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TriBeca 2011: 'Romantics Anonymous' Proves The RomCom Formula Isn't The Problem

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Apr 25, 2011 | 3:11pm EDT

Romantics AnonymousI don’t think it’s any secret that the state of the modern romantic comedy is a dismal one. I can’t think of a single RomCom in the last year that truly tickled me or warmed my heart. At best, I’ve enjoyed a saccharine smile or a disappointed chuckle here and there, but nothing like the first time I watched When Harry Met Sally or Say Anything. Instead we’re dealt things like Valentine’s Day – it was cute, but just throws together celebrities and stale plots until we can’t help but muster a smile – or Just Go With It – it assumes we’ll believe that Adam Sandler can get Brooklyn Decker to marry him and that the combination of him and Jennifer Aniston is inherently funny. When this happens, we tend to lash out at “the formula.” Well, that complaint stops here and now because in Jean-Pierre Amèris’ Romantics Anonymous (Les Emotifs Anonymes), we find nothing but the strictest romantic comedy formula, yet it is one of the most enjoyable films you may see this year.

Sure, it follows the prescribed steps: Boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy and girl enjoy a little “honeymoon” happiness, an unlikely conflict tears boy and girl apart, and a dramatic resolution brings boy and girl back together so they can live happily ever after. It’s no secret that this is how the story goes in Romantics Anonymous; it’s what you sign up for. Jean-Renè (Benoit Poelvoorde), the owner of a failing chocolate factory, hires Angèlique (Isabelle Carre), a master chocolatier, and their almost impossible romance begins. However, we find one essential aspect that lends humor, sweetness and heart to a plot that by all rights should be dismissed as overused: an emotional handicap. Both of our lovable characters suffer from a lack of self confidence and a fear of intimacy to the greatest degree.

It’s this handicap that allows the plot to be more of an exoskeleton than a real guide for how the audience should react or feel. Sure, we’ve seen Bridget Jones explore her own emotional incapacity, but that was more in the name of comedy than  it was a method for truly tapping into the way insecurity actually makes you feel. She’s a caricature of those feelings. With Angèlique and Jean-Renè, however, we find another form of exaggeration that manages to stay grounded in the emotional issues that provide for the copious comedic situations in the film. We don’t all have such deep-rooted emotional fears that we need to attend a weekly support group, like Angèlique, but we’ve all felt that crippling fear of opening yourself up emotionally to another person. It’s a harrowing first experience, and it’s something we can both feel and laugh at in Amèris’ lovely film.

This is also true of the dreaded conflict in the film. It’s not some overblown emotional breakdown over a case of mistaken identity or a tiny white lie; it’s not an out-of-nowhere miracle job offer that tears the couple apart; and it’s not a blow-out at an unrealistically extravagant gala. It’s simply an issue of emotional capacities reaching the brim and the characters’ lack of faculties to deal with them. It’s something that even if we’ve never experienced the specific situation, we can empathize – and I mean truly empathize. It’s not the way we “empathize” with Carrie Bradshaw when Mr. Big gets all hesitant on their wedding day forcing her to stuff her Manolos, designer wedding dress and crocodile tears into a stretch limo while she’s wearing a bird on her head. We empathize with Jean-Renè and Angèlique because the issue is truly emotional instead of just spectacle or melodrama.

Finally, the characters complete this little puzzle. They are both regular folks. Angèlique is a lovely, normal woman, looking for a normal job and she just happens to be adorably, emotionally inhibited. Jean-Renè is not what I’d call a looker. He’s not tall, dark and handsome; his physique isn’t what it used to be. He’s an older man in a movie but he’s not the mythical foxy 40-something that George Clooney teaches us to expect. He’s a normal guy, he’s just got a few emotional problems. We find these two normal folks getting themselves into perfectly normal embarrassing and endearing moments. We see them on an incredibly awkward first date. We see Jean-Renè go to therapy. We see Angèlique go to her support group. Essentially, the audience can’t enjoy the lovely, romantic parts until they make it through the awkward, unsure moments that come before them and that’s what real life is like.

That’s why even though we know where the plot is going and it gets there exactly the way we think it will, the film is still infinitely enjoyable. It makes you giggle like an idiot, laugh like your friend is telling you their own romantic story, and it ultimately produces one of those unrelenting smiles that feels as it sprouted right out of your core. Essentially, the formula isn’t dead; everyone else is just doing it wrong.

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