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Anti-Romantic Comedies to Remind You That Love Sucks (and is Hilarious)

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Anti-Romantic Comedies to Remind You That Love Sucks (and is Hilarious)

Love is hard. It would be hard enough to simply find someone you’re compatible with, but that struggle is complicated by our preconceptions of an ideal romance: what we want our partner to look like, what their career should be, whether things are monogamous or “going somewhere” – sometimes potentially meaningful connections are severed because they don’t square with our notions of love; other times doomed romance is pursued because it seems to embody what we want; and occasionally we do find mutual, unique love – but the relationship that carries it is complicated, messy, or plain destructive. Yet for all its difficulties, we cannot get enough romance.

Romantic comedies have been one of the most popular film sub-genres since the silent era, and for good reason: the formula is simultaneously grounded and fantastical, following normal quirky people struggling as much as we do before landing a cathartic fairy tale ending. These films are usually fun escapes; some of them are genuinely great; but they tend to reinforce ideas about love, happiness, and purpose that are unrealistic at best and destructive at worst.

In response to these troubling tendencies, a sub-sub-genre has developed: the anti-romantic comedy. These films follow the rom-com formula while challenging its conclusions, imbuing the meet-cute and happy ending with the pain, confusion, and sickness of real love (or what the movies have us calling “love”). Below we break down the five best anti-romantic comedies and what they have to say about love and connection.

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With her directorial debut, comedy legend Elaine May brought the ethos of the screwball comedy into the moral ambiguity of the seventies – and though studio interference dulled some of its bite (May ultimately disowned the theatrical cut), A New Leaf is still plenty dark and displays May’s auteurist signatures: a skewering of the masculine ego; betrayal and selfishness in close relationships; and an unflinching, frequently claustrophobic gaze on its characters.

Walter Matthau stars as Henry Graham, an insufferable misogynist playboy who wants nothing more than to live his life as rich and uncaring – a raison d’etre that is challenged when his long-avoided accountant informs him that he has spent all his money. Henry decides the only course of action is to meet a rich woman, marry her, and murder her. He finds the ideal candidate in the bumbling botanist Henrietta (played by Elaine May, whose physical comedy is as stunning as her wit). Sweet, trusting, and clueless, despite her high IQ, Henrietta is the perfect candidate for Henry’s scheme – and the film’s tensions come from the audience’s fear that he’ll kill her before he realizes that he kind of sort of loves her (as much as he can love anyone). Henrietta’s incompetence forces Henry to learn how to manage money, run an estate, and fend for himself; Henry’s (duplicitous) attention gives Henrietta the confidence to make strides in her botany career. They’re a perfect mismatch.

A New Leaf gleefully takes aim at the institution of marriage, the sociopathy of the rich, and the very idea of love. Henry is not capable of love – he is fixated on expensive stuff, and how that stuff reflects on his own importance. The opening moments feature a clever bait and switch: an electrical time sequence measurer comes across as the flat lining heart of a lover, and Henry appears to be a brave romantic that won’t leave her side – until the camera pulls out, and we see that he’s having his sports car checked by the mechanic, thus revealing Henry’s true values. The car keeps breaking down because Henry is driving it improperly; yet he changes nothing in his behavior and seems to blame the car. This foreshadows his improper handling of wealth, which he learns to correct because of Henrietta; and while he never learns compassion (he only becomes conflicted about killing Henrietta when she gives her newly discovered plant species his name, bestowing her chance at immortality on him – in other words, reaffirming his sense of self-importance), by the end, he’s at least figured out how to properly handle wealth, domestic life, and his metaphorical car – and Henrietta is the center of this change. That’s the closest a man like Henry Graham can get to love, or redemption.

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