Happy belated Valentines Day, pop culture lovers!

Considering how many of you out there are anguished at/enamored with the idea of love, especially now judging by my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I figured what better time to jump in and comment on how romance is dealt with in pop-culture.

There’s not a lot of middle ground. We all know the story, the myth, of true love, of eternal love, of SOULMATES, and its hard to justify a middle-ground stance on it. It’s for you or it’s not you at all.

The romantic comedies, the romance dramas, the musicals and the period pieces I want to talk about in this “Love Connection” space all end up have having to explore that uneven, hazy in-between space – caught between the cynics and the dreamers – quite a bit. They have to. Those films have two, three hours max, to burrow around in our psyches, asking us how we feel about true love and destiny. They do this explicitly or they’re a little more coy about it, but unless their audience has lived in a cave, it must be addressed. When they’re done, they fade right into the fabric that makes up the myth just like everything else. They become a part of the myth.

As much as we hate to admit it, these stories do inform the way we think about these things – often a lot. We all believe in the myth or we don’t, but we know it. We know that myth. Today, movies are the myth factory. They’re the dream factory.

Even the most dyed-in-the-wool, sincere, true-lovey-dovey movies have to acknowledge that skepticism about love comes with the reality that exists just in front of that movie screen – it’s hard to buy the Hollywood myth hook-line-and-sinker when real life refuses to conform to the dreamscape, so a film has to earn outright sentiment. Think of “The Princess Bride,” which tempers its completely sincere story of star-crossed lovers finding each other over and over again with a little boy listening along who initially can’t stand all that kissy mush. The movie buys our trust in its ethos as it earns the trust of that little boy, who plays the audience within the film; by the last scene, that little boy is following along rapturously, and, if we’re honest with ourselves, so are we.

It works the other way too. Many of the most skeptical, true-love snarking movies end up acknowledging, in the end, that there is that spark out there and you’ve just got to find it. How else can they ride off into that bright sunset, after all? And so a movie like “Enchanted,” which delights in making mice-meat of fairy-tale ideals, still sends off its main characters in a giddy, everyone’s-happy, trueloveathon. It lets us know it doesn’t believe in ALL that jazz… but some of it, yeah.

Both of those movies rather explicitly use the familiar trope of the fairy tale to ground and subvert viewers expectations. If making a romance movie is a game where you are trying to score an emotional victory over an audience who’s seen it all, and either doesn’t believe it or really believes it and might find your portrayal of it trite or insincere, then self-reflexivity is the tool needed to win the game. It is the gameplan. It is the ball.

Everyone comes into a romantic story with expectations, and it is the job of the storyteller to acknowledge those expectations. The storyteller can do that explicitly (I know you might not believe this, but…); they can break some taboos or rules and leave others sacred which keeps us guessing and invested; they can meet all those expectations by-the-book in a spectacular fashion that overrides inherent cynicism; or they can approach those expectations implicitly, embedded within the story, by having the characters in the story reference those expectations.

This past year, as I watched movie after movie, I became enraptured by how many movies use this implicit method, and, across genres and tones, how many of them leverage it similarly.

Of course, pop culture has been doing this for ages, so this is nothing new. The last popular love story “we” saw helped set the expectations “we” have for this new love story. That’s the way it works. If that new story hopes to take off and not simply fade into the tapestry, it needs to play with the last bright, shining star in the story constellation, whether that star happens to be an oft-recited poem or an inescapable fairy tale.

We all know where we find our brightest stars now – it’s not sonnets. Movies, after a solid century of myth-making, have something else to fall back on now. To show how skeptical they are about love, or how enamored they are by the idea of love eternal, a movie no longer has to roll its eyes or swoon at Shakespeare sonnets or chaste Victorian novels. Because now movies have… movies – lots of them, good ones and bad ones, treacly ones and jaded ones. And there’s nothing movies like more then talking about movies.

