Everyone has a genre they are a total sucker for. Roger Ebert has long acknowledged his affinity for over-the-top action films and science fiction, and he graded movies like Knowing and Prometheus much, much higher than almost any other critic did. You can’t always help what you love. Like crabs on a bathroom toilet seat, what you love chooses you. And I have a very weird, big thing for romantic comedies, because I am secretly a 40-year-old white woman who drinks Crystal Light because she thinks it’s classy. I see almost every single one that comes out, whether they are good or not, and I’ve watched many far more times than I’d like to admit. I have seen 13 Going on 30 well into the double-digit amount of times and often quote Bridget Jones’ Diary without even realizing it.
Usually, with rom-coms, I like them first for academic reasons: I’m fascinated what they say about gender in society and the premiums we place on traditional gender roles. But on top of that, I find myself identifying with the female leads of these films and with their quests for happiness, wherever that takes her. For me, the boyfriend is ancillary to the journey and the discovery of self. This is why I hate movies like Valentines’ Day and New Years’ Eve; there’s no journey and no there.
But two cases I find very unique in that I like them without even slightly enjoying the central romance: 2005’s The Wedding Date and 2008’s Definitely, Maybe, which bears no relation to the seminal Oasis album. Both of these films feature central plots that are practically constructed out of cardboard, but in different ways. Written by The Ugly Truth screenplay-butcher Dana Fox, The Wedding Date features a romance that simultaneously rips off Pretty Woman and My Best Friend’s Wedding (even going so far as to steal the latter’s famous sing-along), without being nearly as involving as either. This problem can also be attributed to its leads. Debra Messing is a neurotic hoot on Will and Grace, but unlike Roberts’ natural rapport with Mulroney, Messing and Mulroney have the chemistry of a chainsaw and a lead pipe.
Definitely, Maybe has a similar problem. The entire film is about a man telling his daughter the story of how he met her mother, which may remind you of the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother. But whereas that show features a soulful, underrated central performance from Josh Radnor, Definitely, Maybe star Ryan Reynolds is basically on autopilot, displaying none of the confidence on effortless display in Van Wilder, a film that didn’t even deserve that. Reynolds seems to be letting his looks do most of the acting, a criticism that would hound him in his later career (see: last year’s dual disasters The Green Lantern and The Change-Up). He seems to want to be Ryan O’Neal or early Nick Nolte, but Mr. Reynolds lacks their sexual magnetism. Reynolds’s performance is so recessive that he practically fades into the wallpaper like Zach Braff in Garden State.
But what saves Reynolds’ film — on top of a setting rich in Clinton-era detail — are the women around him. The actresses who play his daughter’s (an ever-precocious Abigail Breslin) potential mothers are Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz and Isla Fisher, three of the most criminally overlooked actresses in Hollywood, doing some of the best work of their careers. Banks and Fisher are excellent as usual, with Fisher playing a much more level-headed woman than we are used to from Wedding Crashers and Confessions of a Shopaholic. But it’s Weisz who steals the movie, giving a performance arguably better than the one she won her Oscar for. The screenplay casts her in the “Bitch Who Breaks The Hero’s Heart” role, but the reason that doesn’t quite work is that Weisz is so much more dynamic and magnetic than anyone else around her. Her performance won’t simply let the screenplay write her off, and when the lead dumps her (because women aren’t allowed to be morally complicated), you want to beg the film to bring her back. Reynolds might not be in love with her anymore, but we are. Summer deserves better.
The Wedding Date is worthy of discussion for similar reasons. Although Messing’s neurotic Good Girl is dramatically flatter than a twelve-year-old’s bust, Amy Adams shines as her sister, the character similarly set up as the villain. When the film was released, I hadn’t seen Junebug yet and wasn’t familiar with Adams as an actress, but I was floored at the unusual power she brought to the film. She plays Debra Messing’s sister, the one whose wedding Messing has to bring a male hooker to, who is discovered cheating on her groom-to-be. Although the screenplay hasn’t the depth to make her seem like anything more than a Dirty Tramp, you can see the complicated doubts and conflicts in Adams’ face. Her performance transcends the limitations of what she is given, in ways that elevate the film around her.
In the case of both Adams and Weisz, their performances allow a glimpse into a Hollywood that sets up a double-standard for women and men. Men are allowed to be flawed and to make poor decisions without being unilaterally judged, whereas women have to be almost absolutely good to ensure audience sympathy. And if you do make mistakes (see: Mean Girls), you have to spend half of the movie apologizing for it, something that we rarely require of men. At the end of Funny People, Adam Sandler’s character is simply required to sit down at a table to be forgiven. He doesn’t even have to apologize. I think what these films show—years before Young Adult came out and Girls made an entire series out of it—is that “bitches” shouldn’t be simply written off because they are occasionally unlikeable. Complicated, flawed women don’t deserve to be supporting characters, that they need their own stories, too. Because theirs might be more interesting and relatable than the ones Hollywood tells us we are supposed to identify with.