Can Fidelity Make a Good Movie?

In Hollywood, love seems either sappy or tragic. Does everyday love make bad art?

Judging by the trailer, the new romantic drama The Vow looks very familiar. For one thing, both of its stars, Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams, have at least one other high-profile romance flick to their name (Dear John and The Notebook, respectively). For another, it looks to be as much a tearjerker as what’s come before. All of which is my careful way of saying that many (not all) teenage girls may love it and many (not all) critics may hate it.

Romance films like The Vow get slapped with labels like “sappy” or “idealized." And even though they might be based on real-life couples, they often promote unrealistic expectations of love and marriage. But it’s important not to let the genre’s “evil twin”—the serious drama—get away with just a slap on the wrist either. What serious dramas try to achieve is the exact opposite of romance. They want to hit you with reality. They want to send you reeling with the force of thei

r devastating truth.

As acclaimed as such serious dramas like Blue Valentine, Revolutionary Road and Match Point may have been upon their release, movies like these can also be cold and just as dishonest about what marriage is really like. Which begs the question: Why can’t Hollywood just give us stories that tell the truth about marriage? Why is it always about one extreme or the other?

The Hunt for Meaningful Movie Marriages

All stories thrive on conflict. So when a relationship is at the center of the story, the filmmakers must do everything in their power to keep the tortured couple on their toes. Sometimes this means keeping them apart; other times it means destroying what they have completely.

Where I’ve found the most meaningful portrayals of marriage, then, is not in films about marriage, but in films about the ordinary (or sometimes extraordinary) struggles of life.

One prime example is last year’s Win Win. Here, Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a struggling lawyer and frustrated wrestling coach who becomes the guardian of an elderly client, all so he can bring home a second paycheck. This wouldn’t be a problem in itself, except that Mike puts the client in a nursing home instead of caring for him himself, taking advantage of the man’s senility in the process. The situation only becomes stickier when the client’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), shows up on the old man’s doorstep looking for a place to crash. As the story reaches its emotional climax, Mike’s saving grace is his marriage to his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan). Their relationship gives the movie its moral backbone and is portrayed as something comfortable—sometimes harried—but ultimately loving and committed. It’s her love that finally gives Mike the courage to own up to his guilt and face his pride.

Similarly, I also think of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. The situation may be more fantastical than in Win Win—these are walking, talking animals, after all—but it’s still the marriage between Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) that grounds the story, giving it a maturity often lacking in children’s animated films. Mrs. Fox is the deep breath to Mr. Fox’s over-caffeinated enthusiasm. She slows him down. She helps him see where he’s gone wrong. And, most importantly, she helps him grow and take responsibility for his actions. It’s in this sense that Fantastic Mr. Fox develops a recurring theme of Anderson’s—namely, that commitment can be a catalyst for maturity, a bridge from childhood into true adulthood.

Other Hollywood examples abound—there’s no shortage, really, if one looks beyond dreary Oscar nominees and Nicholas Sparks adaptations. The Disney-Pixar animated film Up captures all the joy and sorrow of a loving but childless marriage in a span of eight minutes. Consider the two marriages from Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia. Like Up’s Carl and Ellie, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), are childless, and we see the pain that causes them. But we also see tenderness, support and, yes, even desire between them. We see two people supporting each other through good and bad, illustrating just how wrong the romance film and the serious drama can get it.

The Reality of Love and Film

None of this is meant to imply filmmakers should avoid darker territory when dealing, however peripherally, with marriage.

Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, which in large part is about a man (Harry Dean Stanton) rediscovering his own identity, is also about that same man’s search for his wife and his growth as a father. But Wenders doesn’t give us a tidy ending, leaving us instead with a devastating sense of ambiguity. Perhaps this couple’s brightest days are still ahead of them, but it’s just as likely they’ll never be a complete family again.

Sofia Coppola explores similarly ambiguous terrain in her sophomore film, Lost in Translation. Here, marriage is neither affirmed nor demeaned. Instead, it looks at basic human needs—such as the need for friendship, a listening ear, someone you can relate to and talk to—and explores how the line between fidelity and infidelity can become blurred when those needs aren’t being met. As the movie ends and its central characters, Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), go their own ways, it’s impossible for us to know how their separate marriages will fare going forward, but the hope is (or at least my hope is) they’ve learned something from their time together that will help them shore up their crumbling relationships.

This is just a very short list of the examples that are out there, though. Another list might mention Terrence Malick’s The New World or Golden Age classics like It’s a Wonderful Life. Regardless, these examples show that the field of movies about marriage is much more diverse than the box-office belies. Viewers just have to be willing to look beyond a film’s self-advertising and see what can be revealed by digging a little deeper.

A relationship where a spouse never loses and regains her memory is no less valuable. Likewise, a husband and wife who never grow to hate each other are no less realistic. Rather, movies about marriage can be much like marriage itself—the most memorable, meaningful and lasting are sustained by the subtle revelatory moments of the everyday, telling stories rooted in the sincerity that love requires.

Andrew Welch is a film critic for RELEVANT and Art House Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter, and you can read more of his film writing at his blog, Adventures in Cinema.

25 Comments

90,697

Anonymous commented…

Yep, a challenge I discussed in my blog post Healthy Romance Makes Bad Novels. It's easier to write about people making bad decisions, but good relationships are important to talk about too.

90,697

Hello commented…

I feel as The Vow was not sappy or idealized by seeing the whole movie...
The parents relationship of Paige (Rachel McAdams) clearly represents one of what you explain in the various other movies mentioned.

I_Crowe

72

I_Crowe commented…

I have to say, in my marriage, we do not nor have we ever fought. I get tired of seeing movies where the couples do nothing but fight, however, I guess that (drama) is what sells movie tickets.

90,697

Anonymous commented…

Totally!

Meaghan Smith

168

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