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Posts Tagged ‘romantic comedies’

iris gumption kate winslet the holiday

I can’t remember exactly when I first saw The Holiday, but I remember the text my sister sent me after she saw it, with our mom: We found your dream house.

She was talking, of course, about the cozy book-filled English cottage belonging to Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), set among fields outside a quiet village near London. It has a spacious kitchen and a fireplace and so many sweet details, and those shelves lined with books. I instantly fell in love with the cottage, and also with Iris herself: smart, spunky, kindhearted and struggling to fully believe in her own brilliance. Perhaps it is no surprise that I saw myself in her.

I watch this film at least once a year, and I love Iris more every time: her romantic’s heart, her willingness to try new things (though she’s been stuck in the same loop for a while), her genuine curiosity about people. I especially love watching her pull away from the unhealthy patterns – including the toxic man – she’s been clinging to for a long time.

She has some help with this, in true rom-com fashion: a charming film composer (who knew Jack Black could be charming?) who brings her Starbucks and entertains her with his renditions of movie scores, and her elderly neighbor, Arthur (Eli Wallach), who tells her bluntly that she’s a “leading lady” but is behaving like a cinematic best friend. In short: Iris is way more brilliant and worthy than she believes she is, and she needs to dig deep to find the gumption to move forward with her life. (Arthur also gives her a long list of movies to watch, all featuring “powerhouse women” – he knows as well as anyone that we all need heroines and role models.)

Gradually, Iris begins to believe in herself again: finding her way around a new place, helping Arthur get into better shape, even throwing a party or two. I always want to stand up and cheer when she finally tells off her smarmy ex, Jasper (Rufus Sewell), toward the end of the film. “What has got into you?” he asks her, baffled. “I don’t know!” she says joyfully. “But I think what I’ve got is something slightly resembling – gumption!”

Gumption, largely inspired by Iris, was my word for the year in 2016. I had no idea how much I would need it, in a year that included two job changes, a move, and an election whose effects are still echoing in some ways. It is still an attribute I keep reaching for, in this lingering pandemic which includes (for me) another job hunt, continuing to heal from my divorce, and more solitude (and loneliness) than I ever thought possible.

I don’t for a moment believe that Iris’ new self-belief, or the new romance that came with it, solved all her problems. But I believe she’s on her way, and on the days when I emulate her and reach for my own gumption, it’s easier to believe that I am too.

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I rewatched While You Were Sleeping around Christmastime – which is when I usually watch it, since it takes place during Christmas week. I cracked up at all the best lines – “These mashed potatoes are so creamy!” “New Year’s Eve hasn’t been the same since Guy Lombardo died!” “I got Ice Capades!” – and reveled in the happy cacophony of the Callaghan family’s holiday celebrations. But this time, I was focused on a different aspect of the story: the loneliness.

When the movie opens, Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock’s character) sits all day in a CTA booth taking subway tokens from strangers. She’s single, childless, without family since her dad’s passing, and her boss is asking her (again) to work on Christmas. Although she spends a lot of the movie interacting with the Callaghans (and trying to figure out how to tell them she’s not actually engaged to their comatose son), there are a number of scenes where she’s alone in her apartment, with her cat and the Christmas tree that broke the window early in the film. She’s so desperate for connection that she goes along with a lie, and nearly ends up marrying the wrong man just so she can be part of a family.

I read an article this winter about how While You Were Sleeping is the perfect movie for a pandemic: many of us, like Lucy, have spent the past year missing the communities we used to have (or wanted to have, or thought we were supposed to have). Lucy has never been part of a big family, but she’s thrilled to be welcomed into the Callaghan clan. She accepts hugs, chokes on Christmas eggnog, and cradles her wrapped present as the others tear into theirs; having spent years starved for community, she doesn’t want to miss savoring even a moment of it.

That scene made me well up: after I’ve spent so much of the past 14-ish months alone in my apartment, Lucy’s loneliness hit much closer to home. I have been grateful for every scrap of community I’ve found this year, including my online writing class, the few neighborhood friends I’ve been seeing, and in-person time with my sweet guy. But I have missed other connections: time with my family; in-person interactions with coworkers and other friends; the chance to build on new neighborhood relationships I had just started forming when the pandemic hit.

