How are romantic comedies shaping the 21st Century narrative of love, romance and heartache? Annie Fell discusses rom-coms, morally complex women, and love in Gillian Robespierre’s 2017 film Landline.
Nora Ephron’s 1983 novel Heartburn fictionalized the dissolution of her marriage to Carl Bernstein following his affair with British politician Margaret Jay. While directing the film adaptation of the novel in 1986, Mike Nichols questioned why Ephron didn’t offer her cheating husband’s side of the story; Meryl Streep, who starred as Ephron’s celluloid surrogate, defended the film’s exclusively feminine perspective: “This is about the person who got hit by the bus. It’s not about the bus.”
Last summer’s Landline, directed by Gillian Robespierre, is about the bus. Her second feature collaboration with writer Elisabeth Holm and actress-comedian Jenny Slate, the film follows Dana Jacobs (Slate) as she reconciles discovering her dad’s extramarital affair with the fact that she herself has been cheating on her fiancé. Though it’s set in the latter half of 1995, it’s a thoroughly modern framing of sex and love as a cinematic subject. The movie explores the various forms love, romance, and sex can take: Dana’s stagnant relationship with her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass); her fraught but increasingly affectionate relationship with her teenage sister Ali (Abby Quinn), and the inverse of that between their parents (Edie Falco and John Turturro); Ali’s growing resentment toward their father; and Dana’s manic, regressive affair with her college boyfriend Nate (Finn Wittrock).
Landline isn’t Robespierre’s first dalliance with the unorthodox romantic comedy; in 2014, she released her first feature, Obvious Child, which starred Slate as a stand up comedian who gets an abortion on Valentine’s Day after what was supposed to be a one night stand. It’s a story that deserves, in terms of the classic rom-com story arc, the predictable happy ending — a semi-anonymous hookup blossoms into a potential relationship — as opposed to the tragic plot line that has been nearly inextricable from abortion stories in pop culture. Like Ephron, Robespierre tells stories from an exclusively female perspective, one that is shockingly lacking in a genre for which the audience is overwhelmingly on the femme end of the spectrum.
Mainstream film in the past decade, give or take, has been deficient of interesting romantic comedies. Most rom-coms have been stuck on the same question that Ephron answered long before Y2K: What’s the difference between men and women? In her own words, Ephron explains her findings:
Men don’t want to be friends with women. Men know they don’t understand women, and they don’t much care… Women, on the other hand, are dying to be friends with men. Women know that they don’t understand men, and it bothers them: they think that if only they could be friends with them, they would understand them and, what’s more (and this is their gravest mistake) it would help.
It’s the same idea presented whenever a Mila Kunis-type plays a Cool Girl trying on a no-strings-attached relationship with a male friend. I don’t blame Ephron for coming to that conclusion, being several generations removed from ours, but that any film would need to rehash that same idea in the twenty-first century is straight up dumb. Now, asking what’s the difference between men and women is a boring question at best, exclusionary and archaically binary at worst.
With series like Netflix’s Love and Easy, it seems that the big questions about sex and relationships are mostly being asked by television. Both shows explore the complexity of romance without sentimentality; Love follows the fraught on-off relationship between a naive dweeb (Paul Rust) and a sex and love addict (Gillian Jacobs) who’s trying to navigate dating while in recovery. Easy, Joe Swanberg’s anthology series, regularly tackles subjects like sex work, open relationships, and infidelity. Still, the shows’ dramatic aspects don’t really provide a great medium for the traditionally satisfying rom-com Happy Ending.
Like Ephron, Robespierre is a textbook romantic who is seemingly repelled by preciousness. It’s clear from her films that she loves love, and her deep explorations of the subject allow her to write endings that don’t reflect on the story through rose colored glasses, but are happy nonetheless. In part, Landline explores love’s place in the moments when you feel dissociated from your own life. How can you accept someone’s love for you when you can barely recognize your own face in the mirror (and not just because your ill-advised eyebrow piercing is getting infected)? Dana doesn’t cheat on Ben because she doesn’t love him anymore, but because she feels her own life is stagnant beyond recognition. While the movie doesn’t excuse her affair, the depiction of Dana’s interior journey allows her to be both a sympathetic character and a complete asshole — a complexity rarely afforded to women who are meant to be likeable.
What makes Landline’s representation of a marginalized perspective so unique is that it’s not trying to Make A Statement. I’m growing increasingly annoyed with any media that treats femininity, non-whiteness, and queerness like their representation on screen shouldn’t be a given. Robespierre’s knack for telling meaningful stories that aren’t outwardly political (even when they involve abortion) rebels against the idea of empowerment porn, and it’s what makes her work so comforting. Landline was one of the most criminally neglected films of 2017; while it received generally favorable critical attention, it never really generated the same buzz that fellow 2017 Sundance premieres The Big Sick and Ingrid Goes West did. Regardless, Robespierre is proving her mettle as our generation’s Nora Ephron, one happy ending at a time.