Doomed fictional couples
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In the “art that hit close to home” AVQA, Kyle Ryan wrote: “…when my friend asked [Nick] Hornby at a Chicago appearance if Rob and Laura [in High Fidelity] were going to make it, he laughed and said he had his doubts.”
Which made me think of this question: What fictional couples who get together at the end of a story do you most think won’t make a relationship work in the long run? I think High Fidelity is a good pick, and would add The Apartment and Rear Window to the list, for starters. —Nick
Just about any two characters who meet and hook up over the course of a two-hour film strike me as unlikely to go on to a long-term relationship. Especially if that film is a thriller. Consider Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock at the end of Speed: “I have to warn you, I’ve heard relationships based on intense experiences never work.” “Okay, we’ll have to base it on sex, then.” “Whatever you say, ma’am.” Once the adrenaline and the post-terror-sex coital haze fade, those two characters are going to realize they have nothing in common and move on. I tend to think the same thing about romantic comedies, and comedies in general, since the characters getting together in the end usually feels like a forced happy ending that will be undone by everyone’s exaggerated comic personal issues within the next six months. Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl at the end of Knocked Up are a perfect example: They’re temporarily at peace just long enough for an uplifting ending, but they aren’t done maturing, and they aren’t really over their conflicts with each other. Maybe by the time they both rebound, they’ll have learned enough to make decent partners.
Prince and Apollonia at the end of Purple Rain. Come on! He’s a narcissistic rock star even if he is “redeemed” (by his father’s attempted suicide, oh my); she walks around in lingerie. (Granted, that was suggested by the real-life Prince, but let’s go with this movie’s “reality” for the sake of argument.) Both are hella needy. Minneapolis is a good place to hook up, but there’s no way it’s going to last two more years.
This one may seem crashingly obvious—after all, the movie goes out of its way to show us their incompatibility, the problems they have making things work in the long run, and the not-so-warm feelings they harbor for each other—but Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet from Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind immediately came to mind. That obviousness is what makes it so heartbreaking: their against-reason determination to remember the good times they had together at the cost of ignoring all the bad times gives the movie its throat-catching ending, and cements its status as the favorite romantic movie of people who hate romantic movies. Everyone who’s broken up with someone and gotten back together with them—telling themselves every step of the way that this time they’ll make it work, this time they’re going into it with eyes wide open—knows Joel and Clementine are probably doomed (again). And that’s why we root for them even more.
Does anyone think Julia Roberts and Richard Gere have a future after the credits of Pretty Woman? Maybe I’m picking something too obvious, since I’m not a fan of the movie, nor do I buy either of their characters. It’s a movie about movie stars clicking together out of shared movie-star charm more than a movie about two people falling in love. And that’s fine, but Pretty Woman requires a suffocating amount of charm to work at all. Take a step back from the fantasy, and you’re left wondering what these two characters would have left to talk about once they’ve abandoned the expectations of the different worlds from which they came. Sure, the sex and the shopping are great, but what connects them besides her grin and his meaningful squint? It’s a long way down from that fire escape.
I always thought that in My Man Godfrey, William Powell had a lot more chemistry with Gail Patrick than Carole Lombard. After all, Patrick is the spoiled ice queen who deems Powell her “forgotten man,” and while Lombard is equally spoiled, she’s kind of a sweet, clueless, harmless character all along. I guess I like a little conflict in my screwball romantic comedy, so I felt Powell would have made a better couple with Patrick, who tries to humiliate him until he breaks her down. I could imagine Patrick and Powell sassing each other into old age, but I could never really picture the Godfrey/Irene happily-ever-after. Of course, Lombard and Powell had been married in real life, so I guess if I don’t see chemistry between them, the joke’s on me. Then again, they were divorced by that point…
I strongly suspect this series is headed in this direction, but it strikes me that HBO’s Big Love has morphed from a “This polygamist family works, dammit!” central thesis to “This polygamist family is inherently unstable.” If the show somehow ends with Bill Henrickson happy with all three of his wives, it will feel like a cheat, and many of the show’s greatest flaws up until this point have stemmed from the show’s inability to explain just why the women keep returning to his side. (I’d argue it makes sense within the show’s fundamentalist religious milieu, but Big Love hasn’t gone out of its way to make this point in anything like a succinct fashion.) The show’s much-maligned (justifiably) fourth season at least finally put these issues on the table, with all three of Henrickson’s wives finding ways they might exist outside of the marriage context, and I’m actually fascinated to see where the show goes from here on out. In fact, even if the show ends with the family unit intact, I’ll continue to presume that Barb, Nicki, and Margie will stand up from the family dinner table, say, “Fuck this shit,” and storm on out as soon as the cameras stop rolling.
Before Sunrise is all kinds of adorable, but when I first saw it, I thought “These crazy kids aren’t going to make it.” One of the things that makes Before Sunset so great is the way it dives head-on into Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s fundamental incompatibility; it’s an anti-romantic comedown that ends with the revelation that now, just maybe, these people are finally right for each other. But in the first film, they’re perpetually dodging ways of pissing each other off or screwing it up; they want the idea of a perfect romantic night to remember the rest of their lives so much that they’re willing to tune out who’s actually there with them. He’s too smarmy, she’s too earnest; there’s no way. Then again, I don’t know a single person who’s watched these moves without projecting their own relationships onto it, so who knows.
At the risk of piling on a movie I imagine only I have seen, I fear for the central couple in I Hate Valentine’s Day. As none of you may recall, it was about a deranged lunatic (Nia Vardalos, who also wrote and directed) who loves love but hates relationships, so she’ll only see a fellow for five dates before flitting away to her next grand romance. Eventually, impossibly perfect, unrealistically patient dreamboat John Corbett gets her to believe in happily ever after. Needless to say, before long, Corbett will tire of Vardalos’ crazy-eyed self-absorption and ditch her.
In real life, people don’t end up together. Even the longest-running relationship can wither if it isn’t tended properly. Movies feed our desire for permanence, implying that once the initial hurdles are cleared, it's smooth sailing from then on. No movie does so more explicitly, or with greater self-awareness, than Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything…, with its last-minute airline-safety metaphor. The airplane chime dings, the screen goes black, and it’s safe for Lloyd (John Cusack) and Diane (Ione Skye) to move about the cabin. Trouble is, the plane has to land sometime. Perhaps I’ve never been able to see a future for Lloyd and Diane because my friends and I were all openly rooting for Lloyd to end up with Lili Taylor’s Corey, but now that I’m an an adult (more or less), the disparities between Lloyd’s amiable directionlessness and Diane’s prodigal achievements just seem too great. Maybe Lloyd and Diane did end up together, but I suspect they’d be happier with other people.
No feature on doomed cinematic couples can be complete without a mention of Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross in The Graduate, which concludes on a famous note of romantic ambiguity. If you’ll recall, Hoffman has just pulled Ross away from a wedding ceremony, enraging the bride’s parents—particularly her mother (Anne Bancroft), who had an affair with Hoffman—and whisked her off into a happily-ever-after scenario. But as they rush breathlessly to the back of a bus, having taken this extraordinary, deeply romantic step, the camera catches a note of uncertainty: Where do they go from here? From the looks on their faces, they’re scared and uncertain, and considering the baggage their relationship has already taken on, their happily-ever-after is by no means a guarantee. At a minimum, the final shot tells a truth that nearly all movie romances take pains to avoid: After the big, heart-tugging climactic gesture that brings a couple together, the rest of their lives amount to one long denouement. And for a union forged out of such intense passion and conflict, the inevitable come-down can be too deflating to bear.