Ultimately, Lucy – and I – must make some choices about the kind of community that’s really worth pursuing. She decides, in the end, to tell the truth rather than end up married to a man she doesn’t love (and barely knows), even if that means losing the family she’s recently gained. As I continue to navigate life post-divorce (and as we all emerge slowly from the pandemic), I have to make choices, too. Which relationships are worth continuing to foster, and which ones do I need to let go? Was I hanging onto some connections – or the idea of them – long past their sell-by date? Where I can I find, or continue to seek, community that lets me be seen and loved?

After New Year’s, Lucy gets her happy ending – including a honeymoon to Florence with her beloved Jack. I’m hopeful, these days, that more connection is coming for me, too. But I think it’s worth remembering that loneliness isn’t limited to times of great isolation, and that we can all work to provide (and ask for) connections to those we love or those we encounter. (It is also, of course, worth remembering that Argentina has great beef, that Guy Lombardo didn’t play the clarinet, and that John Wayne was tall.)

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I watched Runaway Bride a few weeks ago, because I desperately needed to laugh and feel like part of a community, and a visit to Hale, Maryland, sounded just right. The community there – the women at the hair salon, the bakery where people buy muffins and trade gossip, the multigenerational town softball game – is one of my favorite parts of this sweet film. Peggy Flemming (not the ice skater!), played by Joan Cusack, is my favorite character: she’s hilarious and wise, and such a good friend.

As with You’ve Got Mail, there is a love story here, but I find it less important (and, frankly, a little more troubling) the more times I watch this movie. Richard Gere’s character, New York journalist Ike Graham, is so convinced of his own importance that it’s refreshing to watch multiple women – including his editor and ex-wife, played by Rita Wilson – take him down a peg (or smack him with his own newspaper). But the main character, and the one in whose journey I’m most interested, is Maggie Carpenter, played by Julia Roberts.

When we meet Maggie, she’s running the family hardware store; she clearly enjoys her work and her customers, though we find out later that she’s also there because of her dad’s drinking problem. She’s also getting ready – for the fourth time – to get married. She has never been able to go through with it, and later in the film, as Ike Graham predicts, we see her run again (this time from him).

Her fifth failed wedding finally prompts some much-needed introspection: who is Maggie Carpenter, and what does she actually want? I love the scene where she’s prepared about ten different kinds of eggs to try, since she’s been ordering whatever her current guy wanted for years now. She goes for long solo runs, finally confronts her father about his drinking, and places her lamps made of industrial parts up for sale in New York stores. She doesn’t blow up her life entirely, but tries to figure out if it’s actually the one she wants – or if she has simply been living by everyone else’s expectations for far too long.

Maggie didn’t grow up in the Bible Belt, like I did, but her rush to the altar – not because she necessarily wants a wedding but because that’s what everyone expects – rings true for me. I went to a small Christian college in Texas where “ring by spring” was not just a catchy phrase but a real phenomenon. (My ex and I, at 24, were actually the last couple in one of our groups of friends to get married.) There is so much pressure for women to conform to the cultural norm – in this case, a big white wedding to a handsome man – that there’s not always a lot of space to figure out what you might want instead.

At the end of the film, Maggie comes to New York, having figured out what she wants – namely, eggs Benedict, and Ike – and made the decision on her own terms for the first time. I love that she quotes his proposal speech from earlier in the movie, but I love even more her admission that she didn’t know herself, not really, and that she needed to before she could commit to another person. (The journey is often longer in real life, of course, but this is still the movies, and we know these characters are heading for a happy ending.)

When Maggie ran away from the altar all those times, she was instinctively backing away from the wrong men, but I think she was also running from a deeper truth: knowing, and liking, yourself can be much harder than meeting all of society’s expectations for you. I never ran from a wedding, but I did get divorced after more than a decade of marriage, and the last two years have been (among other things) an exercise in getting to know myself and the kind of life I actually want.

I’m not sure if Maggie is still running the hardware store, working full-time as a lighting designer in Manhattan, or doing something else altogether. I hope her marriage to Ike brought her years of happiness; they make each other laugh and keep each other honest, which I think is important for love. But most of all, I hope she kept following her own inner compass, wherever it led. And as with Kathleen Kelly, my hopes for Maggie are also, ultimately, my hopes for myself.

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upper west side view

Of all the late-nineties rom-coms featuring plucky heroines, adorable New York apartments and lives full of utter charm, You’ve Got Mail might be my favorite.

