Monday, August 08, 2005

Romanticizing and Americanizing: The Dueling Richard Curtis Romantic Comedy Trilogies

In recent years, the most popular British exports to America have largely been romantic comedies, many of which are written by Richard Curtis. Curtis first got a name for himself working in television on BBC programs like Black Adder with frequent collaborator Rowan Atkinson. Since Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994) connected so strongly with American audiences (bringing in over $50 Million dollars at the US box office, as well as being nominated for 2 Academy Awards, screenplay and Best Picture) Curtis has become a symbol for consistently successful romantic comedies causing Nick James to go as far as dub him “Britain’s most successful screenwriter.”

However, there seems to be a departure developing from his work in the late ‘90s and his most recent 2000 entries. His three early romantic comedies [Four Weddings, Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999), and Bridget Jones’ Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001)] deal with very similar central depictions of love: initially unattainable, fraught with back-and-forth crises culminating in profession and union of “true love” at the film’s conclusion. Whereas his three later romantic comedies [Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003), Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Beeban Kidron, 2004) and The Girl in the Café (David Yates, 2005)] take a slightly more skewed portrayal of love as well as incorporate a burgeoning interest in politics on a scale unseen in his earlier films. These later films mark a deviation from his earlier work in thematic view points, quality, and reception.

Curtis’ three early romantic comedies can be collectively classified as “Urban Fairy-tales,” a term Robert Murphy institutes to investigate the spate of British romantic comedies being produced since the late ‘90s. Frustratingly, Murphy excludes Bridget Jones from the list insisting that it should not qualify because the protagonists “hardly suffer at all and blunder undeservedly into happiness.” Immediately one has to approach this article with hesitation because the supposed distinction between the suffering of Bridget Jones (Renée Zellwegger) and the suffering of Charles (Hugh Grant) in Four Weddings and a Funeral does not seem readily apparent. While it is true that Charles has to deal with the death of a close friend, his overall distress comes from the inability to obtain his image of true love, a subject Bridget Jones can certainly understand. In fact, the entire comedic impetus of the two Bridget Jones films relies on Bridget being put into humiliating situations as a spring board for eliciting laughter. Aside from the comedic scenes that can perhaps be written off by her ultimate perseverance and charm, Bridget unquestionably suffers at the hands of her boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant – once again), who maliciously lies to her about his past and has no qualms about using her for sex despite her obviously stronger desires toward him.

Nonetheless, Murphy instills an interesting lens to view Curtis’ early films, saying, “they show life in Britain as exciting, glamorous and full of romantic possibilities, and are constructed like fairy-tales.” It is not difficult to tell that these films choose to depict a fantasy-world view of London lifestyle that glamorizes and idealizes the location and its inhabitants to a considerably cinematic degree. One can equate Curtis’ style to Woody Allen’s repeated unabashedly beautified depictions of New York City locales. Like Allen, Curtis has been criticized for excluding minorities from his stories. Interestingly, both filmmakers attempt to rectify this by casting the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as an affluent and refined ethnic character in their respective recent comedies, Love Actually and Melinda and Melinda (2005).

This heavily romanticized depiction of the world, despite occasionally being derided for its selective realism, is one of the integral appealing factors of the Curtis comedies: “The re-creation of London as an enchanted village where lovers are able to find each other among the city’s teeming millions and chance encounters and coincidental meetings are to be expected.” The vision of Four Weddings and a Funeral appears particularly liberal in depiction of social class. There is a prevalent feeling of affluence floating leisurely throughout the events, yet there is virtually no reference to actual work making the social class standings all the more incredible. Charles in particular has no explanation for his implied wealth; one can perhaps surmise that he is a writer due to his free time, verbose nature, and a facetious remark about him researching pubs with the word boat in the title. Out of his friends, the only one to explicitly mention work is his offbeat roommate Scarlet, who says on a Saturday that she might go look for a job but does not seem too concerned about the situation. While another friend, Tom, is purported to be the 7th richest man in England. This constant air of unwarranted wealth further intensifies the idealized view of Britain.

