After years in the dregs of fluffy, shallow escapism one of the greatest film genres, the Romantic Comedy, is finally back and rooting itself in complex character emotion, and I am loving it!
Similar to last week’s comparison of TRAINWRECK and THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, these two films advertise are seemingly total opposites. In one, no one is having sex and in the other it appears that every one is having sex except for the two main characters (at least with one another). SLOW LEARNERS and SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE are both independent comedies that premiered this summer, and while the approach is very different, they are extremely similar movies. This breakdown is not to see how one works better than the other at all. It is to look at what these two movies did right. After decades of people lambasting “chick flicks” and the romcom world post-Nora Ephron era, it is wonderful that people are returning to the classic Ephron style with character in focus and giving it today’s attitudes towards dating and sex.
Like last week I am doing these breakdowns from memory and a few quick notes I made after watching, so we will be doing five-plot-point focus.
Written by Matt Serword, directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce
Jeff and Anne, two close friends and co-workers who are embarrassingly unlucky at love, hatch a plan to transform themselves over the course of a sex-and-alcohol-fueled summer.
Protagonist: Jeff Lowry (Adam Pally) and Anne Martin (Sarah Burns)
Want: to “sex in the bathroom people”
Need: confidence, see what’s right in front of them (ie. each other), lonely
Why do we empathize: They are kind hearted nerds and we identify with their loneliness
Antagonist: Themselves, each other, Julia (Mary Grill)
PREEXISTING LIFE: Jeff, a high school guidance counselor, and Anne, a librarian and study hall monitor, are best friends and coworkers. They are terrible at dating (Jeff may have a little crush on Anne but she’s oblivious) and just awkward nerds in general.
FIRST ACT DECISION: Anne marches over to Jeff’s apartment and declares she wants to change. They are going to be the kinds of people who have “sex in a public bathroom.”
MIDPOINT: After a lot progress where they each begin having lots of casual sex, the two reconnect and show their attraction towards one another. About to take off from the bar and have sex, they are interrupted by Julia who wants to go out with Jeff. Anne takes off to meet up with Max. Jeff and Julia are now dating.
FALSE CLIMAX/LOW POINT: After a disastrous double date, Anne shows up drunk to Jeff’s apartment. The two sleep together. In the morning they act like it was no big deal and go their separate ways, losing their special friendship with it.
CLIMAX: Jeff makes a big romantic gesture to win back Anne.
SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE
Written and Directed by Leslye Headland
Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie star as two romantic failures whose years of serial infidelity and self-sabotage have led them to swear that their relationship will remain strictly platonic. But can love still bloom while you’re sleeping with other people?
Protagonist: Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie)
Want: be platonic friends
Need: to allow a real emotional connection with someone they sleep with, move on from the past
Why do we empathize with them: Neither can get over something in the past, particularly Lainey. We have all had issues getting over someone and can understand what they’re going through.
Antagonist: Themselves, each other, Matthew (Adam Scott)
PRE EXISTING LIFE: Jake and Lainey, two virgins in college, meet and sleep together. Years later, Lainey cheats on everyone she dates with a guy she has had a crush on since college (who is married). Jake can’t stay faithful or make a commitment to the girls he dates, having never really gotten over Lainey.
FIRST ACT DECISION: The pair meet in a sex addicts meeting and after attempting a date but realizing they are terrible at relationships they agree to maintain a platonic friendship.
MIPOINT: Lainey begins dating a guy named Chris and has stopped reaching out to her married fling, Matt, though he continues to call her.
FALSE CLIMAX/LOW POINT: The pair admit that they love one another but are still too afraid to do anything about it. Lainey leaves soon after to go to grad school in Michigan while Jake focuses on his new relationship with Paula.
CLIMAX: Jake makes a big romantic gesture to win back Lainey.
Do you see how closely these two structures align? Both sets want to have sex, just not with each other. Both midpoints bring in new love interests to challenge the friendship, the low point is when they lose one another and move on. The final act brings the pair back together to “live happily ever after,” ultimately who they always were at their core but having emotionally evolved.
When writers try to tell me that three act structure is too restricting, I always roll my eyes and looking at these two movies side by side is a perfect reason why. In their most basic state they are the same story, but when you watch the movie it is apparent how incredibly different they are. That is how much room you have to put your own stamp on your script and bury the structure in tone and character. (So now can we please stop whining about how structure ruins creativity? Such crap.)
Now, the structure in SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE is a littttttle shaky since choosing to stay friends is not a tangible goal, though it is a decision/plan of attack. The real decision is the unstated “help each other get over their issues,” but there probably should have been something to make it more concrete. Some people may not enjoy the pacing of the film since the jokes are a little slow for a while, and there is a lot of sadness throughout, even though it is not likely to make you cry. For me, the emotional complexity of both Jake and Lainey are what make the film so compelling. I am not a huge fan of flashbacks or prologues, and when the opening of this film began I felt like there was no way what was happening would track throughout the movie or feel necessary, but it definitely does and is.
The structure and overall tone of SLOW LEARNERS is much more broad but that does not mean the film is vapid by any means. It is not hard for a movie to make me cry if it’s some sweeping epic drama or the latest film out of Pixar, but I have never cried at a romcom…. until I saw SLOW LEARNERS. It was so easy to identify with the nerds and lovely to see it come full circle. I won’t ruin it for you in case you haven’t seen it, but I have watched it twice and I definitely teared up both times. Something else that was great about SLOW LEARNERS for me was that having lived in the Philadelphia area it was great to see low budget film really make use of the whole Media, PA vibe and allow it to be an additional character to the film.
Both films feel like they are clear products of the Nora Ephron-WHEN HARRY MET SALLY era. A boy and girl try to be friends while still dating/sleeping with others. There’s a moment when their true feelings betray them causing the loss, and ultimately someone makes the grand gesture to reunite them. The structure is always clearly there but the chemistry of the leads and ease of the dialogue and situations are what make them so easy for people to identify with. Challenge yourself to look at your structure with the utmost bare-bones mentality in this way, and see if you can strengthen your characters in any way to allow the reader/viewer to feel as though the characters are what’s driving the story in the same way these writers do.