I recently saw, for the first time, “Dan in Real Life”, a 2007 romantic comedy starring Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche. The set-up is simple: He meets the woman of his dreams, and then almost immediately discovers that she is his brother’s new girlfriend. Emotional mayhem, family weirdness, and some seriously acute embarassment ensue.
I was struck by two things about this film: (1) Every single thing about it is almost maniacally predictable – every line of dialog, every camera shot, editing choice, casting decision. Scene after scene unfolds with fresh new comic humiliations for our sad-sack hero, and we see every one of them coming from a mile off. (2) In spite of all that, I enjoyed it immensely. And I found myself trying to figure out why something like this is so damned enjoyable.
Well, for one thing, Steve Carell plays it perfectly. His Dan Burns is a man who has known what it means to be a Loser – he knows the Universe is against him in some deep karmic way. Any move that he makes, even the slightest flutter of an eyebrow, will instantly result in some fresh new divine retribution. You can see the controlled rage beneath the sad-sack exterior, the way he has learned, through long acquaintance with this harsh universe, to stifle every impulse, smother any emotional expression that might give him away. But he cannot avoid these trials. He must continue to go through time and space in some way, and as he does, he knows that he will be bitch-slapped by fate at every step.
And yet… and yet… He has met Juliette Binoche, and so he has already won. Director/co-writer Peter Hedges is careful to let you know at every turn that these trials will indeed lead our hero to the promised land. The way the heroine looks at him, talks to him, even the way she gets angry at him, all clue you in that she too has found the true partner of her soul.
And that’s what makes it all so much fun: We’re being invited to join a high wire act with a safety net. In a sense we, the audience, are Steve Carell’s character – we see everything from his point of view, and we identify with him at every turn. And since we know this (because the film is well-enough made to subliminally clue us in), we know it’s all in fun.
It’s an ersatz theatre of cruelty that is really a theatre of fun. A genre I call “Emo porn”. All such films have a number of traits in common. For one thing, the sad-sack antihero can do absolutely nothing right – even decisions that seem perfectly sensible turn out to be wrong – except at the moment then he meets The Girl. Not just any girl – she has to be The Girl. As soon as he meets her he enters a state of grace, and the Loserness falls magically away long enough for her to see his true self (which the film has been careful to let us see all along).
I’m describing so many movies here that there wouldn’t be any point in trying to enumerate them, so I’ll just mention a few. One of my favorite examples is John Favreau’s 1996 “Swingers”, a film for which he wrote the screenplay and played the romantic loser hero. In that film the moment of grace begins the instant he lays eyes on Heather Graham’s character across a crowded bar. The transformation is so cleanly done, so expertly conveyed, that it’s as satisfying as watching the evil lady lawyer in “Erin Brokovich” fearfully put down the glass of water without drinking it – a moment of triumph that cleanly divided that film into Before and After. You know exactly what I mean.
And I claim that this is a kind of pornography. Emotional pornography. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
We’re being invited to join in a consensual illusion that we are here to witness a deep exploration of the human heart, thoughtful delineations of character, family, love and relationships. But that’s not really what’s going on. What’s going on is that we are being presented with a cartoon version of romance – the hero is such a loser that it makes us wince, but nonetheless he meets the ideal woman – beautiful, loving, understanding, and completely in love with him – and the filmmakers convince us that this is his true fate.
Which of course appeals to the ugly duckling in us all. Everyone harbors the secret belief that within their sensitive misunderstood soul there is a beautiful swan waiting to burst out, to take glorious flight. If only they could find someone to release them from their lonely prison.
Now I’m not saying that it’s always Emo porn. “Dan in Real Life” is pornographic in the sense that it’s not really trying to do anything else, other than to jerk our chain this particular way. The entire film is a thin excuse for the money shots – the meet-cute encounter with the one true perfect soul mate who redeems our hero’s life, and of course the happily-ever-after ending.
“Swingers” incorporated that same dynamic, but it was also so much more – a delightful and brutally close to the bone dissection of puffed up young losers on the fringes of the L.A. film scene. Of course the hero had to find the perfect girl – that’s what the form calls for. But that was only the form, not the content.
Similarly “Wall-E” incorporates the same emo-porn structure – sad-sack romantic-dreamer loser whose life is redeemed when he meets The Girl – but there’s so much more to it. After having seen Wall-E and EVA perform their particular flight of love, I’m sure I will never look at a fire extinguisher again in quite the same way.
And then there is the rare film that takes it all to sublime extremes, that understands our hunger for emo-porn and uses it to play with us like a cat plays with a mouse. I’m thinking in particular of “Punch Drunk Love”. P.T. Anderson follows all the rules, but he does so in an utterly original, surreal, head-spinningly deconstructed way. Think about it: if that were the only film in which you’d ever seen Adam Sandler, you’d think he was a great actor.
Now that’s an accomplishment.