Sunday, December 9, 2012

DEFICIENT DUDE SYNDROME

From Jennifer Lawrence's DDS intervention in Silver Linings Playbook 2: Booktastic

This was initially an aside in my Silver Linings Playbook review, but got long enough that it threatened to overwhelm all other matters up for discussion, and since it was both beside the point in terms of Silver Linings Playbook as a piece of cinema in and of itself, and a point more germane to the romantic comedy genre in general rather than SLP specifically, I decided to split it off and give it its own post. Here's what's up: In that movie, Jennifer Lawrence turns in a truly great performance, the kind that makes predictions like “she's going to be one of the great movie stars we've ever seen” not seem ridiculous. Part of why she's so good is that she's playing a character who's more interesting and sympathetic than the nominal protagonist, played by Bradley Cooper, who's stuck playing another wish-fulfillment character, in this case for dudes in their 30s who don't want to grow up but still want the world, the girl, all that. While “what I would have done differently” doesn't really have a place in a review, because this isn't a review I have two perfect ways for that movie to suck less:

a) Tell the story from Jennifer Lawrence's point of view, because she's the more interesting character.
b) If you want a happy ending, have her end up somewhere other than with Bradley Cooper at the end.

The second one is the key. Because ultimately, Jennifer Lawrence's character in Silver Linings Playbook suffers from a really brutal case of Deficient Dude Syndrome, or DDS.

DDS is a menace not only onscreen but off: the question of why the holy fuck Rihanna is still with Chris Brown is one that would befuddle humanity's finest minds for an eternity were DDS not such an institution throughout the ages. The most insidious facet of DDS is that it isn't a simple matter of “gurrrrl, you could do better than him” because in some cases DDS sufferers not only can't but don't particularly want to. Sometimes it's internalization of institutional misogyny convincing a woman she doesn't deserve any better, sometimes it's masochism, sometimes she just has shitty taste and doesn't see why she should change cuz some doof thinks she should. Real life's complicated as fuck. Fortunately, we're not talking about real life here, we're talking about movies.

(Quick aside before continuing: gay men can totally have DDS, too. And straight men and gay women can have DDS but with women; Nathan Rabin's now infamous coinage “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” is basically straight dude/gay woman DDS in a nutshell. End aside.)

The great thing about movies is that they can improve upon reality in the name of artistic license, be the goal enlightenment or entertainment. Which is why when a movie riddles its heroine with DDS and sends her off into the sunset with some putz, it's like, what the fuck, man? If it's a tragedy, that's one thing, and if it's a Casablanca-esque awesome guy A vs. awesome guy B choice that's another. But if you want a happy ending, or a silver lining (heheheh), saddling the heroine with some numbnuts is both stupid and unintentionally cruel. Jennifer Lawrence shrugged off a whole movie of Aspie dickfacedness and fell in love with Bradley Cooper on a dime. In You've Got Mail Meg Ryan chucked all caution to the wind because Tom Hanks (who, in that movie, was not-so-secretly actually an Evil White Guy In A Suit, no less) could write cute e-mails. Shannyn Sossamon fell for Josh Hartnett in that Lent movie because he was so noble he swore off sex and fapping for a month, which is such a half-assed display of moral rectitude we should probably call it tenth-assed.

There are many, many more examples, in which we're meant to cheer the self-destructive, compulsive behavior that is DDS. I mean, cheering addiction is one thing when it's The Thin Man, because Nick and Nora Charles fucking rock and their being drunk all the time is them doing their thing, man. But, leaving Tom Hanks out because him playing a douchebag was an aberration, Bradley Cooper and Josh Hartnett and That Kind Of Guy in romantic comedies really needs to learn that going home by yourself and fapping to BBC America isn't a death sentence. There is no need whatsoever for DDS to be a part of any movie that isn't about someone having (and hopefully overcoming) DDS.

More than any other, the romantic comedy genre is suffering from a case of endless imitation of the wrong takeaway from a particularly successful example of the genre, in this case When Harry Met Sally. Which is a great movie. But the things that make it great are not the things that everyone (including Nora Ephron herself, who was allowed to) ripped off from it. It wasn't the invocation of old movies, which devolved into a crutch where the allusion was meant to evoke the air of romance all by itself. It wasn't a quirky, high-concept premise (granted, the Nora Ephron movie all the dummies took their cue from was Sleepless In Seattle on this one, but still, that movie doesn't happen except as a progression from When Harry Met Sally). It wasn't the guy being a dick or the girl being neurotic; the whole point of When Harry Met Sally is that they each mature and gradually overcome those things. The story unfolds in an apparently episodic but tightly constructed fashion, with sharp (occasionally revolutionary) observations about hetero relationships. Most importantly, the characters resemble real people, only heightened slightly. Billy Crystal's still probably gonna get moody occasionally by movie's end, but Meg Ryan falling for him isn't DDS; he's not a deficient dude at all, much as it must suck to be around him when he's sulking, he's a guy who, while certainly a little lucky to have landed Peak Meg Ryan, is nonetheless the one for her. There is no sense that she can do better. Thus, the ending works, and When Harry Met Sally is a—if not the—classic romantic comedy.

But, modern standard bearer of the genre though it may be, it should not be the only romantic comedy. Even the Zooey Deschanelism (with apologies to Zooey Deschanel; the modern bullshit quirkmantic “comedy” is no more her fault than the desiccated state of the more mainstream iteration of the genre is Nora Ephron's) of the past few years is an extrapolation from Meg Ryan's Sally with all the stuff that made her a grownup—and a viable movie character—removed. The basic template has been copied to the point where the only thing at all making a modern romantic comedy watchable potentially is the skill with which it navigates the predetermined beats. Which is fucked up, because people falling in love is great, as is comedy. There has to be another way to make a movie that's actually funny and that's actually romantic.

I propose that, regardless of how stylized or not the movie in question is, the thing to do is to pay heed to the thing that actually made When Harry Met Sally—and all other successful romantic comedies before and since, for that matter—work: characters with desires and motivations that are recognizable to human beings, who go about motivating themselves to achieve those desires in a way that is recognizable as human behavior. Stop building the entire premise on lying (the great ethical crisis of the genre). Make the lovers mutually worthy of each other. Then we can begin the rehabilitation process of the genre, and rid the movies of the scourge that is DDS.