Intense feelings of affection are on our radar as we celebrate Valentine's Day. We turn to the cinematic mirror for understated romcoms -- those that illustrate some underlying dynamics of the relationships that survive versus those that fizzle before death do us part. Mere laughs will not suffice. What follows is a minute selection whittled from an infinite one. This post begins with the heartfelt apology that many worthy contenders will be omitted.
This year's Oscar-nominated American Hustle (2013) contains at its heart a twisted and tender love story. Amy Adams grows from a hopeful and conniving mistress of Christian Slater in his marriage to Jennifer Lawrence into an appropriate stepmother, which is rarely if ever seen on film.
Speaking of Jennifer Lawrence's fine performance, remember the closing scene with the custody exchange and Lawrence is wearing a neck brace? Up-and-coming Indie Wire film critic Ryan Lattanzio's grandmother (it's not surprising that he is so astute) chimed in that that's because she's in a battering relationship with her new husband, which is consistent with her mercurial personality and the disposition of her new mob-connected spouse.
This year's Oscar snub Enough Said (2013) hits close to home with star James Gandolfini's untimely passing, close in time to the film's release. On the butt end of the weight jokes, received gracefully in his understated way of keeping in character, he, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Catherine Keener are caught in their own post-marital love triangles.
In a roundabout, realistic, non-linear fashion, Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus find a way to each other despite much fumbling, which is better than the mishaps of another flawed middle-aged romance, that depicted in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), which demonstrates what not to do. Could it be a case of art imitating life? This classic long-but-bad marriage, played out by married-at-the-time Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, illustrates the co-dependent debilitating toll that alcoholism takes on an aging couple.
A more hopeful When Harry Met Sally (1989) finds platonic friends Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, from different cultural marinades, tempting fate by consciously affirming their growing mutual passion. Touching As Good As It Gets (1997) unites a spicy and defensive single mother (played by Helen Hunt) and a curmudgeonly, neurotic bachelor (Jack Nicholson), who accommodate each other's quirks and thus grow stronger, united in love.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) has a far-fetched plotline that depicts the endurance of a reorganized family within a marriage that doesn't endure. Robin Williams plays the husband to Sally Field, with two children together. Unable to work out their differences and seeing that they have turned from each other in their evolution as individuals, Field tires of Williams' infantile behavior and files for divorce.
Instead of accepting a court order that requires that he practically abandon their children, Williams disguises himself as a female nanny and gets hired so that he can spend more time with them. Eventually a deal that restores equilibrium is struck.
While not all marriages last, parenting is forever, and skills can develop gradually. This movie represents how an adult relationship can be navigated healthily for the children's sake.
Castle (2009-present) features Nathan Fillion as a mystery writer who follows around a detective (played by Stana Katic) on her cases in order to gain insights for his writing. Their union shifts from professional (with a pinch of chemistry) to a friendship fed by stimulating each other's intellects, and eventually morphing into romance.
There is plenty of frisson as they challenge each other interpersonally. Katic is private, distrusting and doesn't easily allow others to get to know her. Fillion jokes his way through life and takes things more superficially, though he yearns to be genuine and strip away his artificiality. What breeds between them is the same endgame. Neither allows the other to know them until a strong bond of trust develops.
Together they chart new emotional territory by allowing their vulnerability to unfold into a caring, bonding, and psychologically intimate relationship first. It helps that Katic's character has attended therapy to explore her issues. The characters now are engaged to be married, and we look forward to seeing how they continue to portray what a healthy, vibrant relationship can look like.