I’ve recently come to the conclusion that Hollywood should hire an “accessibility agent” for all of its films—a reviewer charged with the task of consulting with filmmakers and editors to determine whether people in the seats will feel as though the movie is accessible to them.
As you might expect, this notion was inspired by a recent trip to the movies. This past weekend, I went with a friend to see It’s Complicated, which came out on Christmas and still seems to be doing well in theaters. Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin make for an all-star cast with plenty of laughs along the way, and if you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend it—as long as you don’t mind all the allusions to late-middle-aged fornication.
Generally, I don’t walk into the movie theater as a critic; I tend to think that a number of very talented people put a lot of work into making this film and it’s certainly better than anything I could do, so why not appreciate it? People who walk out of theaters saying, “What a waste of time” or, “That was so boring” are either unable to allow themselves to be entertained or are so tapped into the cycle of instant gratification that there’s no hope for them anyway.
For the rest of us, though, there are the movies—those grand, beautiful, silver-screen stories about life in a world that is often very much like our own, yet somehow inaccessible to mere mortals such as ourselves. Of course, there are electronically animated films and films that take place in fictive worlds and plenty of films that are set right here on Planet Earth but could never actually happen. But there are also a number of movies that are set in places we recognize, with real things happening to real people. In such cases, nothing we see on the screen is impossible. It could happen to us!
Or at least that’s what they want you to believe.
This is where the notion of accessibility steps into play—and particularly in the case of romantic comedies.
Take the plot of It’s Complicated. Two divorcées, one remarried and the other seeing someone new, come back together for their son’s graduation and end up hitting it off. Really hitting it off. And before we’re twenty minutes into the movie, we’re whisked off (along with the previously estranged couple) into a messy web of reminiscing, intrigue, passion, and deceit—in short, Hollywood.
Now, the basic premise of this plot is, I suppose, believable. Something like half of American couples now get divorced at least once, and no doubt some of them have what we might politely describe as a “relapse” from time to time. So far, so good. That this will cause confusion for children and difficulty with significant others is also a given, and the film derives a majority of its laughs from such predicaments. So much the better.
But where the film really loses me is the background information, which I find totally inaccessible. I suspect that most average middle class viewers feel similarly when watching such films.
For starters, take Meryl Streep’s character. She appears to be (quite) independently wealthy; she runs her own beautiful French pastry shop in a little Santa Monica-esque village somewhere in sunny California (yet manages to run around doing other things for most of the film); her home is a gargantuan villa somewhere up in the slopes of some mountain range, surrounded by rolling green pastures and a horse nibbling on said pastures somewhere in the distance; and to top it all off, she’s quasi-independently designing an addition to said gargantuan villa so that she can have more kitchen space.
Which is great, really, because her current kitchen is only the size of my entire apartment.
As for the other characters, their activities consist mainly of romping in expensive New York hotels, making a few phone calls from lavishly appointed apartments or even more ridiculously decked out offices, planning dinner parties for themselves or their children, and (in Alec Baldwin’s case) zipping around in a beautiful little roadster so small and sporty that it can hardly support his increasingly ample girth.
Yeah, I wish I had their problems.
Now, I know that such is Hollywood. If we wanted reality, we could step out onto the streets and get it for free. I don’t expect filmland to crank out movies that show me exactly what I can already see. I know that we all just want to be entertained… and filmmakers just want to make money.
However, purely from a profit perspective, I would think that filmmakers could bring in even more revenue if they succeeded in making viewers identify with their films. Sure, people can walk out of the theater thinking, “So that’s how the other top five percent lives.” But why not have them walk out of the theater thinking, “Isn’t life just like that? It could happen to me!” While the former reaction causes distancing and perhaps even insecurity, the latter reaction promotes identification and bonding with a film and its characters in a way that will ultimately prompt viewers to tell their friends about (and perhaps even return to) the film.
Admittedly, there are some films that rate higher in the accessibility category than others. Mystic Pizza and My Big Fat Greek Wedding come to mind; although the story lines are somewhat stretched, at least we see fairly normal people doing fairly normal things.
By and large, though, I’m hard pressed to think of a romantic comedy that doesn’t prominently feature at least one of the following: 1) rich or privileged people, either independently wealthy or top earners in their field 2) an exclusive location, such as a yacht, a boutique apartment, a lake house or summer house or beach house or ski chalet, 3) dinner parties with those really (really) large wine glasses that nobody actually owns, and 4) leisure time the likes of which none of us have ever seen.
In fact, taking all of this into account, perhaps my real question isn’t about accessibility after all. In the end, movie producers probably know more than I do about what the movie-going middle class really wants to see. If this is the case, then perhaps my real question is this: what puts the “romance” in “romantic comedy”? What is it that really draws the crowds? Is it the dream of finding love?
Or is it the desire for a glimpse of the charmed life—a life that most of us will never know?