With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
At its core, the romantic-comedy is about wish fulfillment. Individual films can subvert or comment on that idea in some way, but wish fulfillment is the basic template. That’s true of plenty of other film genres, too, notably sports dramas and superhero films, but rom-coms are unique because they’re the rare genre aimed first and foremost at women. So it’s worth asking: “What do romantic-comedies say about what women want?” Or, more to the point, “What do they say about what Hollywood thinks women want?” And judging from 2011’s Something Borrowed, Hollywood’s opinion of women is very, very low.
Based on author Emily Giffin’s bestselling 2004 debut novel of the same name, Something Borrowed stars Ginnifer Goodwin as Rachel, a timid “good girl” lawyer who’s frequently overshadowed by her vivacious party-girl best friend, Darcy (Kate Hudson, already well into her rom-com career by this point). Drunk and dejected on her 30th birthday, Rachel winds up sleeping with Darcy’s fiancé, Dex (soap-opera star and sentient piece of cardboard Colin Egglesfield), who she’s secretly had a crush on since their days as law-school study partners. From there the film goes on to be a poorly plotted examination of love, friendship, and the ethics of cheating that’s equally concerned with being a glossy Heineken ad shot in the Hamptons. John Krasinski is on hand as Rachel’s loyal friend Ethan, who’s basically Jim Halpert with the snark turned up a level or two. Plus, Steve Howey and Ashley Williams play wacky comic-relief characters that seem to have accidentally wandered in from a much broader film.
Like a lot of rom-coms made between 2000 and 2012, there’s a soulless, factory-produced quality to Something Borrowed. (There were some great rom-coms made during that era, too, including Bridget Jones’s Diary, but Hollywood definitely took a “quantity over quality” approach following the genre’s creative heyday in the 1990s.) Director Luke Greenfield—who had previously helmed the 2004 porn-themed teen rom-com The Girl Next Door and would go on to make the 2014 buddy comedy Let’s Be Cops—doesn’t manage to sell the romance, the comedy, or the drama of his tonally bizarre film. And despite some genuinely appealing performances from Goodwin, Hudson, and Krasinski, Something Borrowed is a pretty excruciating watch. Its central romance aims for wish fulfillment, but winds up playing like a cautionary tale about settling for mediocre men. Plus, the film takes a depressingly dim view of female friendship. It also clocks in at two hours and feels like twice that.
Something Borrowed is littered with interesting paths not taken. As Vulture put it in a breakdown of the movie’s rom-com clichés, “Halfway through this film, you still may not know exactly how it’s going to end—not because the ending is a shock, but because there are four equally clichéd ways it could go: The protagonist ends up with her soul mate; her soul mate turns out to be a jerk; her best guy friend turns out to be her soul mate; her best girl friend turns out to be more important than any soul mate.” Though that unpredictability is admittedly a nice novelty for the genre, it’s not exactly a great sign if halfway through a rom-com the audience still isn’t sure if the romantic lead is secretly a villain or not. The movie ultimately ends up going with the first cliché (Dex leaves Darcy for a happily-ever-after with Rachel), but it’s hard not to feel like literally any other choice would’ve been a better one.
That’s because Something Borrowed commits the cardinal sin of rom-coms: It offers a terrible love interest. Dex is so bland he makes indecisive Bachelor Arie Luyendyk Jr. look like Cary Grant. And Dex does frequently read as the antagonist of the film. He pretty quickly realizes he’s in love with Rachel, not Darcy, but he strings both women along for an unconscionable amount of time—ostensibly, we’re told, because his mother has clinical depression and the only thing “cheering her up” is his upcoming wedding. (Though screenwriter Jennie Snyder Urman has since gone on to do great work as showrunner and executive producer of Jane The Virgin, her script here is pretty dire—which may come down to the source material, ultimately.) The attempts at giving Dex emotional depth just wind up making him seem more immature and selfish. At one point he invites Rachel up to the Hamptons to figure out their relationship. Instead he spends the entire weekend cozying up with Darcy. Rachel rightfully gives him the cold shoulder until Dex sends her a giant bouquet of roses to apologize. When she finally reaches out, Dex answers the phone with a smug, “Now I know how many flowers it takes for you to call me back when you’re mad.” Somehow she’s the one who winds up apologizing.
Passing off questionable behavior with charisma is a staple of the rom-com genre—Krasinski’s character also does some pretty overtly dickish things that are at least partially papered over by the fact that he’s a human charisma factory—but Egglesfield is devoid of the charm necessary to make that work. And that ties back into the idea of wish fulfillment. Something Borrowed belongs to the Sense And Sensibility/Never Been Kissed subset of rom-coms that center on a shy, insecure, unlucky-in-love woman as she finally finds her soul mate. It’s one of the more relatable archetypes in the rom-com genre and one Ginnifer Goodwin is particularly great at playing. But in order for the archetype to work, we have to feel like Rachel actually lands a worthy love interest by the end. And despite the fact that Egglesfield looks shockingly like a young Tom Cruise, his casting is a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes a rom-com leading man work.
