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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Zoe Williams

Why do so many romcoms go wrong? It’s down to a problem I call ‘the Minnie Driver’

She stole his heart – and his wife’s … David Duchovny and Minnie Driver in Return to Me
She stole his heart – and his wife’s … David Duchovny and Minnie Driver in Return to Me. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

When I was 12, I did Guys and Dolls for a school play. It didn’t leave some massive, psyche-reshaping mark – I don’t fly to it like a homing pigeon every time there’s a production – I just went to the one at the Bridge theatre in London because it sounded good. And it is good; it is tremendous. But apparently the work did reshape my psyche after all, if only because I have so much of it stashed in my memory that I came out reeling from the thought of all the things I might be able to do, if I’d managed to displace one stanza of Marry the Man Today. Maybe I’d be able to speak German.

Look, for 12-year-olds, it was an interesting choice; I was in the chorus, for which a near-perfect song is crafted – Take Back Your Mink – to give an urgent narrative necessity for the chorus girls to strip to their underwear. First they give that rotter back his mink, then his gloves, then his pearls, then all his clothes – the ones they’re wearing. There’s quite a bit of developmental variation at 12 or 13 years old, so half of us looked like burlesque dancers and the other half were basically naked before we started because we had nothing to keep our corsets up. My tits weren’t even the same size; I can still remember which one I flashed at the audience.

“Guys,” you want to ask the past, “is this your best ever idea? Have you considered doing Oklahoma! instead?” “Relax, dolls, the guys will remain fully clothed at all times.”

Structurally speaking, this romcom is flawless. Two love stories play out simultaneously; there’s an external jeopardy that cuts straight to the separate anxieties in each relationship; their fates dovetail in evanescent, strategic solidarity, before shaking down to something that looks like a replication of social norms (it’s nice when people get married) but is actually a subversion. Not everyone wants the same thing. Under the umbrella of romance, very different people can take their own idiosyncratic shelter. That’s normally the problem with romcoms, especially when there are two plots going on at once: everyone, racked by the same homogeneous emotion, becomes the same, and the only way to distinguish them is that the A couple are better-looking and the B couple make more jokes.

The other problem I think of as “the Minnie Driver”, which is pretty unfair, as she appeared in plenty of love stories that were not ridiculous. But at the turn of the century, when the appetite for nice, sane people falling in love (post You’ve Got Mail) was almost limitless, she made a film with David Duchovny called Return to Me. The problem with nice, sane people, in peacetime, absent a domineering dynasty or terminal illness, is that it’s hard to throw a spanner in their works. You can do it with comedy, misunderstanding, uselessness, Hugh Grants – but if you want full-beam sincerity, if you want anything that could remotely be accompanied by lush violins, you have to invent obstacles more and more ridiculous until you finally arrive at the Minnie Driver. She falls in love with Duchovny, a widower. He falls in love with her. It’s sad that he’s sad but it looks like he might be healing, except: his dead wife was an organ donor, and Driver – it’s a bit of a reach but stay with it – got her heart. Now he has to “decide which woman it is who holds his heart”.

Plainly, the only contested heart here is the deceased wife’s, which remains in use. He should be gaping at his good fortune to have fallen in love with the donor-recipient; otherwise his late wife’s heart would end up going out with someone else. But there is no gaping, only soul-searching, until about a thousand years later he reaches the obvious conclusion: that grief hurts but hearts are essentially mechanical.

The new British romcom Rye Lane, I think, could solve these problems once and for all, with its handbrake turn back to the screwball gold standard: 80 minutes, unless there is singing, is perfect. It’s only when love stories get too long that they end up mad, with hearts everywhere.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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