I saw it in the theater as a teenager, and have watched it countless times since – with my family, my girlfriends, by myself. I remember the days of dial-up AOL and the magic of finding new friends online before social media, though I am about 15 years younger than Kathleen Kelly. I once spent a weekend on the Upper West Side visiting some of the movie’s iconic locations: Cafe Lalo, Zabar’s, Gray’s Papaya, the 91st Street Garden in Riverside Park. (I did not see Joe and Brinkley, but you can bet I looked.) I still have the soundtrack on CD, and New York in the fall definitely makes me want to buy school supplies.

You’ve Got Mail continues to charm me for so many reasons: the witty, perfectly timed dialogue; the cozy bookshop packed with beloved children’s classics and kind employees; the epistolary love story (though I have thoughts, these days, about Joe Fox and his personal ethics). But the more time I spend with it, the more clearly I see what my friend Kari noted years ago: in addition to a classic romantic comedy, it is (in Kari’s words) “a moving portrait of a woman who is going through a crisis of vocation.”

Kathleen has always known she’d run The Shop Around the Corner; she started helping her mother there after school at age six, and never left. We don’t even know if she went to college, or entertained other dreams for her life. She has grown up shaped by this bookstore and this neighborhood, and she would happily go on selling children’s books there forever. But she is not given that choice: Fox Books moves in across the way, and its big-box appeal (coupled, no doubt, with rising rents and the lurking shadow of Amazon) forces Kathleen to make a decision she never foresaw: “Close. We’re going to close.”

I’ve thought about Kathleen a lot this past year, as the pandemic has upended so many of the jobs most of us believed would bring us stability and security. I was furloughed from my higher ed job last May, then finally laid off in January after months of waiting. This wasn’t the first time, though: my last few years in higher ed have been marked by uncertainty and change, including two previous layoffs and a few temp gigs. The thing I have been chasing – meaningful work that provided a steady paycheck and health insurance in an industry I thought was stable – has turned out not to be so reliable after all.

“What are you going to do now?” a customer asks Kathleen as she rings up books (and stuffs in a box of Kleenex) at the closing sale. She gives a vague but honest answer: she’s going to take some time. We see her doing just that in the last third of the movie: reading a thick novel at a coffee shop, buying plants and produce with Joe Fox, heating up a bowl of soup and sitting on the floor in her apartment to eat it and bask in the sunshine. I suspect she also must have done some grieving. She must have wondered – what now? Earlier in the film, she had wondered in an email if her life’s smallness meant it didn’t have value, or that she lacked courage. Now, that life is no longer available to her, and she has to figure out the next step on a road she never saw coming.

We don’t get a tidy resolution of Kathleen’s career story; we don’t get to see her take her next professional step, though she hints that she’s working on a children’s book. I hope that whatever she does next, it is rich and satisfying and allows her to use all that experience from decades of working at the store. I hope her previous life leads, in both good and surprising ways, to her next one. I hope she realizes how brave she truly is – as Birdie tells her, “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.” I hope she’s happy with Joe, of course, but more than that I hope she is fulfilled in her own skin and satisfied with the way she gets to spend her days.

My hopes for Kathleen, of course, are also my hopes for myself. (Isn’t that what we do with our heroines – see ourselves in them, and then project our own hopes onto them?) In the wake of an extremely difficult year, I am hoping – and searching – for a steady paycheck, for sure. But I am also hoping for work that gives me a rich, satisfying, joyful way to spend my days. I think Kathleen would approve.

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cafe lalo table berries teacup

It’s no secret I love a good romantic comedy, and there are a handful from the ’90s and early 2000s that are particularly close to my heart. Nora Ephron’s films did more than anything else to shape my early visions of New York City. (I once spent an entire solo weekend on the Upper West Side pretending to be Kathleen Kelly.)

During the pandemic, I’ve revisited a few of my favorites, and here’s the thing: I find myself less interested in the love stories these days than in the other elements of these women’s lives.

Part of it is simple familiarity: I’ve seen You’ve Got Mail dozens of times. I can pinpoint the exact moments when sparks fly between Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Runaway Bride. I know just how Miles, that sweet film composer played by Jack Black, charms Iris (Kate Winslet) without even meaning to in The Holiday. And my entire family can quote the “leaning” scene (along with the hilarious family dinner dialogue) from While You Were Sleeping.