As Billy Crystal proved in When Harry Met Sally, charisma matters more than six-pack abs or a chiseled face. And Something Borrowed reaffirms that when it makes the fatal mistake of including a genuinely moving scene in which Krasinski’s Ethan confesses his love for Rachel, thus pitting a charisma fountain against a charisma void. To watch Rachel reject Ethan and go back to Dex (throwing away her lifelong friendship with Darcy in the process) doesn’t feel like wish fulfillment. It feels more like a horror movie.
And that brings us to Something Borrowed’s other massive flaw, the way it handles the Rachel-Darcy friendship. To explain exactly what makes Something Borrowed so egregious, it’s helpful to compare it to another bad, factory-produced 21st-century rom-com that pits Kate Hudson against a brunette best friend, 2009’s Bride Wars. The brunette there was played by Anne Hathaway, but otherwise the setup is very similar: Hathaway’s Emma is a selfless good girl while Hudson’s Liv is a confident go-getter. Yet despite their differences, they’ve been best friends since childhood—that is, until a rivalry over who gets to have her dream June wedding at the Plaza Hotel (there’s only one date available) turns them into cat-fighting archenemies.
On the surface, Bride Wars—which was co-written by June Diane Raphael and Casey Wilson, working from an original script by Greg DePaul—is the more overtly misogynistic film. The bulk of the movie centers on Emma and Liv engaging in increasingly Machiavellian attempts to sabotage each other’s wedding (Liv ensures Emma gets a bright orange spray tan, Emma dyes Liv’s hair blue, etc.). The idea that these two smart, caring women could so easily turn against one another is both absurd and pretty offensive. But to its credit, Bride Wars is also very much aware of that fact. There’s not a lot of romantic content in Bride Wars—the film’s central relationship is the one between Emma and Liv. The movie ends with the two women reaffirming their friendship, Emma walking Liv down the aisle, and Candice Bergen’s narrator pointing out that sometimes your real soul mate is your best friend.
I don’t want to oversell Bride Wars, which is by no means a hidden gem.
It doesn’t matter that the movie is ultimately trying to tell an empowering story about female friendship, because what you remember is Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson attacking each other in wedding dresses. But there’s at least an interesting and slightly subversive core to the story. Despite the characters’ nastiness toward each other, Bride Wars doesn’t present one woman as a hero and one as a villain; it celebrates their differences while giving them both arcs about becoming better people. You can see why Hudson and Hathaway were initially attracted to the material, and you can spot the places where Raphael and Wilson brought some genuine heart to the script.
Something Borrowed offers none of that. From the get-go, Rachel is the likable underdog we’re supposed to root for, and Darcy is the vapid, narcissistic villain we’re supposed to hate. Unlike Bride Wars, which takes some time to explain why Emma and Liv have remained friends despite their different life paths, Something Borrowed makes no attempt to justify why Rachel and Darcy’s childhood friendship has lasted so long when they don’t seem to like each other or have anything in common. And it takes away the moral complications of Rachel sleeping with Darcy’s fiancé by revealing that Darcy is cheating on Dex, too. But just as it seems like the point of the movie is that Darcy is a toxic presence Rachel must free herself from in order to self-actualize, the movie makes the weird decision to humanize Darcy late in the game in a sleepover scene in which she opens up about how much Rachel’s friendship means to her. (That follows the one genuinely charming scene in the movie, where Kate Hudson and Ginnifer Goodwin do a pajama-clad dance routine to “Push It.”)
Of course, what both films share is the troubling assumption that close female friendships are inherently fraught and easily prone to jealously. That becomes a self-perpetuating lie that influences real-world perceptions that then feed back into fiction. But it doesn’t have to be that way, especially in entertainment marketed specifically toward women. The fact that both films were at least partially written by women also proves that the solution to better onscreen female representation isn’t solely “hire more women creators” (although that’s definitely important). Instead, we need creators who don’t thoughtlessly give in to lazy storytelling conventions, particularly in a genre that already has so many clichés associated with it.
Rom-coms don’t always need to be sunny and they don’t always need to have happy endings, but they should be thoughtful about the stories they’re telling. Though Bride Wars is the easier film to hate, it at least fails in a semi-interesting way and with some semblance of a good idea at its core. (Plus it has Hathaway’s character realize that her supposed true love is actually an asshole and allows her to move on to someone better!) What makes the superficially inoffensive Something Borrowed so insidious is that it’s easy to watch the film without quite grasping the troubling message it’s drilling home. In fact, the film itself doesn’t even seem to grasp it.
In the end, Something Borrowed is an unintentional tragedy about a bland man destroying a lifelong friendship and, in fact, the only female friendship Rachel seems to have in her life. And while that could potentially be interesting fodder for a well-written drama, it’s certainly not something this mainstream rom-com is capable of handling. Something Borrowed’s final scene sees Rachel and Darcy run into each other two months after their falling out. The film reaffirms that the ending of their friendship is a tragedy (“Darcy, I miss you. Every day,” Rachel admits), but makes no real hint at a reconciliation between the two. And it does all that while Rachel is literally carrying Dex’s dry cleaning before the two meet up for one final chemistry-free smooch. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wish-fulfillment stories, but we should be wary of the fact that the ones aimed at women often seem to set the bar so, so low.
Next time: Moving from Hudson to Hawn, we look back at the original Overboard ahead of the release of its gender-swapped remake.