Which is how we get to 2011, where Mila Kunis, playing an unlucky-in-love head-hunter who has to “stop buying into this bullshit Hollywood cliché of true love,” as she puts it, can turn to a series of posters on a New York city sidewalk and huff dismissively, “Shut up, Katherine Heigl, you stupid, little liar!”

Look, as much as you, dear reader, are probably torn between thinking the idea of true love is stupid or naïve, while still hoping against hope that it might be out there for you somewhere… the blues you’ve got is NOTHING compared to the whiplash “Friends With Benefits” has.

This is essentially how “Friends With Benefits” feels about the idea of true love: “Love… UGHHHHH! (But really, it’s kind of okay.)”

And this is how “Friends With Benefits” feels about movies about love (in spite of being a movie about love): “God they’re dumb! They just don’t get real life AT ALL, and they’re so inauthentic… UGHHH! (But really, they’re kind of nice.)”

The most reach-out-and-grab-you instance of this ethos is Mila Kunis’s aforementioned dressing-down of a Katherine Heigl movie poster. (The poster is for the mutant aberration ”The Ugly Truth,” so really Kunis has every right. Still.) Here Kunis practically assures the world that – while real-world actress Heigl has misled all those lovers and dreamers out there with her bad movies – in this role, she will lead us right. Her trajectory in this movie will be true to “how it really is,” out here in the real world.

And so Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake live the anti-lovers dream – they hook up whenever they want, no love required, if there even is such a thing as “love.” The implication here is that Katherine Heigl would never do this, because this is risqué and authentic. This is how real people live and love.

The film builds on this dichotomy by installing within its narrative a fake romantic comedy – a film within the film – starring cutie-pie’s (and good sports) Jason Segal and Rashida Jones. This is the kind of film that Kunis’s character, Jamie, watches virtually every night – the fairy tale that sends her off into slumber – and that gets railed against during her Heigl rant because it has given her ideals that have messed up her love life beyond belief.

So who’s fault is it Jamie is a mess? The movies’! This movie in particular. Its crimes against humanity:

  1. The characters speak and act in big gestures no real human would ever use. (Jamie and Dylan are both commitment-phobes who would never make a big gesture; that is until Dylan realizes that a big gesture is the only way to salvage what they have!)
  2. The film’s music is horrible. It uses that stupid Train song we’ve all heard a million times! (“Friends With Benefits” has a much hipper soundtrack, until it trots out every clichéd and meaningful song it can think of in the last ten minutes – including the same Train song! This is meant to be a commentary on how sometimes the movies do get it right, but “Friends With Benefits” undercuts that sweetness at the last possible minute.)
  3. The film is “set” in New York, but is clearly being filmed on a poorly constructed set in Los Angeles. The film doesn’t even try to hide the palm trees! (In this way, “Friends” makes a point of shouting to the rooftops how cool it is that it is actually, really for real, shot in New York City. It’s the films most, nerdy, meta, and unnecessary touch. Aside from the father having dementia, which really adds an odd, sour note to the proceedings. And the flash-mob subplot which is such a small not in the beginning that you almost feel like you missed something when it comes back around in such a big way. And Woody Harrelson. What’s he doing here? Actually this film goes down a lot of weird roads… Hmm… Tangent done.)

This film-within-the-film is the kind of schlock that Timberlake’s character Dylan laughs derisively at while Jamie watches enraptured, because that’s what dudes do. And because “Friends With Benefits” needs this meta-commentary – it thinks it makes it special.

“Friends With Benefits” seems to realize that if it doesn’t make fun of romantic comedies, then guys in the audience will treat “Friends With Benefits” with the same derision and cynicism we see Timberlake fling at the film-within-a-film. A bit of Heigl-hating creates a safety-net by suggesting that “Friends With Benefits” isn’t one of THOSE films. Rather then using self-reflexivity to do something new – which would have really made “Friends With Benefits” stand out from its lesser twin “No Strings Attached” – it seems that “Friends With Benefits” is content to only wear its self-reflexivity as a light armor that can repel accusations that it’s too soft, too romantic…. too Heigl. It’s a waste of a solid sensibility that romantic comedies could do so much more, because that thread in the film is only there to make the audience feel more comfortable.