Notting Hill takes its economic situation a little more seriously. William (Grant), runs a humble, not entirely successful book shop and his relationship with movie star, Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) repeatedly makes note of him feeling inferior and out of his social class. Robert Murphy also touches upon a sort of Thatcher reactionary element in that “Bernie the stockbroker and Tony the restaurateur are both redeemed by their failure to succeed in the material world (Bernie loses his job and Tony’s restaurant goes bankrupt).” It is still important to note that these actions are not portrayed with dire consequences. Like Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary begins to acknowledge class structure more realistically with Bridget’s desire to elevate her social status by advancing her career in addition to her romance with high-profile lawyer Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), a subject further explored in the sequel.

All three of these early romantic comedies deal with the chance relationship between the protagonist and an object of desire that remains out of reach through various complications until the climax. In Four Weddings and Notting Hill, the love interest is an American woman whose exoticism and unobtainable nature prove to be irresistible for the meek and inexperienced Hugh Grant character. In Bridget Jones, the American woman is still physically present in the form of Renée Zellwegger but her nationality has been masked by a flawless British accent. All three love interests rely on a series of coincidental, chance encounters. Bridget’s relationship with Mark is at first played for ridicule at the characters’ disdain for repeatedly running into each other. The other two relationships are depicted in a more contrived manner, with Notting Hill making more effort to create believable encounters than Four Weddings which takes a very haphazard approach to the recurring bump-ins managing to make Charles’ relationship with Carrie (Andie MacDowell) even less believable than William’s brush with celebrity.

All of Curtis’ romantic comedies have been joint ventures with US production companies and the need for the films to succeed in America is more important than in its native England. Nick James points out that “the problem of wanting ‘a sustainable British film industry’ is that the domestic market alone may never be hungry enough to support it.” In this respect, Curtis can clearly and reasonably be accused of watering-down his image of London in order to pander to American Hollywood audiences. James suggests Curtis is fully aware of this fact and commends him for making the most of it: “Curtis is brilliant enough to have built British film industry defeatism into the plot of Notting Hill, his romance between an insignificant British bookseller and a world-famous Hollywood movie star.” If Notting Hill can be conceived as a concession to the overarching American influence, then Love Actually appears to be a subversive and cheeky form of retaliation.

Billed on its tagline as “The Ultimate Romantic Comedy,” Richard Curtis’ directorial debut focuses on an ensemble of love stories and running at 135 minutes, it is certainly ultimate in the sense that it is one of the longest romantic comedies in film history. More importantly, Love Actually is a deviation from past work in both its depiction of Americans and of love itself. There are three particularly provocative images of Americans in the film: a group of 5 beautiful girls from Wisconsin, the President of The United States (Billy Bob Thornton), and Sarah (Laura Linney), a pleasant office worker whose mentally challenged brother takes a toll on her social life. The first case featuring the beautiful Americans revolves around a brash young man named Colin (Kris Marshall) whose character balances carefully between unappealing and charismatic. After getting fed up with the uptight British women, he journeys to America in search of beautiful women with loose morals. Colin hastily departs for Wisconsin, a Mid-Western state whose connotation does not readily evoke images of beautiful women in the minds of American audience members. No sooner does Colin walk into an American bar that he immediately meets three beautiful American women, all played by up-and-coming American actresses in a series of cameos that escalate in star grandeur. The women do not seem swayed by Colin’s goofy physical attributes and instantly fall for his British accent before inviting him back to their apartment for an orgy, furthering the image of overly amorous American women first depicted by Carrie in Four Weddings.

The second American enters the film through the plot strand focusing on the newly elected, bachelor Prime Minister, David (naturally played by Curtis’ stalwart, Hugh Grant). From the instant the President of the United States appears on screen, it is immediately evident that this is a thinly veiled caricature of Bill Clinton. Any thought of the similarities ending with physical attribute is completely wiped away when David walks in on the President mildly fondling his secretary. The scene sets the stage for David’s defiant press meeting where he boldly and unexpectedly declares that England is not going to be bullied by the United States any more. In this sequence, the music swells, the crowd cheers and the image of England flexing its backbone is Curtis’ first moment of politically charged cinema. However, reflection on the expository scene reveals that in true Richard Curtis manner, David’s act of rebellion is based just as largely on the personal transgression of the President inappropriately encroaching on David’s love interest as it is politically motivated.

