer whereas Dylan and Jamie playfully mock each-other.
500 is focussed on romanticising the past – it is a nostalgic recollection of all events within a relationship, good and bad. FWB is seemingly concerned with current events – appreciating what you have now but inevitably looking to the future and where things are going. This is embodied by the characters and their respective sensibilities as well as taste. Both films align with a male protagonist – their occupational ambitions symbolic of their path: Tom dreams of being an architect, admiring the buildings of the past; Dylan an art director for a magazine, looking to market the latest trends.
FWB‘s characters flaunt their glamour and success whilst not valuing their taste and admitting their flaws. 500 gives it’s characters lower status but endows them with cool taste and hidden talent. For example, Dylan the editor of GQ magazine cannot multiply 6 x 3 whilst greetings-card writer Tom is secretly an aspiring architect (presumed to be skilful in montage: drawing on blackboards and wrists – and reading ‘The Joy of Architecture). Through these opposing character traits emerges similarity – both films add depth and detail to the same aspects of character development: communicating through their respective taste in music and art, albeit on different ends of the scale.
Comedy – Tragedy
The admitted guilty pleasures of Dylan and Jamie and the ways in which they playfully make fun of each other becomes a source of comedy that is shared with the audience in FWB. 500 derives much its comedy from Tom’s emotional pain; and considering the audience’s alignment it becomes somewhat cathartic. Both films introduce dramatic elements to their narrative which appear to be contingent on the positioning of the audience through the editing style. Editing plays a huge role in creating a respective tone and pace for each of the films, guiding the audience through moments of comedy and drama in a style reflective of the characters.
The fast pace of New York is met with rapid cuts and montage sequences in FWB. Mirroring the influx of information allowed by technology, and its instantaneousness, the filming style also possesses a definite energy. Quickly delivered dialogue often overlaps, instant communication is enabled by use of phones and tablets – theirs is a world that has no tolerance for patience nor time for boredom, and perhaps this is what is transferred to the audience through the relentless pace. This style works well in conveying a comedic tone but appears to clash when there is an introduction of drama. Dylan’s father suffers Alzheimers which brings out an emotional vulnerability in both characters. However, the pacing and cutting style can at times tread on the toes of the drama with lines being cut short.
The non-chronological sequencing of events in 500 is utilised to create moments of comedy through the awareness of the audience. Cutting to different stages within their relationship, a juxtaposition is created out of Tom’s contrasting emotions before and after the break-up. Aware of the audience’s superseding knowledge the ﬁlm lingers on foreboding details and converts false expectations into punch-lines. Tom’s naive faith in love is often the punchbag of comedic relief and it is only once he sheds this optimism, in a scene which uses yet more highly stylised editing, that the ﬁlm favours a dramatic tone. Taking place after their break-up this scene stages Tom’s arrival at a party held by Summer in her apartment. Dividing into split-screen the two versions are labelled as ‘Expectations’ and ‘Reality’. Once again, we occupy the subjective headspace of Tom and are able to witness his false expectations play out, this time alongside the sad realisation of actual events. Building with support from Regina Spektor’s emotive “Hero” the scene culminates in Tom ﬂeeing from the apartment in a haze of emotion; his descent signiﬁed by the spiral staircase that he runs down. A deleted scene reveals that there was an alternate ending, in which Tom runs back up the stairs only to forget what he was going to say. Alas, it seems that the sequence was dropped in favour the more dramatic close to the scene.
As critical as the ﬁlms set themselves up to be, both follow the template of the studio category perfectly. In deconstructing both ﬁlms what becomes clear are the paralleled narrative details that place them at opposite ends of the Hollywood/independent divide – but still on the same scale. With regard to subverting the form of the genre they both work in accordance with many romantic-comedy conventions. It is as though these ﬁlms are addressing the distance between romantic-comedies and contemporary relationships but they are still reliant on the form that has been established by the genre. So whilst some of these tropes may become a means of subversion, they are still relied on as part of the recognised foundation of the ﬁlm. Both (500) Days of Summer and Friends With Beneﬁts are certainly more self-aware but this does not change the outcome. They seem to offer the promise of no ordinary love story, but have to use a lot of ordinary to get there.