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Vera Farmiga: On Romance and the Return of Rom-Coms

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Has romance really lost its luster? If you ask Oscar-nominated actress Vera Farmiga it hasn't. Still, the film industry and many who write about it have proclaimed that the glory years of romantic comedies, which have epitomized the essence of romance for decades, have seen their last days. When it comes to Farmiga's latest film, At Middleton, in addition to recent releases Enough Said and Before Midnight, these statements of extinction couldn't be farther from the truth. The reality is, the rom-com has taken a smart new turn that better serves its maturing devotees.

While Farmiga (Bates Motel, Up in the Air) admittedly can't remember the last time she saw a romance between two adults in a mainstream film, that doesn't mean audiences aren't interested. "Honestly, we're starved for adult romances that are fortified with the vitamins and minerals of spiritual reflection and life. It's like it's a vintage concept," Farmiga explains. "There's sort of a dearth of stories about adults falling in love."

Long gone are the days of the mushy meet-cute between two forlorn individuals whose story eventually ends in a scene that could imaginably make Clark Gable give a damn. Who can forget such chick-flicks—as some, who'd rather forget, might call them—as Sleepless in Seattle, My Best Friend's Wedding and Bridget Jones's Diary? Women ate these movies up, along with buckets of Bonbons. Reveled in their magic. Watched them over and over again. In some small ways, too, these films seemed to help women better understand our interactions with one another, as well as provide a brief introspective peek at our own psyches. Back then, however, it seemed that people were more outwardly cohesive.

Fast forward, twenty years down the road, and the atmosphere has changed. The world has somehow managed to equate human connectedness to a matter of "likes" and "followers." We're expected to say what we mean and mean what we say in 140 characters. We don't have time to sit back and smell the proverbial roses. We don't write letters, we Facebook. Heck, we hardly talk by phone, since it's less time consuming to say it all via text.

"It has to do with communication," Farmiga says. "You can compare the art of texting to the art of letter writing, it's still conveying words, but it's so much easier to press an emoticon to establish how you feel about something than it is to specify through words the way we used to in writing letters."

Ah, the age-old idea of a lover sharing his innermost thoughts and feelings on paper and sending it off to his beloved to let her know that he, in fact, cares. Sounds like a Nicholas Sparks story meant for dreamy tweens, you say? Alas, instead of love and romance and togetherness on the big screen, summer audiences apparently want cyborgs and mutants and to laugh at the earth's impending end. Who wouldn't?

"I grew up watching Meg Ryan romances, love stories about adults investigating what it means to love and live and to redefine that for themselves when they age," says Farmiga, whose most dedicated and treasured role since giving birth is that of mother and wife.

The same can likely be said about the trillions of unidentified rom-com enthusiasts. These women are no longer looking for Mr. Right because they've either found him or decided on a different kind of togetherness with the man they happened to find, which is what makes a film like At Middleton so worthy of now.

The story follows two married strangers, Edith (Farmiga) and George (Andy Garcia), who meet when they accompany their children on a college tour of the picturesque Middleton campus (a cinematic cross between Washington State and Gonzaga universities). The two aren't looking for love, or even a fling, but in the course of their day, while separated from the tour, they come to realize just how unhappy they are in their respective marriages—an insight that's cleverly exposed (by co-writers Adam Rodgers and Glenn German) through their participation in an acting class by way of an exercise known as the Objective. [Spoiler Alert]

"Are you happy, George?" Edith begins. He sits in silence, hesitant to engage in the conversation before a room of students. "Maybe this isn't the right time, Edith." Without wavering, she says, "No, I think it's the perfect time." He looks at her and then looks down, and takes another slight pause. "If I was happy, would you have to ask?" Edith tilts her head ever so slightly, appearing to accept his challenge, "So we're going to be honest today?"

This authentic exchange opens the door for Edith to admit that she's profoundly unhappy and lonely in her marriage. And George, who until this point has shed his stoic exterior guardedly, confronts at last the difficult truth about his marriage. "When did you stop loving me?" he says, trying his best to hold back emotions, as he seemingly imagines asking this of his wife. "Did you ever love me?"

It's this kind of scene and subject matter that indicates a pragmatic approach to the new rom-com, though a few gush-worthy moments can still be found in the film, for nostalgia's sake.

"It's a choice to have a romantic life," says Farmiga, who sees the vital message this film offers to those in relationships. "In that way, love becomes a decision. From the outset, it's a very lighthearted romantic comedy. But at the heart of it are some heavy-duty concepts: Is 'love' a decision? Is it something that you choose to do if it falls in your lap and you try to deny it? Do you choose who you love?" These are all questions metaphorically posed in At Middleton that can really make the viewer think.

A recent study at the University of Rochester claims that watching relationship-themed films and discussing the on-screen couples' issues can actually help save a marriage. In fact, during the course of the study, couples that together watched roughly five movies (a mix of romantic comedy and classic romance) over one month, followed by 45-minute discussions after each, and a year of check-in surveys, cut their divorce rate in half—similar to the success rate found in traditional counseling. When it comes to revitalizing love, it seems the mere $25 spent on a rom-com at the theater turns out to be real bargain. Go figure.

So, if romantic comedies are a great return on investment for couples and the very meaning of romance is a "feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love," why aren't more people clamoring to watch these movies? Are our senses so dulled by the lack of heartfelt daily human contact that we'd rather spend thirty bucks a night on a futuristic story of death, than a present-day film on what's important in life?

"Romance means to be passionate, to be inspired and present, and to have that awareness and not take it for granted," Farmiga says. "It's inspiration, and what I've discovered is you can't just wait for it to happen, you have to chase after it with a club. You have to revitalize that for yourself on a daily basis. It means commitment to the idea of romance."

The truth is, people fall in love every day. Wedding season continues to flourish, and come every February 14, restaurants will have been booked weeks in advance, and florists and candy stores will be inundated with last-minute buyers. It's like a great rom-com once said, "Love, actually is all around."

Another valuable lesson Farmiga hopes people take from the film is the enjoyment of the journey, whatever that means to each person. It's important, "to breathe, to be present, to stay open. Openness is vitality."

Vitality is energy, and energy is life. What better way to revitalize your life and the energy of a relationship, than to indulge in at least two hours of on-screen romance with some laughter to lighten the mood? There are definitely worse ways to spend an evening.