Seeing Double is the Scene-Stealers series that celebrates the only thing better than watching one movie—watching two movies. Each week we look for a more perfect cinematic union as we view and discuss a pair of movies chosen either for things they have in common or things they don’t. The films may be old or new, obscure or well known, celebrated or reviled. The only rules are that we must justify the pairing up front, and all titles have to be readily viewable at home, as determined by their availability to rent or stream through the most popular home video websites.
If you begin to read my posts here on Scene-Stealers—and I hope you will—you’ll notice that I have a penchant for the romantic comedy. Now, I am aware that the romcom has a pretty bad rap as of late, and perhaps that’s justified by the overwhelming number of romcom releases that are up-and-down terrible. The genre has been polluted by big-budget studios that know their audience, because no matter how awful the film, most romcoms can pull in some big money from first dates and persistent girlfriends.
More than that, the romcom is simple to develop. You get two good-looking leads, the witty best friend (often played by character actresses like the lovely Judy Greer), an NBC tie-in, and you’re all set for a Summer release. For these reasons and many more, stellar romantic comedies have been hard to come by as of late. The characters are too contrived, the structure rings too familiar, and the writing seems forced. Once upon a time, the romcom offered audiences stories about uniquely flawed people struggling to reconcile themselves against another. Sadly, the modern romcom seems to do little more than earn revenue and advertise.
For my first Seeing Double post, I vow to provide even a bit of merit to my guilty pleasure genre of the romcom by viewing two of my favorites: 2001’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and 2006’s “Ira and Abby.” These two films both evidence all that a romantic comedy can achieve while also operating outside of the clichés that the modern romcom seems to attach to.
Bridget Jones’s Diary
To say that Bridget Jones is sad would be an understatement. As Darcy (Colin Firth) so brilliantly says, Jones is a “verbally incontinent spinster who smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, and dresses like her mother.” Renee Zellweger—in a role that earned her an Oscar nod—presents us with one of the most pathetic characters in romcom history. Jones is thirty-two, perpetually single, and chain smokes in her apartment while belting along to “All By Myself.” These are qualities that few find redeeming, but from where I’m sitting it’s what I love about the film. Because the thing is—you don’t necessarily want for Jones’s happiness; she doesn’t really prove herself worthy of love and she’s kind of a miserable bitch. Yet, if you watch “Bridget Jones” with an open mind, you’ll find yourself feeling all of this out-of-nowhere sympathy.
Because, as much as you hate to admit it, you are Bridget Jones. We all are. There are times when we check our voicemail compulsively, get snarky in late-night diary entries, and choose vodka over therapy. All of this is to say that there’s something very familiar about Bridget Jones, whether or not you choose to accept that. Which brings me to one of the many reasons I love romcoms: they present us with falling-apart people in very honest and easy ways.
The arch of the film is simple: Jones is torn between two lovers, Hugh Darcy (Firth) and Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant). Darcy is a family friend who instantly attracts Jones, right up until he reams her a new one by highlighting her many flaws in the quote above. Daniel runs the publishing firm that Jones works for, and initiates the relationship with sexual harassment via instant messaging. Neither are winners, but to be fair, Jones is no prize either. Once she feels recognized by Grant’s character, Jones somehow removes thoughts of Darcy from her manic-depressive brain.
Cleaver is promising at first. He’s beguiling, he’s attractive, and he takes Jones on a weekend vacation to the countryside. But what Cleaver sees as a sexual rendezvous, Jones recognizes as the beginning of love. “This can’t just be shagging,” Jones reasons, “mini break for holiday means true love.” The pot comes to a boil when Jones walks in on Cleaver and another woman in his flat.
Jones, as you might expect, falls to pieces with no one there to pick them up—until Jones decides to pick them up for herself. She gets a new diary and begins owning up to all of her flaws. More than that, she refuses to apologize for them. Yes, she’s a chain-smoker. Yes, she is prone to being a lunatic. And fate awards Jones her due by placing the wounded Darcy conveniently back in her life. The audience is left with a portrait of Jones having earned the happiness she’s found, and Darcy forgiving her her flaws.
