In strict screenwriting terms, the villain of a romantic comedy is the object of affection for the main character. That’s right, if Empire Strikes Back were a rom-com, Luke would be hopelessly in love with Darth Vader, and we’d basically have Law & Order SVU in Spaaaaaaaaace! My point is that, in screenwriting terms, the villain is the character that forces the hero to change in some way, to get over that essential flaw with which all heroes are burdened. In most movies, that’s Hans Gruber getting John McClane to work things out with his wife, a T-rex showing Alan Grant that kids are okay after all, or an alien queen teaching Ripley the true meaning of motherhood. In a romantic comedy, it’s Kate Hudson teaching Gerard Butler not to fear commitment. Some movies take the idea one step further, making the beloved into a dead-eyed sociopath worthy of Hans Gruber. I was fortunate enough to watch two movies in a single day that took the idea of object of affection as villain literally: 500 Days of Summer and The Room.
A quick aside: I refuse to use the parenthesis in Summer’s title. It’s the one bit of preciousness I just can’t stomach. Keep your be-ribboned curry-smelling hands off my punctuation, hipsters.
This was my first time seeing Summer. It bills itself as an anti-romantic comedy, but it has a bit of a gooey center. Makes sense. After all, every relationship is doomed to heartbreak, except for the one time it’s not. Being happily married (deliriously so, really – at this point, I think my heart has been replaced with tiny cartoon birds) I accept as a given that eventually some relationship will work out. Granted, I have to turn off that part of my brain that remembers that I have a degree in Physical Anthropology, and thus knows that human beings are not naturally monogamous. Fuck that part of my brain. Fuck it in its know-it-all throat.
Summer’s heartbreaker, nervewrecker and meansucker is none other than Zooey Deschanel, every sensitive soul’s quirky obsession (or possible object of intense and unreasoning loathing, a dichotomy the film seems to delight in). Casting her was a masterstroke. We don’t want to believe that Zooey could be evil. Not when she has those big pretty blue eyes and those adorable dresses. We want to believe she communes with forest creatures, and the closest she ever comes to evil is her stepmother and those flying monkeys she hangs around with. Summer takes those conceptions and shows them from the perspective of someone who believes them wholeheartedly. And, like that other movie almost said – “Maybe she’s just not that into you.” It’s the villainy of not returning adoration and affection, a cold evil of reality and diminished expectations. Also, it sucks a cactus. Backwards.
Summer had a mature attitude toward women, showing that, you know, sometimes they have their own ideas about stuff, and just because you’re a beautiful little flower that really gets the Smiths and the Pixies, doesn’t mean every woman will automatically fall for you. It’s a nice counterpoint to movies like Garden State, that seem to imply that if you’re a whiny enough douche, you’ll eventually hook up with the quirkmistress of your dreams. Zooey is the villain because she forces our hero to confront his ideals, if not about love altogether, about that one relationship in particular.
The Room is bizarro Summer after being kicked in the head by a steroid-addled mule. I’m cheating a little here, since The Room is only a romantic comedy if you believe writer/director/producer/star/vampire Tommy Wiseau’s insistent retcon paradox that it’s a “quirky black comedy with the passion of Tennessee Williams.” That’s roughly the equivalent of saying something is “a musical with the poise of Hacksaw Jim Duggan.”
In The Room, the villain is Lisa, who manages to be more cartoonishly evil than the assorted terrorists on your standard episode of 24. She cheats with her man’s best friend, she lies about domestic abuse, she fakes a pregnancy. In the words of the hapless Peter, she’s a sociopath. He does not add, “And not the lovable Dexter kind either!” Peter vanishes from the film in its second half, possibly brutally murdered and eaten by Lisa. This sounds like a joke, but considering the way Lisa is portrayed (and Peter’s mysterious disappearance), this is not outside of the realm of possibility. She doesn’t need a motive to commit any of her previous actions. As the audience is so fond of reminding us, she does all of this because she’s a woman.
Women (indeed all carbon-based lifeforms) are baffling to Tommy Wiseau. Tommy buys into the myth that if you’re a nice enough guy, if you provide enough flowers, carbs, red dresses and creepy sea monster sex, that it’s a woman’s duty to love you. Most boys believe this, until they hit sixteen or so, and it’s the same logic that produces so much shitty eighth grade poetry. Tommy sees women as mysterious and ravenous beings, capricious for the sake of being cruel. It’s every reductive stereotype possible wrapped up in a hilarious foreign accent. It’s basically Borat minus the mustache and rape jokes.
In both films, you have the realization of some very real pain. In Tommy’s case, some she-devil cheated on him with his brother or best friend and The Room is his way of dealing with that. In the case of Summer, somebody was not loved back as hard as he loved. Summer dealt with that pain in a mature faction, showing a healed person in the end, ready to take his next leap of foolish faith. The Room showed us a broken man with only a retarded roof-dwelling manchild to mourn him. The connection, then, is how one deals with the villain that is woman. In one movie, you have to accept that love is not always returned. In the other, women are evil and the only solution is a bullet to the head.
Man, I’m glad I grew up.