I don’t have to wonder whether or how these characters are going to fall in love. (Though I have to admit my 2021 self cringes a little bit at the sheer arrogance of a few male romantic leads.) But I am interested, now more than ever, in these women as real people: not only in their romantic adventures, but the struggles they face in the rest of their lives.

I want to know what Kathleen Kelly ended up doing after she had to close The Shop Around the Corner. I want to see photos from Lucy and Jack’s honeymoon in Florence, but then I want to know about their life together: future family holidays, the next step in Lucy’s career. I wonder if Maggie Carpenter was content running the family hardware store for the rest of her life, or if the edgy lamps she sold in NYC – and her love affair with a New York writer – catapulted her into a different career. And I hope – so much – that Iris, buoyed by Miles’ love and Arthur’s friendship and the gumption of a thousand Old Hollywood heroines, never let any man dim her brilliance ever again.

It’s a new month, and I need a new blog series, so for the next few Mondays, I’ll be diving into some of the films I adore, and musing on the other parts of these heroines’ stories: work and career, family and identity. I hope you’ll join me. It’s going to be fun.

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Because I love chick flicks, especially romantic comedies, and I know some of you do too. And because “comfort movies” are the BEST when life is crazy and transition is tilting every which way. In no particular order except for #1. (Note: I chose not to list any musicals, or vintage films…maybe those will be their own lists later on.)

1. You’ve Got Mail. I love everything about this film – Kathleen Kelly, her bookstore, her friends, the adorable emails, the soundtrack, Joe Fox’s gradual transformation. And SO MANY lines. “Patricia makes coffee nervous.” “Don’t you think daisies are the friendliest flower?” “I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.” “I wanted it to be you so badly.”

2. While You Were Sleeping. This is a favorite from long ago – I love the crazy, quirky family and the hilarious misunderstandings. (The little grandma is my favorite.) The family scenes are the best. “Cesar Romero was not Spanish.” “I didn’t say he was Spanish; I said he was tall.” “John Wayne was tall!” “These mashed potatoes are so creamy.” And on and on…

3. Sabrina. I actually like the remake better than the original…Harrison Ford is just so much more attractive than Humphrey Bogart. And Julia Ormond is perfect…and because of my love for Oxford I know exactly how she feels about Paris.

4. Runaway Bride. I love Julia Roberts’ laugh; I love Richard Gere’s twinkling eyes; I love the ongoing conversation about eggs and the quirky grandmother and the soundtrack. And I love that of all her grooms, Richard Gere is the only man who runs after her.

5. French Kiss. Oh, how we love Meg Ryan in my family, and oh, how we shriek with laughter at Kevin Kline’s French accent and Meg’s rumpled, wide-eyed, overwhelmed character in this movie. Brilliant.

6. The Holiday. I love everything about this movie, from the English cottage setting to Jack Black’s sassy eyebrows to Eli Wallach’s brilliant turn as an old Hollywood screenwriter. And the lines…the lines! “I also wrote one that sounds like you. I used only the good notes.” Wonderful.

7. 27 Dresses. I sympathize with put-together Jane, but I love her wacky best friend Casey…and I love how this movie is funny and frothy, but also deep.

8. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. What a gorgeous movie…beautifully shot and put together…and again, a great adaptation of a favorite story. I think the four girls were cast perfectly, especially Bridget.

9. Sleepless in Seattle. I laugh and cry every. single. time. Especially at the end. “Shall we?”

Clearly, looking at this list, I love smart, sassy women and happy endings. There are lots of other chick flicks (comedies and dramas) I really like: both Father of the Bride films, Serendipity, Mona Lisa Smile, Miss Congeniality, Music and Lyrics, Notting Hill, The Devil Wears Prada, The Princess Diaries, both versions of Pride and Prejudice, Becoming Jane, Chocolat, Julie and Julia, many movie musicals…I could go on and on. But these are the ones I watch over and over again, the ones I actually own (most of them), the ones I reach for when I really need something cozy and familiar, funny and heartwarming.

What are your faves? (If you’re a guy, you can roll your eyes now.) But seriously…I love chick flicks because they embody so much of what we (at least women) want out of life: good friends, real love and (usually) happy endings. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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