Now, I must tell you something: I’ve never seen the sequel. I don’t want to. I like how this movie ends. In the same way I don’t want to know what happened to the kids of Bayside High in “Saved By The Bell: The College Years”, I like leaving Bridget where she stands: deeply flawed, yet somehow happy.
Ira & Abby
Ira & Abby,” a straight-to-DVD release both written by and starring the magnificient Jennifer Westfeldt, doesn’t waste time. By minute ten, Ira (Chris Messina), a manic-depressive PhD candidate, has already met Abby, an earthy underachiever who gives tours at a downtown fitness center. Upon waking up and “feeling fat”, Ira decides to join the gym that employs Abby.
During the tour, we learn everything we need to about both Ira and Abby. Abby is ridiculously friendly, and is often approached for advice by octogenarians on treadmills. She’s kind, soft-spoken, and has a smile as big as all get-out. Ira is passive-agressive, afraid of commitment, and a bunch of other terms he’ll be able to diagnose himself with if and when he finishes his dissertation. It’s clear to the viewer that Abby has a bit of a thing for Ira, despite the neurosis. The tour of the one-level gym somehow turns into hours, and Ira seems happy for the first time in years. Noticing this, Abby pops the question that the film revolves around. “Let’s get married. What’s going so great in your life?”
The beauty of this film is that it questions the conventions not only of the romantic comedy, but of life and love. After she pops the question, Abby notes that half of all marriages end in divorces, which is to say that, either way, the odds are even up for them. Granted, she is a bit removed from reality, but there’s something beautiful about being so incredibly naive and hopeful as a single thirtysomething in Manhattan that I find refreshing. She doesn’t take the concept too seriously; she just has a feeling.
At first, Ira is resistant. The son of two analysts and perpetually in therapy, Ira has seemingly trained himself to avoid spontaneity. It’s this East meets West collision: a neurotic Ira and an aloof Abby. But it’s what Abby says after the proposal—”What’s going so great in your life?”—that resonates with Ira. So he says yes. They have sex, get a natural high, and Ira runs around like a chicken with its head cut off.
The night before their wedding, the two establish rules. Most important for Abby is that they have sex every night, no matter how bad the circumstances. Ira agrees. The film cuts to the day of the wedding, and we meet both sets of parents. Ira’s, as you’d expect, are whitebread Rockefellers who don’t approve of much; Abby’s are commercial jingle-writers who are forever stuck in the 70s. The wedding goes off without a hitch and Ira & Abby seem destined for happy ever after.
On the subway later that night, there is a hold-up by a gun-toting passenger. Instead of keeping quiet and following orders, Abby goes up to the kid and asks how much he needs. She then proceeds to go seat to seat gathering a fund. It’s a comical scene for us, but not quite for Ira. In situations like this, Ira believes he is “married to someone who is married to everyone.” This is difficult for Ira, who clearly needs a great deal of attention to feel validated. Another reason I love this romcom: for once, it’s the dude that’s flawed. And not in that Vince Vaughn kind of way.
The film tracks the couple’s back-and-forths in therapy, and eventually their decision to get an anullment. Then, after realizing they couldn’t be apart, they get married again. After Abby invites her two ex-husbands to the wedding, both of which also seem to have stemmed from spontaneity, Ira develops erectile dysfunction and the therapy begins again. Finally, the couple decide to get divorced, realizing that the titles have been the problem all along. Pretty simple, and maybe a bit too progressive, but I respect this couple so much more than most for understanding what works and what doesn’t.
Worth A Double Feature?
Absolutely. If you enjoy well-developed characters, uniquely flawed, sometimes crazy, but most of all recognizably human, you can’t go wrong in viewing these two back-to-back.