Today, a certain degree of detached self-reflexivity is an almost necessary aspect of selling generic but slightly off-kilter romantic comedies to a broader audience… namely men. It helps to assure men that they are not watching a “chick flick” if the girl is hot and the guy pretty much leers off the screen saying “Chick flicks, am I right?” With that distance established, it becomes okay for the guys to laugh along, and eventually maybe even become invested in the story.

It’s all an effective way of making fun of your cake and eating it too. You have to make fun of movies where characters fall for each other, because that’s dumb and the audience thinks it’s dumb. But this is still a movie where characters fall for each other in the end – we’re not dealing with anything as complex as “Annie Hall” here! And so, when Dylan mournfully watches Jamie’s silly romantic comedy – and we can tell he’s truly invested in it now because of the experience he’s just been through and the escape the film provides – to try and remember the good times after a tough break-up; when Kunis and Timberlake reconcile as the flash-mob as “big gesture” frolics in the background; and when Jamie and Dylan have there first “real” date with Train noodling on the soundtrack,  “Friends With Benefits” eats a huge slice of its own cake.

In a way, Friends With Benefits sells out, doesn’t it? This is a movie that desperately wants to be cooler then thou, so every time it gives in to one of those stupid romantic comedy trappings it’s been making fun of, it does it with a wink or a sneer, as if to say “Nah, I’m cool!”

But… is it really? Every jab at romantic comedies leads you to believe that “Friends” believes it is a more “authentic” romantic comedy – as funny because it’s willing to rag on romantic comedy conventions and comment on its own cred as it is for having funny, likeable characters. The film definitely wants you to believe it’s much less compromised than a Katherine Heigl movie. But it’s not actually. It only talks a big game. Think about it – is “Friends With Benefits” actually subverting anything, or, when it winks and sneers, is it just commenting on its own stupidity… and the stupidity it perceives in its audience.

“Friends With Benefits” employs an interesting, if not exactly original, strategy to up its romantic comedy cred and try and get past its audience’s expectations of what a romantic comedy should be. It’s philosophy: If everything really has been done already, then we should say it, and say it loud – “Everything’s been freakin’ done already!” We should laugh at that. And then we should do it all again, because, heck, it’s not worth it to try anything new.

In this strategy, saying it out loud – admitting that movies can be mushy and sentimental and sometimes stupid when it comes to love – acts as a safe-guard when your movie gets all mushy, sentimental and sometimes stupid. ”Friends With Benefits” gives in to every impulse it rails against and it hopes we’ll take that as clever character growth and plot development – and in a way it is. Jamie and Dylan recognize that the movie-ideal isn’t so bad after all – movies sell us the idea that there can be something more out there for us than simply being friends “with benefits,” and if the way Jamie and Dylan feel when they walk out of Grand Central and sit down down for a real date, then golly maybe movies are right. In the end, maybe “Friends With Benefits” is trying to sell us on the same idea that romance stories have been trying to sell us for ages – soulmates! And yeah, that’s sappy and silly, but it’s also free from irony and warm and cute. It is, in truth, more authentic than anything else.

And then Jamie and Dylan realize they have absolutely nothing to say to each other, as a “couple” on a “date,” that they didn’t say to each other as hook-up friends. Dates, how stupid, right? As Jamie and Dylan hop up on the table and begin ferociously making out again, the film gets a good laugh, but it also puts its walls back up again – it takes a moment that could be read as authentic and affirming and then takes one final moment to step all over it, to wink and sneer on last time at the cynics in the audience. “You didn’t think we’d sell out, did you? We’re COOL!”

And the film lover, the romance lover, in the audience – well he or she can’t help but throw in the towel and sigh, “Make up your mind, movie! Make up your damn mind.”