The third American image is more problematic. Contrasted to the previous examples of amicability and pointed ridicule, Sarah is not played for laughs and appears as one of the film’s most tragic characters. She is depicted as caring, friendly and attractive yet she is one of the few characters to be denied romantic love by the film’s end. Unless Sarah can alleviate her love of her mentally handicapped brother enough to ignore his incessant phone calls, she can never achieve romantic love within the film’s diegesis.

This returns to Curtis’ depiction of love and how it has changed from his early romantic comedies. Four Weddings, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones all conclude with the idea of the couple embracing in an everlasting love. Love Actually takes a slightly different approach with the focus on new relationships blossoming in every story; this is very much a film about new love and impermanence. In the film’s opening, love literally dies in the form of recent widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) performing the eulogy at his wife’s funeral. At the film’s end, Daniel finds hope of a new love in the form of a beautiful woman played by Claudia Schiffer who happens to be a single mother at his stepson’s school. Even more improbably, the stepson embraces and promotes this relationship for his step-dad.

Two of the central stories focus on married couples, neither of which symbolizes the idyllic image of marital bliss. The film begins with the marriage of two young people, the smug Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the angelic Juliet (Keira Knightly). As the narrative progresses, it is revealed that Peter’s best friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is secretly harboring a considerable crush on Juliet. When Mark finally professes his love, Juliet rushes into the street and gives him a small but passionate kiss before returning to her husband causing Mark to respond in an aside, “Enough for now.” While this particular relationship concludes ambiguously at the film’s end, if anything it is suggested Mark has gotten over his crush, a marriage that begins with the bride kissing her husband’s best friend is surely not symbolic of a sturdy foundation.

The second married couple subplot is even more distressing. Harry (Alan Rickman) and Karen (Emma Thompson) have been married for a number of years and have two young children together. However, Harry develops an office romance with his secretary. When Karen discovers her husband’s transgressions, she stoically stays with Harry in order to keep up the appearance of loving mother and wife for her children’s sake. In this instance, familial love is represented as stronger and more important than romantic love between husband and wife.

While it is true that Four Weddings and a Funeral did not represent the institution of marriage with the utmost reverence, it concludes with the end credits epilogue of all the main characters’ wedding photos suggesting a final harmony to the subject. Conversely, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason explores what happens after Bridget and Mark’s climactic kissing in the snow, suggesting that things are not tied up as neatly as they appear in the end of the first film. Sadly, the feckless sequel denotes a low-point in Curtis’ career as it is merely a retread of the original’s plot without the charm and heart of the former. Of course, the two Bridget Jones films must be studied under a weary eye as they are ultimately accredited as predominately products of the literary author, Helen Fielding.

Carrying over from the political undertones of Love Actually, Girl in the Café tells the story of a civil servant (Bill Nighy), his attraction to a young woman (Kelly Macdonald) and how their relationship stirs political controversy when he brings her to the G8 Summit. The main cast eschews the American celebrity from his past five romantic comedies and not surprisingly, the film did not see an American theatrical release, debuting on HBO instead. It is important to note that the main selling point on the DVD cover is “Written by Richard Curtis”, displayed predominantly above the actors’ and the director’s names.

With the advertising clout of his name and his promotion to director on Love Actually and its international success, Curtis appears to becoming a more and more powerful and influential filmmaking voice as the years have progressed. However, the dull, insincere and money hungry, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason in combination with the limited exposure of Girl in the Café reveals that Curtis has not achieved a flawless romantic comedy track record nor is he immune to the desires of the American market. While he can get away with playfully nibbling at the hand that feeds him in Love Actually, the negative response to Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and the general apathy toward The Girl in the Café prove there are certain levels of quality and Americanization that audiences expect from his films.

James, Nick. “They Think It’s All Over: British Cinema’s US Surrender,” in The British Cinema Book [second edition], edited by Robert Murphy. London: British Film Institute, 2001.
Murphy, Robert. “Citylife: Urban Fairy-tales in Late 90s British Cinema,” in The British Cinema Book [second edition], edited by Robert Murphy. London: British Film Institute, 2001.

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