There are good rom-coms, bad rom-coms, and so-bad-they’re-good rom-coms. And then there’s Failure To Launch, a 2006 Matthew McConaughey/Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle so inexplicably bizarre it almost feels like a meta parody of every terrible romantic comedy trope. With a slight shift in tone, Failure To Launch could’ve beaten Michael Showalter’s rom-com spoof They Came Together to the punch by almost an entire decade. The genre was certainly rife for mockery by the mid-aughts, and with their respective reputations for frothy material, McConaughey and Parker would’ve been just the stars to deliver it. Instead, Failure To Launch—which celebrates its 15th anniversary this month—is an ostensibly sincere comedic romance that inadvertently creates a world in which every one of its characters is a full-on sociopath.
That’s especially true of the female lead, played by Sarah Jessica Parker in her post-Sex And The City attempt at movie stardom. Parker’s Paula is a “professional interventionist” who helps parents get their unmotivated adult sons to move out of the house by pretending to date them, thereby boosting their confidence. It’s a business she’s dreamed up herself based on her briefly mentioned tragic backstory of having fallen in love with a guy she couldn’t get to move out of his parents’ house. Not one to let lost love get her down, Paula has channeled her personal disappointment into professional gaslighting—a business model that raises as many logistical questions as it does ethical ones. What happens to the poor guys after she gets them to leave home and then (presumably) dumps them? Did this movie singlehandedly inspire the entire incel movement?
What’s especially fascinating is the way Paula describes her work: “Young men develop self-esteem best during a romantic relationship, so I simulate one. We have a memorable meeting. We get to know each other over a few casual meals. He helps me through an emotional crisis. Then I meet his friends, if he has any. Then I let him teach me something.” Her intervention process sounds a whole lot like the plot points of a typical romantic comedy—from the meet cute to the fast-paced emotional highs and lows. Even the idea that men can only move past their man-child ways if they’re motivated by love feels like an eerily prescient commentary on Judd Apatow’s emerging brand of slacker rom-coms.
For a while, Failure To Launch does seem to be cleverly commenting on the artifice of the modern rom-com, as Paula moves through her process with Tripp (McConaughey, well into his rom-com career), a 35-year-old “boat broker” who still lives in his childhood home. Paula and Tripp’s quirky meet cute at a recliner store turns out to have been arranged and paid for by his parents (Terry Bradshaw and Kathy Bates). And each new step in Paula and Tripp’s burgeoning “relationship” is a careful bit of emotional manipulation, from the scene where she asks him to teach her to sail to the scene where he helps her tearfully put her beloved dog to sleep. (It turns out it’s not her dog and it’s not actually being euthanized.) In theory, seeing how easily Tripp is duped by Paula allows us to laugh at how easily we’re seduced by well-worn rom-com tropes.
Even the supporting characters exaggerate rom-com archetypes. Tripp and his loyal best friends (a pre-Hangover pairing of Justin Bartha and Bradley Cooper) chat about his relationship problems during so many different athletic activities—yoga, basketball, mountain biking, paintball, surfing, rock climbing—that it eventually starts to feel like an increasingly absurd bit. Meanwhile, Paula’s roommate, Kit (Zooey Deschanel, pre-500 Days Of Summer and New Girl), is so eccentric that she swings into full-on derangement. She’s a beer-guzzling, high-heel-wearing cynic whose main subplot involves trying to buy a gun in order to kill the mockingbird that won’t stop chirping outside her window. It’s the film’s weirdest yet funniest thread.
Though Failure To Launch is ultimately more cartoonish than satirical, you can sort of see how director Tom Dey (Shanghai Noon) and former sitcom writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember might have been trying to squeeze some winkingly self-aware humor out of a mainstream studio vehicle. And then comes the reveal: It turns out the reason that handsome, well-adjusted Tripp is so unlike Paula’s usual nerdy, shut-in clients is because his fiancée died six years ago. And the precocious kid he keeps hanging out with (Tyrel Jackson Williams, virtually the only person of color in this entire film) is his former fiancée’s son—the child he assumed he was going to stepfather until this seismic tragedy reshaped their entire lives. It’s a twist that reveals that the true psychopaths of this film are actually Tripp’s parents, who (a) could’ve just had a conversation with their son about how to help him healthily move on with his life, and (b) hired Paula without telling her any of the relevant details about why Tripp might be reluctant to leave home or start another serious relationship.
It’s a reveal that only the darkest of dark comedies could mine for humor, so Failure To Launch tries to use it to deliver actual pathos instead, which the film isn’t equipped to handle either. Despite genuinely nice performances from McConaughey, Bradshaw, and Bates, there are some twists you just can’t come back from, and this is definitely one of them. Especially when the more somber half of the movie lives side by side with scenes of Bartha giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a bird, and McConaughey “comedically” falling off a cliff after being bitten by a chuckwalla—a lizard who then gets its own laughing reaction shot. (Someone on this film was clearly working through some deep-seated issues with animals, and I’d love to know more.)
It doesn’t help that McConaughey and Parker have absolutely zero chemistry together, probably because she’s never really given a character to play beyond her tactics for making her clients fall for her: “You look nice, you find out what they like, and then you pretend to like it, too. That is pretty much how it works.” Again, what could’ve been a parody of how thinly women are written in male-driven comedies is ultimately revealed to be just plain bad writing. Paula and Tripp barely seem like friends, let alone soul mates, even before you add her egregious manipulations into the mix. So the only romantic resolution Failure To Launch can think of is to have the supporting characters literally kidnap Tripp and Paula, tie him to chair, and lock them in a room together until they agree they love each other.
It’s a scene that returns to the meta quality of Failure To Launch. Thanks to hidden cameras at the kidnapping setup (this whole film could basically be a horror movie), Tripp’s and Paula’s friends wind up watching their romantic reunion on a laptop and eventually broadcasting it onto a big screen for an entire bar to watch too. Failure To Launch suddenly becomes something more akin to The Truman Show (or perhaps McConaughey’s own EDtv) with a crowd of strangers cheering on Paula and Tripp’s climatic kiss. Why are all these random people so invested in this bizarre kidnapping love story they’re watching? Well, why did Failure To Launch make $89 million domestically?
Failure To Launch is so much weirder than its premise or trailer could possibly convey, which makes it both more interesting and less cohesive than your average bad rom-com. It’s a film that operates in an entirely different tone for every scene with absolutely nothing to ground it, though McConaughey, to his credit, sort of tries to give the whole thing a backbone. Yet in its clumsy attempt to recapture the fake-dating sparks of his 2003 hit, How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, Failure To Launch just becomes a convoluted, unethical nightmare—one that earned a masterful roasting from Roger Ebert: “Did the director, Tom Dey, favor quick cutting for some reason? Perhaps because he couldn’t stand to look at any one shot for very long? That’s the way I felt.”
Yet there’s an addictive quality to this film’s strangeness. Just revisiting it a couple times in a row for this column, I could absolutely see it becoming a rom-com obsession for me—one I return to for its absolutely baffling storytelling as much as its legitimately appealing performances. (In his pre-leading man days, Bradley Cooper is really good at playing a zenned-out comedic sidekick.) Maybe the scene where Tripp’s friends calmly watch him get attacked by a chipmunk will somehow make more sense on a fourth viewing than it does on a second. Failure To Launch is a puzzle box of a rom-com—a non-parody parody that makes you question the very nature of the genre itself. Is it good? Is it bad? Forget it, Jake; it’s Failure To Launch.
Next time: Julia Roberts and Richard Gere reunite to send off the ’90s rom-com renaissance in Runaway Bride.